The Project Manager as Plate-Spinning Juggler

Plate-spinner-genericIf you’re a project manager then you know what it’s like to feel frazzled, distracted and jerked in a thousand different directions. And you also know what it’s like to watch other people doing the work of your project (creating the code, writing the scripts, building the prototypes, etc.) while you bounce back and forth among these folks looking for problems and figuring out how to remove obstacles. And you might be thinking that such a thankless existence is a bad thing that should be remedied.

But before you spend a lot of time searching for the latest “5-Step Plan for Controlling Chaos” let me suggest this alternative: Simply relax into the blur that is your PM existence. Embrace it. After all, it’s completely normal… necessary… even desirable that someone with your judgment and experience play this part. This story from my first book, ID Project Management, explains:

“In the early ’60s, when TV variety shows flourished, a strange little man would sometimes appear on Ed Sullivan’s stage and fill it with plates rapidly spinning high atop long, slender poles. You may have seen him. He’d place a pole in a certain spot, then center a plate on top and get it spinning just so. Then he’d place another and another until the stage was filled with a forest of spinning plates on poles. He’d then scurry back and forth, finding plates that were slowing down and wiggling their poles until they began to spin rapidly again…

“Like the plate spinner, as project manager you are not directly involved in all actions while they are happening, but you do get each action started and you keep it going when it starts to slow down. And also like him, you must carefully plan all your moves.  In broad terms, then, success as a project manager depends on these three activities:

  • Planning — conceiving of the overall project and arranging for all project events to happen
  • Stimulating Action — getting each individual event started at the scheduled time
  • Intervening — observing when things aren’t going according to plan, then taking action to get things back on track”

As this analogy illustrates, your consciousness as a project manager consists of continually stepping back and asking “What’s next? What’s slowing down or getting stuck? What should I do to keep things moving?”

When you contrast this with the role of an individual project resource, settled in, doing continuous uninterrupted work to create a new product or process, you can easily see why you life as the project manager could seem frazzled and disjunct. On the other hand, you get to orchestrate this stage full of spinning plates and observe the spectacle of them whirling in unison. How cool is that?

So the next time you are feeling frazzled and unappreciated you might want to think about the plate-spinning juggler. And while he himself didn’t actually spin gloriously atop a tall stick, he did, for all his frenetic scrambling, create something amazing!

(Check out this YouTube video of a plate spinner, filmed at The Circus Space Cabaret, London.)


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