The Art of Plate Spinning Jeff Chastain April 16, 2020

The Art of Plate Spinning

A common circus act is plate spinning.  Dating back more than 2,000 years to China’s Han Dynasty, the ‘spinner’ attempts to spin a plate on top of a pole, keeping it balanced without falling to the floor.  Once the first plate is spinning, the goal is to add another, then another, while keeping them all balanced.

The current world record was set in 1996 by a spinner named David Spathaky, who managed to get 108 plates spinning before they started crashing at his feet.

They Always Crash

Regardless of the talent of the spinner, the one constant here is that at some point, the plates will come crashing down.  The more talented (or lucky) the spinner, the more plates they can balance, but at some point, a limit is reached, and the plates start falling.

In business, the ‘plates’ are represented by customers, products, projects, etc.  In most cases, you never see it coming, and it creeps up on you.  It is just another customer, another special request project – but for some reason, this one does not work out like previous projects.  Something gets lost in the crack – a supply order, a quality check – and then you are left with an unhappy customer.

The Forest or the Trees

When the plate falls, where does the focus turn?  All attention is drawn to the sound of breaking glass.  To the fact that Johnny did not order the necessary supplies on time.  To the fact that Sally missed the change request with the customer’s order.  However, these issues are just the individual trees …

The forest – the big picture – says that the situation was simply unattainable from the start.  It does not matter how talented the spinner is; at some point, they simply cannot balance any more plates.  The same thing happens in business when you attempt to scale.  Sheer will power works for a time, but at some point, it is no longer enough to keep moving forward and growing.

The Choice

This leaves you with a choice.  Option A is to decide that your business will be a boutique firm that specializes while only supporting a feasible number of customers.   Option B is to decide that you still want to scale and grow your business which means making changes.

The days of freewheel deals have to turn into defined processes.  The days of saying yes to any and every special request have to turn into evaluating requests against the greater good and direction of the business.  If your business makes blue widgets, then it may not make sense to take on that request for pink widgets anymore if it costs you the ability to scale your blue widget business predictably.

Now What?

This situation is not unique to any given industry or business, and in many ways, there is no right or wrong decision.  However, maintain the status quo is simply unattainable. The question is, what path do you want your business to go down?