The Plate Spinner

When I was at Applied Materials we adopted an analogy for the tough job of being a manager. We called them “plate-spinners.” A plate-spinner is an old county fair act where the entertainer starts plates spinning on thin poles and then keeps running up and down the line, giving the ones that are starting to wobble a quick boosting spin with his hand.

Every nonprofit manager has multiple plates or projects “spinning.” Managing them means keeping an eye on all of them, while running to each individual plate that needs attention and energy and keep it from falling off its stick. Top managers might have hundreds of spinning plates within their area of responsibility.

To help spot the wobbly plates, you should periodically “porpoise” beyond your direct reports to talk to diverse groups of people at every level in your nonprofit.

Think about a porpoise, repeatedly diving deep into the ocean and then rising to the surface, gathering information at all levels. Porpoising is designed to unearth valuable information, whether in the short term or for the long haul. It enables you to “hear” sounds of trouble before you learn about it through official channels.

Make sure you assess and understand the basic functions your organization must execute for you to move forward in a predictable way, and then commit to a regular process for checking in and making sure you know which plates are wobbling. Always reinforce individual ownership of problems by always asking, “Who owns the monkey?”

  • Can you spot some spinning plates that are falling off their poles?
  • How can you keep them spinning?
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