plates

Plate Spinning – Balancing Consulting and Product Development

Over the years, I’ve spoken with hundreds of business leaders. In every case I can remember, the business leader has had multiple goals for their organization. Rarely do I find a leader with the kind of singular focus that books like The ONE Thing recommends. Business leaders realize that this is too simple. It doesn’t account for the constant balance that you must have to keep the business running and to help it grow. It doesn’t account for daily operations and long-term strategy.

The business leaders I know are what I call “plate spinners”. Each day they put a bit of energy into the operational things before shifting off to their next strategic priority – if they ever get there. I frequently get questions that amount to “How do I make time to get to my strategic priorities?”

What Operational Things?

All of us – whether we’re business leaders, entrepreneurs, or hopefuls who want to work for ourselves or to stop working – have operational things we must do. We must make money to support the needs of our household and our lifestyle. How much we must work may be negotiable, but most of us have commitments that we must maintain.

We can reduce them, squeeze them, delay them, pinch them, and manipulate their short-term impact, but ultimately we have certain things that we need to do. We should brush our teeth. We need to get our hair cut. We need to go to the doctor. These are all daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly activities that every human needs to tend to. Businesses are no different. There’s a need to do billing, accounting, and other duties.

These are the things that must happen to keep things going. When you fail to do them – like make enough money – you may be able to survive for a while, but it’s not sustainable. In the case of money, you can always borrow the money you need – as many entrepreneurs have had to do.

What Priorities?

If we get to free time, what are the priorities that we want to get to? For some, it’s developing that solution that will make them enough money to quit their job. For others, who are already running their own business, it’s the thing that will allow them to stop working in the business – doing direct work – and spend time working on the business – on making it more profitable and more sustainable.

Many of those I speak with who aren’t yet running their own businesses have a burning idea inside them (or sometimes several). I’ve spoken with dozens of people who have a book that they want to write. They want to write something that others will read – and a blog just isn’t enough. For them, it’s finding the massive amount of time required to write a book that they long for.

Business owners, I observe, tend to focus most on removing risk and stabilizing income. Sure, everyone wants to make more money. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on how we normalize and want more than we currently have.) However, most business leaders that I know are more focused on reducing some level of the variability of their current income – or the threat against future income – than they are conquering the world and making millions of dollars.

Sometimes the priority that people are trying to get to is access to better distribution. Sometimes it’s developing the next product that will return the revenue necessary to drive the company forward. I literally was speaking with a friend whose desire is just to get the build his new production area at his winery done – so that they’re not tripping over each other as they’re producing wines. For him, this is going to allow him to produce bigger batches of wine and get better distribution.

Making Time

Some folks insist that it’s not getting time for the things that are important to you. Instead, it’s a matter of making time for the things that are important. We can fill our days with something every day, but without a focus on what we need to get done for future success, we can continue to do things which may be urgent but aren’t necessarily important.

It’s not so much about making time as it is about allocating the time that you do have in ways that are consistent with your need to balance short-term needs and long-term desires. You can’t literally “make” time, but you can choose how you spend the time that you do have.

Consulting

For a long time now, I’ve been consulting. I help organizations use technology better – and just get better even where technology is not involved. I’ve lost count of the organizations I’ve helped. I know I’ve forgotten all the things that I know. In fact, my wife pointed out that I don’t even know what all my certifications are any longer.

Consulting for me is this plate-spinning. I enjoy helping others be more effective but it’s not my long-term goal and mission for the organization. We do it to keep the money flowing, but I use the extra margin and opportunity to do product development.

Each month I walk the delicate balance of working on developing new consulting clients, supporting the clients we have, and working on the products that we believe are the long-term vision of the company. This is the same struggle that I see other business leaders facing. They’re balancing their short-term needs with their long-term needs and objectives.

Product Development

When I first started to drive, I learned in a manual transmission. Getting a car moving was a delicate balance. You would apply the gas to get the engine revved up; while at the same time you would engage the clutch, shift into gear, and slowly disengage the clutch. The objective was to find a way to keep the engine running without throwing you back into your seat as the car lurched forward. This required coordination between both feet and at least one hand on the steering wheel.

This is the same multiple-item coordination that I attempt to juggle in product development while I’m supporting the consulting. Too much focus on product development, and the revenue engine will die before I get the product going. Too little focus on the product development and I’ll never get the product going at all.

Internal to the idea of product development are the same challenges. Put too much energy into marketing and the product will never get done. Too much on product development and you’ll have something great that no one will know about.

In the world of plate spinning there are no absolutes. There are no “right” decisions. There’s only balance and the desire to ensure that what you’re doing is the best balance that you can find.