I’ve always prided myself on being adept at handling multiple assignments and getting things done in busy times. Sure there were times where I had to ask for extensions, prioritize work or put in long hours, but I never really felt troubled with my ability to handle a stack of work.
Until I got to my current company. This place moves fast with more opportunities around every corner! We tell new people this and they dismiss our advice thinking they too have handled fast pace environments, and then find themselves struggling to keep their head above water for the first six months. At that point we start to hear comments about just how long it takes to get up to speed!
I like to use the analogy of a circus and its juggling acts to describe how to be successful in this kind of environment. As with all organizations, a circus will interview candidates to find the best jugglers. They select people on various criteria such as skills, interpersonal skills, cultural fit, etc., In the end the circus depends on the quality of its acts so it hires the best jugglers it can find.
Then the circus puts their jugglers to work and they get as many balls as they can handle in the air. Once they are in full flow the circus leaders start throwing more balls to the juggler to handle. At first their discomfort turns to pride as they realize they can handle the extra balls, that they are more accomplished than they knew. But as more balls continue to be thrown their way they soon start to drop some of them, and not being accustomed to seeing balls on the floor they get discouraged, de-motivated and down on themselves.
Here’s the trick. At this circus it isn’t so much about how many balls you can keep in the air. It’s about your flexibility and adaptability. How quickly can you recognize the difference between rubber balls and glass balls and adjust your patterns such that all the glass balls stay in the air and only rubber balls hit the floor. Rubber balls will be there later … take care of the glass ones! The skill is in our ability to quickly recognize the difference.
What if we treated our “to do” list like that? What would the challenges be? Certainly the important (glass) tasks would get done so our organization should be happy. We would likely still have time to take on more challenges as well (rubber balls still bouncing close by your feet). What do we think would happen to the less important items (rubber balls that have long since stopped bouncing and rolled off into the corners? One times I wonder if the requester (often ourselves) even remembers it and why it needed to be done? At worst one of these balls may come rolling back out of the corner transmuted into glass and we have to deal with it quickly.
What else might we need to be aware of?
How about ourselves? Are we comfortable leaving things undone when we go home? Do we think that our value to our organization is how hard we work, and will we be less valued if we don’t tackle everything? Do we need help in sorting through glass and rubber balls? Are we in alignment with our leaders in our assessment of glass vs. rubber?
As leaders we’ve seen the effects of stress, heavy workload and burnout on people. We know it is our responsibility to help them get relief. But is the most effective form of relief stepping in and prioritizing? Or is it helping them work through how to solve the problems posed above? Don’t we want our teams to be advanced in the art of prioritization?
After all this I think it is important to note that sometimes there’s just too many “glass balls” and at those times leaders should roll up their sleeves and dig in to help.
I would love to hear from people on their favourite ways of dealing with heavy workloads. What’s your secret?