“Juggling is sometimes called the art of controlling patterns, controlling patterns in time and space.” – American mathematician Ronald Graham

Part of the fun of project management is trying to juggle a myriad of tasks and priorities that regularly change and sometimes conflict. Some people think of this as “spinning plates” but we think it is more like “juggling chainsaws”.

If you watch someone spinning plates, a popular pastime on 1980s Sunday night TV, you’ll notice several things. The “spinner” doesn’t increase the number of plates until the plates already spinning are under control, once all of the plates are spinning it is relatively easy to keep them turning, and the plates are independent so if one falls it doesn’t affect the others,.

We find that juggling chainsaws is a better analogy for project management. Everything is interdependent, there is no respite, and dropping a single chainsaw can cause irreparable damage. You can even give your chainsaws names – like “budget” and “deliverables” and “resources”. If you drop anyone of them then you could be in trouble.

Project management is also like juggling because you wouldn’t normally start off with the biggest, most complex thing you can find. It’s important to understand the principles, build your experience, and stretch yourself. It is also important to work out what types of project suit you and your personality. Not everyone wants to run global, 20-workstream, 500-person projects. Some project managers want to be in roles where they can get their hands-dirty with doing rather than managing. That is okay.

Dealing with «drops»

Assuming that you have mastered the art, at whatever level you decide, then the most important thing is what to do when you drop something. And you will drop things. The normal reaction is to pick them straight back up but is that the right thing to do? If you don’t know why you dropped it, the likelihood is that you will drop it again if you pick it back up. Work out why you dropped it.

Once you’ve worked out why you dropped it then you can decide whether to pick it back up again. If you were just trying to manage too many things maybe it is time to rethink your project structure. If it was a lack of skills or experience, maybe your project team needs to change. There can be lots of reasons why things drop but don’t just assume you need to pick them back up again without thinking it through. Also, if they do need picked back up, don’t assume that it needs to be you who does it.

You should also learn to predict when something is about to drop. Those signs can come from project governance – e.g. actions incomplete, lots of amber and red milestones – or from your emotional intelligence – feeling out of control, under pressure, loss of confidence. It differs from person to person but learn to recognise the signs. Don’t be afraid to escalate, don’t be afraid to take corrective action, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Project management really can be like juggling chainsaws; it’s great to be in the audience but it is the juggler that really feels the pressure.

At Projecting, across our combined team we have been juggling chainsaws for centuries and we have a scratch or two to show for it.