Four Ways That Project Productivity Is Like a Juggling Act
When my husband and I were married, our reception was not your classic wedding reception. We invited a juggler to perform, and I vividly remember parts of his act. And since it’s been many years, I’ve probably begun embellishing the story of his performance. But as I remember it, juggling seems like an interesting way to think about project productivity. And in this blog, I’ll offer my thoughts on how to improve your project productivity by taking lessons from his juggling act.
1. Everyone needs incredible focus
Have you ever watched a juggler? Talk about flow. You can just see the concentration and focus. They keep their eyes on the balls and they don’t stop watching. And at the same time, they seem to have this incredible ability to seize opportunities that young children or audience members offer them. I’ve been known to carry on a conversation with a juggler while he was performing.
Think about that as you study your own ability to focus. Can you dig into a report that you are writing and really make progress and still respond in a helpful way to the co-worker who interrupts you with a question that is blocking their progress?
Can you make progress on that report without dropping all the other balls in your life? Obviously, the fewer balls you are juggling the easier it is. Part of improving our project productivity is to understand the importance of our personal ability to focus.
2. Team members need to learn how to pass off work
Juggling is simply the ability to pass objects, be they balls or flaming sticks, typically into the air. And work is often the same way. You get data from an analyst for that report you needed to prepare for the CEO. And then, you perhaps get images from a graphic designer to include in your draft, which you might give to a colleague for review. You might revise it three or four times before the CEO reviews it. It’s often a juggling act where you simply need to be able to successfully pass off work and receive work from others.
3. When the balls stop moving, it’s time to reflect and regroup
In the juggling performances I’ve seen, they get a group of objects in the air and juggle a bit and then, they stop and take a break. We’re all human and can only focus for so long.
Do you ever wonder what the performers are doing when they are stopped? I would guess, from talking with some, that they begin by clearing out any unhelpful brain chatter. They reflect on their last set, without too much judgement and re-focus their brain. They might take a short break and they might rearrange their setup.
In the project world, we need to take periodic breaks during the day. Personally, I spend those breaks reflecting on what I’ve accomplished and thinking about what is next. Since I work from home, it is often a time to throw in a load of laundry or order some groceries. But then, it’s back to my to-do list and a focus on what is most important next.
While breaks during the day are important and allow us time to really assess what is most important, so are breaks in the project flow — or what I might call, breaks between sprints. When you work in sprints and stop at the end of each sprint to reassess and regroup, it’s a way of ensuring that the team is always focused on what is most important. That helps improve project productivity.
Patrick Lencioni often talks and writes about the importance of understanding what’s most important, and periodically re-assessing that assumption. I’ll let you decide whether your organization chooses a single focus, or not. In my experience, fewer balls to focus on is typically easier, but I find it impossible to limit my focus to just one item. I have too many clients and personal projects. What I can do, and what I suggest you do, is constantly examine what is most important now. And prioritize the important, not just the urgent.
4. Understand that sometimes people are juggling small balls, and sometimes they are juggling fire
Sometimes, I’ll talk with project teams who remark to me that everything on their to-do list seems insignificant to the project or the reverse. They might be feeling the stress of always juggling fire sticks, or they might feel like they aren’t making an important contribution.
These are important feelings for managers to understand. Ask your teams how they are feeling about their work. And try assigning work so that the stress of fire is not ever-present. Make sure your teams understand why they are doing their work. If the why is not well-understood, people will lose interest, gravitate to activities of more interest, or generally not perform as well.
I have written before about the importance of finding your project ‘why’. Your ‘why’ is critical, and it may take your some time to figure it out. Once you have taken the time to understand the project ‘why’ keep repeating that mantra so that people don’t forget it. And understand that each activity on your project can have its own ‘why.’ Team members need to understand how the activity they are working on fits into the bigger goal.