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« How to Get the Most Out of the "Spinning Plates" | Main | How to Have Wonderfully Creative Ideas »
Sunday
Mar302014

The Spinning Plates Method of Project Control (Experimental)

Here’s a video of the right way to get projects going and keep them going:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k44uoVm0lPI

  • First, get one project up and running properly
  • Take necessary action to keep on top of project
  • Then get the next project up and running properly
  • Take necessary action to keep on top of both projects
  • Then get the next project up and running properly
  • Take necessary action to keep on top of all three projects
  • Repeat until you have reached the maximum number of projects you can keep on top of
  • At that stage you either have to stop adding more projects, or remove old projects to allow for new ones.


Note the priority is always to make sure the existing plates are spinning properly before adding a new one (though in the video the performer is deliberately adding a bit of drama to keep the audience engaged).

How can we actually do this in practice when we are dealing with real-life projects rather than spinning plates?

We can use a rotational list method. This one is designed for use with a notebook and pen/pencil. I’m sure it can be adapted for electronic use, but I haven’t as yet tried to do so.

I emphasize that this is an experimental method, which I haven’t tried out fully myself yet. You are welcome to have a go, but don’t expect polished perfection!

It has two phases: I - Build-Up; II - Control.

Phase 1 - Build-Up

Click image for full-size

Start with two tasks and write them on the first two lines in your notebook. Work on them on turn. When you finish a task, cross it off the list if it’s done for good. But if is a recurrent task leave it where it is.

When you’ve finished both tasks, add another task. Rotate back through both the previous tasks (if they’re still there) to make sure nothing new has come up for them, and then work on the new task. Once there’s no more work left on any of the tasks already entered you can enter another new task. Check back through the old tasks for anything new that’s come in and then work on the new task.

Proceed in this way adding a new task every time you’ve cleared any work on all the old tasks. If there’s any work left outstanding, then you can’t add a new task. You have to keep rotating through the list until all the work is cleared.

You will probably find that your list grows very quickly at first and then slows down considerably. Once it’s grown to the point that you are having trouble getting your work done quickly enough, you are getting near the limit of how much work you are capable of doing. That means you can’t take on much more work without endangering the work you have already got on your list. You are at liberty to remove any task at any time to reduce the workload, but you can only add a new task (or restore an old one) when there is no outstanding work.

Phase 2 - Control

Click on image for full-size

So far we’ve only talked about what happens when you have work in progress on one or more tasks at the end of a pass through the list. This is quite normal and nothing to worry about, but while it’s in effect you can’t add any more tasks.

However there are two ways in which you may actually fail at doing a task:

1) You may come to a task and, without any satisfactory reason, decide you don’t want to do any work on it at that time. If this happens the task has been failed. Satisfactory reasons might include wrong time of day, wrong weather conditions, necessary pre-condition not met, work task during leisure time (or vice versa). Unsatisfactory reasons include not feeling like it, high resistance to task, pressure from other more urgent tasks, low energy.

2) You fail to get a task completed in time for a deadline. This applies even if the deadline is self-imposed. Again the task has been failed.

At the end of a pass in which one or more tasks have been failed, the number of tasks on the list has to be reduced by the number of tasks which have failed. The tasks removed do not necessarily have to be the tasks that failed.

Note that this is not a punishment for failing a task, but a way of consciously reducing your workload control so that you can get back on track.

 

Related Post:

How to Get the Most Out of the “Spinning Plates”

Reader Comments (19)

Great blog post, Mark. I think you wrote about this method a couple of days ago, perhaps in the forum, and I was uncertain about marking a task with a tick when no action needed taking and it was 'done for now'. My instinct was to mark it with a dash (horizontal line), because it would be interesting to see how often the task was really worked on.

However, if I have learnt anything from being a member of this forum, it's that one should actually try out any new system first before trying to tweak it, so that's exactly what I'll do. As you say, it's at the experimental stage for you too, and I'm sure you'll let us know your experiences of working it.

Thanks for your great work - this forum is like an addition - but a beneficial one!
March 31, 2014 at 11:27 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1
It took me three read-throughs to understand this system, and I think it is important to have well-defined tasks for this... So, for example, if one of the tasks is "read war and peace", no new tasks will be entered until the book is finished (since there will be always outstanding work on it, assuming there is no satisfactory reason not to read it)... Is this correct, or am I missing something?

It does seem like this method would produce a far more focused work-flow.
March 31, 2014 at 12:24 | Unregistered CommenterNenad Ristic
Margaret1:

<< I think you wrote about this method a couple of days ago, perhaps in the forum >>

Yes, I did.

<< I was uncertain about marking a task with a tick when no action needed taking and it was 'done for now'. My instinct was to mark it with a dash (horizontal line), because it would be interesting to see how often the task was really worked on. >>

I had originally intended to make the first illustration my real list instead of a fair copy, but this quickly became impossible because I couldn't decide what the best markings were - so there were crossings out all over the place. So please feel free to experiment. But my feeling in the end was that it was important to be able to look down a column and say "Ah, all ticks, I can add another task". Having too many signs would lead to confusion. As it is the signs relate directly to the action you are going to take:

- All ticks: add another task.
- One or more arrows: don't add another task
- A cross: reduce tasks by number of crosses.
March 31, 2014 at 12:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Nenad Ristic:

<< It took me three read-throughs to understand this system, and I think it is important to have well-defined tasks for this... So, for example, if one of the tasks is "read war and peace", no new tasks will be entered until the book is finished (since there will be always outstanding work on it, assuming there is no satisfactory reason not to read it)... Is this correct, or am I missing something? >>

Yes, you are absolutely right. It is very important to establish the parameters of each task. So with "War and Peace", what exactly is your aim? If you are a university student reading for a course in Russian Literature, your aim is going to be very different from a casual reader. This is something I will be writing about in a follow-up post on how to work the system to get the most out of it.

By the way I did actually read "War and Peace" (in English) as a demonstration for one of my earlier systems, and my aim if I remember correctly was to read "some War and Peace" each time the task came up, without specifying the amount.

<< It does seem like this method would produce a far more focused work-flow. >>

That's what I'm hoping. Early days, yet, but the signs are good.
March 31, 2014 at 13:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ok, the task explanation now makes sense to me... I am currently trying to figure out how to implement your method using Trello (for some reason, using pen & paper for this just does not feel right... Which is strange, since I sue it for the random method).

I will post my solution once I have it working.
March 31, 2014 at 14:08 | Unregistered CommenterNenad Ristic
Looks good. Do we invoke the exception that you can add a new task when there's more work on a project if it's necessary to avoid working on the same project twice in a row? If not, it seems like I could very easily end up with one project on the list that I must work on until it's finished.
March 31, 2014 at 17:18 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Austin:

<< Do we invoke the exception that you can add a new task when there's more work on a project if it's necessary to avoid working on the same project twice in a row? If not, it seems like I could very easily end up with one project on the list that I must work on until it's finished. >>

This is something that I will be writing about on the How to Get the Most Out of the "Spinning Plates" running blog post. It's important initially to enter your tasks in an order in which the situation you describe doesn't happen.
March 31, 2014 at 22:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Nenad Ristic:

<< I am currently trying to figure out how to implement your method using Trello >>

I don't know how Trello works so can't help you on that. But for general electronic implementation, there is no need to have more than the one active column. The columns across the page in the written version look pretty and provide a historical record, but they are not strictly necessary. All you need to know is whether at the end of a pass there are any arrows or crosses in the column. And of course you can use any symbols you like (or colour coding) in place of the ticks, arrows and crosses.
March 31, 2014 at 23:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<< It's important initially to enter your tasks in an order in which the situation you describe doesn't happen. >>

The only way seems to be to enter recurring tasks first, then only work on one "big project".(Which might be a multiple-day task at your salaried job, for which there is always "outstanding work" until it's "done for good") Or maybe sausage your big project into multiple shorter tasks..

Either way, the rules always seem to enforce n-1 recurring tasks (for which there might be no outstanding work at some point in time, and some work again later on) and 1 thread of consecutive tasks crossed off one after another. (i.e. there is always "outstanding work" until it's "done for good")

It's my case right now. There is no task that I have to do where I would be waiting for some work from other people, or other cases for which any of the "projects" I would be doing would be waiting for some preconditions to be met.

Which makes the system pretty boring, and has me concentrate on one project at a time. I feel like bulldozing my way through my list of tasks... Wait a minute... Wouldn't that actually be a good thing?
April 1, 2014 at 15:03 | Unregistered CommenterLaurent
I like the system so far, but I share Laurent's concern. I, too, seem to be ending up with a list of recurrent-type work and one-offs in the "Minor Tasks" list, but only one active project until I am fully up-to-date with it. However, I realize that this is experimental and further discussion and experimentation may resolve this, or in Mark's mind and practice it may already have been resolved. I am eagerly awaiting the treatment of this in the other (expanding) blog post.
April 1, 2014 at 15:08 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Laurent and Austin:

Thanks for flagging this up for me because it is definitely something I need to think through carefully. My initial thoughts are:

What you describe is actually how the system is supposed to work. You get one thing at a time to an "up-to-date" state, then maintain it at that state. I think the problem you describe probably stems from the fact that you are putting too big a task/project into the system. Almost all projects can be broken down further.

So the answer all hangs on how the project is defined and what the definition of "up-to-date" is for that project. See the piece I wrote on combining simple tasks into a larger project. I gave the example of chopping up sorting an office into simple tasks which could be done in one go, and then combining them into a larger maintenance project which could also be done in one go once the initial updating was completed.

I hope to expand on this shortly in the blog.
April 1, 2014 at 15:30 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Laurent:

With reference to the specific example you gave:

<< The only way seems to be to enter recurring tasks first, then only work on one "big project".(Which might be a multiple-day task at your salaried job, for which there is always "outstanding work" until it's "done for good") >>

When are you "up to date" with a project that is going to take 3 months work? When it's finished? Or when you are on track with the progress and deadlines that you have set yourself with regard to that project?
April 1, 2014 at 15:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks, Mark. It does seem clear to me that it all boils down to defining carefully what you mean by "up to date" for a "task." I like the concept of getting a project up and running - without freezing the system - by starting with smaller tasks that can be kept up to date individually, and then coalescing them later into one project to be kept wholly up to date. I had tried that before, but I thought I was cheating. It's good to know it's considered fair game.
April 1, 2014 at 17:50 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Mark,

<< When are you "up to date" with a project that is going to take 3 months work? When it's finished? >>

When there is no more "outstanding work", i.e. either when it's finished or when I am waiting for one or many external inputs and can't make the project go any further forward without any of these inputs.

<<Or when you are on track with the progress and deadlines that you have set yourself with regard to that project? >>

That assumes prior planning of projects, setting deadlines for the normal course of actions, knowing whether you are ahead or behind schedule. (I'm not arguing this, just ah-ha!-ing it) Which means that, with prior planning, when you are ahead of your deadlines, you may tick the project off as "up-to-date", and are free not to take action on it on every pass. But you're also free to take action with the calm, cool and boldness of being on top of things, or else, every project would be either just-in-time or late.
April 2, 2014 at 9:22 | Unregistered CommenterLaurent
I just wanted to make an observation that Spinning Plates has a lot in common with Superfocus. In Superfocus, when you decided to work on some part of a project, you can kick it into Column 2 (setting a plate on the stick). You then work on it - and your other currently spinning plates in Column 2 - until a plate is finished for now (i.e., "up to date"), at which point it is placed back into Column 1.
April 21, 2014 at 16:22 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
That is, working on each spinning plate repeatedly is similar to working on each unfinished task in Column 2 on every page until a given plate is finished for now.
April 21, 2014 at 16:27 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Austin:

I think the dissimilarities are greater than the similarities. In Spinning Plates only a limited number of tasks are allowed on your list and these have to be constantly maintained up to a completed state. In SuperFocus there's no limit to the number of tasks on your list, and once a task has been completed it reverts to being just another task.
April 22, 2014 at 0:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I assume, regarding urgent tasks, is that when an urgent task comes up, it is acceptable to simply add it to the end of the list. From there one would continue processing the list as normal, with the expectation that tasks will begin failing (because you forcibly threw in a new task that has great urgency.) Given that tasks will begin failing, you can expect to trim the excess from your list. Soon enough, you'll have a more focused set of tasks. I should note, that this is only for SUPER urgent things, not things that you fool yourself into considering to be urgent, just because you're SUPER interested in them.

I'll give it a try with that method for handling super urgent things in mind.

Thanks for the new idea!
May 19, 2014 at 19:05 | Unregistered CommenterMiracle
Miracle:

<< I assume, regarding urgent tasks, is that when an urgent task comes up, it is acceptable to simply add it to the end of the list. >>

If you're asking whether it's acceptable to experiment with your own variations on the method, the answer is of course yes.

On the other hand, if you're asking whether what you are describing is within the rules as laid down, the answer is no. You can only add new tasks when ALL the tasks already on the list are up-to-date.

However there's nothing to stop you putting a task on your list (preferably at an early stage) called "Miscellaneous tasks" or "Minor Tasks" "Urgent Tasks" or whatever you wish. You would then work off a separate sub-list when you got to that task. Note that if you have a task like that, all the tasks on the sub-list would need to be cleared before you could add another task to the main list.

<< I should note, that this is only for SUPER urgent things, not things that you fool yourself into considering to be urgent, just because you're SUPER interested in them. >>

Things which are really urgent can always be dealt with under the "If it needs doing now, do it now" rule which applies to all my systems.
May 19, 2014 at 20:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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