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The Illusion of Progress: Half a Job Is No Job

Cartoon of business analyst spinning plates, with a manager coming with more plates (metaphor)Working on projects can be challenging at times. It can feel like we are spinning a number of plates, desperately trying to keep them from falling to the ground. Add in human factors, power and politics and it is more like spinning plates in a storm (in the dark), with different stakeholders having different views over which plate is most important. This dynamic is one of the things that makes the role so interesting and varied.


In this challenging landscape, part of our time is spent planning and monitoring the analysis work. If you are a Principal or Lead BA this may involve leading and managing the work of others, else it may involve planning and structuring the crucial day-to-day work that we do individually. It is easy to overlook this part of the job as it is something we probably do without thinking, yet it is a crucial enabler for the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. When things get busy, it can become tempting to stop planning and monitoring—there may be a pressure to “just get going”. There can be an unstated pressure for us to spin our plates without considering how many we are tending to (and how long we’ll be spinning them).


This can lead to a significant danger. Without an appropriate plan, we can get caught in a never-ending loop. It is easy to end up over-committed, as it is so temptingly easy to take on just another ‘small task’. But each task takes time, and before long we find ourselves flip-flopping between activities with an uncomfortable sense that things aren’t quite under control. The more tasks we take on, the more this insidiously uncomfortable feeling grows—we’re worried that we’re going to drop a plate without even knowing it! Perhaps you recognise this feeling?  I know I do!


The Illusion of Progress

This pattern can lead to us and our project teams placing more focus on starting work than finishing work. Often sponsors and Project managers (quite understandably) want to know that work on something has commenced. Yet is it really meaningful to know that something has started when the person undertaking it is distracted by 101 other tasks? If they are unsure whether they actually have capacity to complete the task, perhaps it isn’t.


I can give you a personal example, on a much smaller scale. In the past I would have around 10-20 blog articles that were very nearly finished. They just needed final tweaking, proof-reading or so on. Every so often, I would pick one of these articles up and start to tweak it—but most of the time I could’t get myself in the right head-space as I’d forgotten the inspiration for the article. Probably around 90% of the time the article went back in the drawer, tweaked but unpublished, for me to pick up again another day… and so the cycle continued.


Here is a harsh truth: Another way of saying “10-20 nearly finished articles” is “precisely 0 published articles”.   Perhaps my combination of multitasking and ‘polishing’ caused delays. I have long since learned to focus on published articles rather than articles in progress. It is better to have one article published than 20 ‘nearly finished’ collecting dust in a bottom drawer. In fact, the very existence of 20 unfinished articles can create an uncomfortable feeling—that nagging feeling that I should be finishing them…


Of course, this isn’t just about article-writing. A similar thing happens in our organisations, projects and teams. We could equally say that 10 projects ‘in progress’ that haven’t yet delivered equates to precisely 0 implemented valuable changes. In our enthusiasm to get change moving, as teams and organisations if we ‘bite off more than we can chew’ there is a danger that we’ll under-deliver. We risk disappointing our stakeholders, affecting our credibility.  Our instinct to say yes and get to perfection may prevent us from getting something out sooner.


Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should necessarily say “no” to new work  (although there is certainly an argument for more robust project selection ensuring we kill our turkey projects early, but that is a different story!). But perhaps we should say “Yes, and…”


“Yes, and if we take on this work, this is the impact on our other projects. Can we check that this is acceptable with the sponsors?”

“Yes, and a great way of us doing the analysis would be incrementally. Are you happy to get a very rough draft for validation earlier, so we can keep things moving?”

“Yes, and if we were to achieve that timescale we’d need extra resource. Here are some options for achieving that”.


If we highlight the impact and give our sponsors options, we can ensure they are making informed decisions. If a project is of the utmost importance, then it might be considered perfectly acceptable to delay another: yet having this conversation up front will set expectations and avoid a more difficult conversation later.


But it is useful to remember, in most circumstances half a job is no job.

What are your views on “spinning plates”?  I’d love to hear your experiences and tips.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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  1. Pingback: Project Lessons from Aviation Part 4: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate | Adrian Reed's Blog

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