Management Articles


The Smooth and Elegant Art of Juggling
Successfully Juggling Multiple Projects

By: Thomas W. McKee

Thomas W. McKee is president of Advantage Point Systems, Inc., a staff development and change management firm. Thomas is an author, motivational speaker, trainer and leader. He has spoken to over 1/2 million people and taught the Advantage Point System method of change management to over 100,000 managers in companies like Hewlett Packard, Ernst and Young, Procter and Gamble, the California Department of General Services, and the IRS. ; For information about the Advantage Point System of managing change see

Jim walked towards me holding a rather large basketball-size ball and said, "While you were gone on vacation last week, I had a problem with one of my customers." As he explained the problem, I made the mistake most managers make and responded, "Let me think about it and Iíll get back to you." When I said those words, Jim handed me his ball and left feeling great because he had just unloaded his problem on me.

I had just returned from vacation and had not even reached my desk. Already carrying a large ball of my own, I know had acquired the ball Jim had given me. My ball was an idea I got on vacation for a dynamic staff meeting. I was determined to start planning it immediately. But now I had two balls Ė a project and a problem Ė and I had only been back to work for seven minutes.

Within twenty minutes I found myself juggling ten other balls that I had taken from clients, team members, e-mail, faxes, and voice mail. Suddenly the phone rang and my boss announced, "Drop everything you are doing and get to my office as soon as you can. We have a situation." I hated those words. What did they mean? As I left for my bossís office I felt like dropping all twelve balls but, but in reality I carried all of them with me and added yet another. Thinking about the many projects, emergencies, decisions, problems, concerns and the great idea I had for the preparation of my dynamic staff meeting, I now added my boss's "situation" to my plate. The way this morning had started, I knew I would end up leading an unprepared, unplanned, and rather boring staff meeting because I had too many other balls to juggle.

Does this sound like your typical morning? I had only been back in my office for twenty minutes. By noon I was juggling even more balls Ė each one with a different size, weight and feel. How was I going to juggle these multiple problems, projects, concerns, ideas and emergencies? The following four insights helped me learn to juggle my workplace demands.

If you canít do anything about itóitís not your ball

Although Iím only about 5í 5" tall, I donít have a height problem. Why? Because I canít do anything about it. Sometimes we are carrying around too many problem balls that we cannot do anything about. If you cannot do anything about it, it is not your problem. Quit carrying it around. If I can learn to focus only on the problems that I can control, I begin to eliminate some balls. To paraphrase Steven Covey, "When we focus on the problems we cannot control, we empower them to control us."

Donít keep the ball if the ball isnít yours

For years I used to take all of my managers' problems by saying to them, "Let me think about it and Iíll get back to you." About ten years ago I began to give those balls back by saying to them, "Try to think of three possible solutions to that problem and then pick what you think is the best solution." By taking this action, I not only passed off many balls, but I also became a trainer, a coach, a mentor and most of all a better manager. If the manger keeps taking the problem balls, the employee will never learn how to make decisions.

Break each project down into controllable tasks

When Michael Jordan came back to basketball after playing baseball, Peter Vescy asked him if he could pick up where he left off, averaging 32 points a game. Michael Jordan answered, "Why not, thatís only 8 points a quarter." One of our problems is that the 32 points overwhelm usóthe magnitude of the project or projects we are trying to manage seems insurmountable. If we can break the project down to 8 points a quarter, it really isnít that bad.

When you think about it, juggling is really a system of throws and catches. It looks overwhelming when you see a juggler throwing and catching balls, rings, clubs and chainsaws. But the great jugglers have broken a complicated process into throws that come back to them.

Bad Habits Have Disastrous Results

When you are only juggling one object, you can get away with bad habits like procrastination, tardiness, disorganization and lack of planning. But when your work and responsibilities begin to expand, these bad habits catch up with you. I am working with a very talented manager who for years has used her talent and relational ability for success. But she is overwhelmed now because her great talent has allowed her to be promoted beyond her ability to manage multiple responsibilities. As we have worked together, this manager and I have discovered three bad habits. She is always late, she procrastinates, and she avoids conflict by not returning calls to upset customers and team members. When she only had a few responsibilities, she got away with it. Today she canít.

If you feel overwhelmed, start building these four insights into your daily life and in time you can learn to juggle. Perhaps you can start by taking the advice of one of my former students who I saw recently. He told me that after one of my workshops he wrote on his screen saver the following statement:

"Donít take the ball if the ball isnít yours"

© 1998 Advantage Point Systems Inc.

Other Articles by Thomas W. McKee

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