How to Design a Path Forward when You Feel Like the Chief Plate Spinner
Plate spinners run from one crisis to the next. One plate spins up, another nearly falls. The threat of broken plates makes watching fun – unless it’s not an act.
Spinning plates is a frustrating job description.
How to design a path forward:
#1. Commit to move forward.
You can’t move forward when you’re running in circles.
Multi-tasking is an evil myth. You can’t focus on two meaningful actions at the same time.
The best you can do is rapidly switch from one crisis to the next. Rapid switchers never complete anything. They just run around spinning the next wobbling plate.
#2. Choose to spend more time on one plate.
The courage to focus on one thing is the ability to stop running in circles.
You can’t ignore all the spinning plates. But you can give more attention to one.
One way to create focus is to give new responsibilities to someone who is 70% ready. Assign new opportunities to your best people.
#3. Describe what improvement looks like.
You’d be surprised how many plate spinners can’t define the win.
You run in circles when you don’t know where you’re going.
#4. Collect suggestions.
Define the win and ask two questions.
- How might we adapt what we’re currently doing to achieve this improvement?
- What new behaviors will help us win? Old behaviors don’t produce improvements.
#5. Choose a specific path forward.
- We’re focusing on X this week.
- Which of these behaviors (From #4 above) would you like to implement?
#6. Create accountability.
Next week we’ll discuss actions and results. Try using an AAR.
- What did you try?
- How did it work?
- What did you learn?
#7. Adapt and try again.
How might leaders create focus in a plate-spinning environment?
What would you add to the above list?
Hi Dan and all,
What a great list, this is a ‘read a few times’ item for me! May I add #8, ‘decide what plates can fall and even break’ – and let them. Stop doing low-value actions and see what happens. It’s for the tasks that might not qualify for being passed on to the next person per item #2
Thanks Cate. YES!
Some leaders can’t seem to distinguish between a successful failure and a necessary win.
Prepare your Team ahead of spinning plates so you can delegate spinning plates to them, build their expertise and skills by handling spinning plates, share their success in handling and taking care of spinning plates, and free you up to handle more challenging spinning plates.
Thanks Sam. Teamwork is essential to finding a path forward. We need each other to achieve remarkable results. Build, delegate, and celebrate!
Beware of being known as the best plate spinner. That just means you get more plates to spin.
Thanks Jennifer. But beware of being known as mediocre at everything. 😉
You bring up an interesting idea. How does one avoid getting stuck as the best plate spinner?
I think you start by recognizing that busy doesn’t mean productive.
You then move on to learning the strategic “No”. As in, I already have Plates A, B, and C spinning so I can’t really start spinning on Plate D. Or, I can start spinning Plate D but then I have to let Plate A, B or C fall. Which one will it be?
From there, you move to mentoring: Hey, I got Plate A spinning nicely, and I think you can keep it going while I stand over here spinning Plates B and C and offering advice from a distance. And then to: Thanks for asking me to spin Plate D, and I think Other Person is a better candidate to spin that plate.
I am, of course, still working on these. In fact, I often get stuck at the first one and get caught up spinning plates that I shouldn’t be.
Q: How might leaders create focus in a plate-spinning environment?
A: Smash some plates.
If plates smash, either somebody decides you can’t have smashed plates, so more resources get dedicated, or somebody has to accept prioritisation of plates, or (best of all) there’s a rational decision about which plates you actually NEED. Plate spinning is not infrequently a way of appearing to be industrious, rather than productive (fewer, more important plates).
Just pity the folks who have to clear up the broken crockery!
Thanks Mitch. A delight to read. We often come around to the courage to STOP. I think it takes more courage to stop something than to start something.
I agree with you Mitch. The best thing is deciding to let plates smash if it must happen. I believe the key is to determine whether it is the second hand plates or the best china that gets smashed.
After some time of trying to keep them spinning, I came to the same conclusion.
If the a cheap plate doesn’t smash, you might end up spinning all good china and having a very bad end result.
Glad I don’t work in a plate shop, pretty hard to break copper and steel….. LOL Seriously learning not to chase ones tail comes with experience, maintaining the forward path develops as we get our feet wet. Understanding the values of what to do and not to do lasts forever it seems.
Happy Friday, Tim. Tail chasing…that’s another metaphor worthy of consideration. 🙂
This one is a real keeper, Dan. Thank you!
Thanks SSB. Cheers
The Lou Holtz mantra, “What’s Important Now?” was always helpful to me, as was the “Seven Habits” distinction between what is Important vs. what is merely Urgent.
I like the plate analogy. I’ve typically used “fires”. As the leader, I am the fire chief; I have to triage the fires. Which fire is threatening the mission (needs serious attention), which fire can burn off on the side (or delegate to others), and which fires are controlled fires (we started, need to burn themselves out.).
I love what you say about multitasking. I had a colleague that used to call it “sustained partial attention”. I love #5- Choose a specific path forward- when the team knows the destination, the team can reach it.
I remember talking to a fellow employee that was in a difficult situation with being under supported in completing their job. (They eventually received additional support that was needed) I asked the fellow employee how they were completing anything, and they explained their situation as having a small fire extinguisher and running from fire to fire and trying to put a little out each time. In the short period this employee was able to keep the wheels from falling off, but it was not going to be sustainable for the organization. As mentioned, they did eventually receive the additional support, but there were long term negative effects within the organization of not having the needed support in a timely manner. There were many things that had to be put off and did not have the preventive maintenance needed to keep things running smoothly. It the end it caused a lot of additional work for the organization.