How many plates can you spin at a time?

I have been working with a client recently who was very keen to progress a piece of work. Four weeks ago we set up a phone call. I made sure that it was arranged to suit his diary. An hour before the scheduled time I get an email to say that he needs to rearrange as sometime urgent had come up. I thought fair enough, issues crop up from time to time that need urgent attention.  So off we started again to find a date and time to suit. Again I shuffled my diary to make the appointment. Guess what a few days later another email arrives to rearrange the phone call! Is this a pattern I wondered?

Sure enough the answer was yes. This saga happens on four occasions in the period. Then to cap it all on the day of the last appointment I get an email to say that he is running late and will call me as soon as possible.

Well the clear message to me is that this individual either had an acute problem  with time management, or did not see the piece of work that he was so  desperate to progress with me as a priority after all. In the event the phone call did go ahead, but he had not really had time to think through what he wanted to achieve and we ended up having a faltering discussion almost off the cuff. Is this really the way to make effective use of time in organisations.

The pressure to fill the diary up with meetings, fiddle with smart phones (often in meetings) and farm emails occupies far too much time for the average employee. It seems that there is no time to think in organisations today.

A quick piece of analysis on the email account and the diary would reveal a lot about the organisation and its culture, along with the preoccupations of the employee in question. If managers studied their work and it’s impact they would learn that  in practice much of the time spent in meetings has no productive impact upon meeting customer demand, if anything it is likely to make things worst.

Email trails often reveal the games played in organisations to shuffle responsibility and protect ones back from criticism. The .cc culture, and check with mentality causes a lot of wasted time. Time that could be better spent  in the work fixing issues that stop employees from delivering excellent service to customers. Perhaps If only there were not so many plates spinning managers would have time to do more of the right thing. I wonder who started all those plates spinning in the first place? Well managers of course! What else would they do if they did not have to run around spinning all those plates!

It’s a pity that managers have no time to stop and think about the true impact of their actions in the work. If they did they would be horrified to find that the outcome of their labours invariably made matters worse!

The lesson is that in practice if you focus upon one plate at a time you will end up spinning more plates in the long run. Counter intuitive it may be, but try it for yourself. You would be wise to take a hard look at what clutters your diary and email whilst you are on. You will be amazed at how much time you can create. The challenge then is to use the time to study and understand how the current system works, before trying to change it, rather than tinker and make it worse.

4 thoughts on “How many plates can you spin at a time?

  1. I’m so glad it’s not just me that this happens to! I’ve given it a lot of thought and I think it has a lot to do with the way managers and senior professionals are led and motivated in large organisations. Unlike in a consultancy business, where the client is always king, in a large organisation, management hierarchies seem to take on an unprecedented importance (surprising in a 21st century world). An external consultant will never get upset or cause trouble if their meetings get bounced or endlessly rearranged but your manager could make life difficult for you. It therefore means the importance of the person you’re meeting, rather than the importance of the project is what counts. It’s got to be counterproductive in the long run but I haven’t worked out how to fix it yet. It also means that once said manager needs the project delivering (usually because their manager has started yelling for it!) you’ll be needed for a meeting yesterday.
    Frightening to think how hierarchical organisational culture still is when we all know that the flatter the structure and the more freedom and responsibility people are given the better the long term results are likely to be.

    • Hi Jenny,thanks for commenting. I use the slippage as a barometer of commitment to action. Performance systems in organisations drive the opposite behaviour to that intended, although in the main leaders would not realise this behaviour as everyone in the business is playing the same game. Make the numbers- make the number up or cheat to make the numbers. All we need is an honest conversation, fewer priorities and leaders that made time to be working close enough to the front line to understand how stupid some of their edicts are, but then they might have to take some real action and expose their own flawed ideas, or worse still put their bonus and share options at stake. We can always dream….

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