Harry Nelson

Confessions of an Entrepreneurial Plate-Spinner

It’s been a few weeks since my last post.  When I think about what took me so long, it’s not one thing; it’s a bunch of things.  Sometimes, I feel like a professional plate-spinner, one of those circus performers running from pole to pole to keep the plates from wobbling off the sticks.  Life is full of juggling just managing the law firm I co-founded, advising clients, spending time with family and friends, and advancing the nonprofit causes near and dear to my heart. I’ve been guilty for a long time of not making enough time for fitness and not getting enough sleep – things I’m using my FitBit to change (a topic for another time).

So what inspired me to take on a bunch of brand new things this past year – including launching a new group of organizations, Adaptive Healthcare and the American Addiction Treatment Organization?  I don’t blame friends and family for thinking I’m a crazy person for taking on so much.  After all, if things are going strong in the law firm (which they are), why risk the distraction and divided focus?

On one level, when I meet people who are going slow and steady with a singular mission, I envy their ability to sustain a narrow focus.  My former law partner knew what he did well, and kept doing similar cases over and over again.  For me, as soon as I felt I had mastered how to handle one type of matter, I needed to look for the next challenge.  Part of it is a worry that any one type of work might not necessarily be around tomorrow (or might become more commoditized and see downward pressure on pricing), but the bigger issue is boredom:  an inability to keep doing the same thing and a need to find something new.

I’m also envious of the people who do many new projects, one at a time. Several years ago, I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family, and was struck by an example he uses in the book about the value of focusing only one major new project at a time.  He describes a restaurant that has a great first few years, but then hits a wall and sees its business slowdown.  The owners bring in a consultant who identifies multiple causes for the problems:  locations that were once prime retail locations have lost some of their luster, as new corridors have gotten hotter with restaurant-goers; menus that were once ideally suited to consumer tastes have gotten stale and need updating; staff turnover has meant that more recently hired personnel don’t have anywhere near the same experience as the original team; and so on.  The consultant’s analysis points to multiple solutions:  new locations, new menus, new staff training, etc.

Lencioni asserts that the only mistake the restaurant owners can make is to try to take on all of the solutions at once.  Trying to do everything invites the risk that nothing will move forward.  Instead, he argues that the restaurant needs one rallying cry at a time – one special project to move forward.  He suggests that it almost doesn’t matter which solution will be most effective, because the likelihood is that any one will make a major improvement, and once that project is completed, the owners can move to the next one.

He uses this to argue that families and all business organizations need to focus on one major project at a time, because we only have a limited amount of focus beyond all of the necessary time to maintain what we already have going on – all of the things that give us “permission to play” with the special project, i.e. maintaining our financial condition (and, on a personal level, our health, spiritual, and social needs).

I loved this idea when I first read it years ago, and have shared it with many other people, but definitely have not figured out how to actually live it.  My to-do list looks like the restaurant trying to change everything all at once.  Sometimes, I think of overcommitment, which I’ve honed into an art form, as a kind of thrill-seeking.  Is it an adrenaline rush to overcome the extreme pressure and get a ridiculous amount done in an impossibly short amount of time? Does creating a crisis-like environment force everyone to move faster?  Maybe.  On reflection, though, I think it’s less about a desire to operate in this style and more about a sense that there is an incredible amount remaining to be done and no time to waste.

It’s incredible when everything is firing on all cylinders.  The problem is that this mode of operation leaves much smaller margins of error; spending the time necessary to solve one unforeseen problem robs another project of time needed elsewhere.  The only way that this system works is that it forces me and the people I work with to be creative and find more people to collaborate with.  I’ve learned that my way of working is not a good fit for everyone, and few people I respect deeply have made the sensible choice to find a calmer environment to work.  This, in turn, makes me deeply grateful for the people who put up with the chaos and manage to thrive in our high-pressure environment that forces quick, creative, and critical thinking.  It’s been an incredible blessing to build a circle of trusted partners and colleagues who are in it with me.  Together, we’ve grown and are developing five independent companies and continuously broadening the circle of people we collaborate with in building, leading, and managing teams and projects.  It’s become much more fulfilling when our team accomplishes something than anything I could do working independently.

Lately, I’ve been fantasizing that, once this current slew of projects is launched, I’ll slow down, say no to the next project, irrespective of how tempting it promises to be, and get out of the plate-spinning business.  I’m not sure if I’m kidding myself or if I can pull off a transition to Lencioni’s model.  Any advice from fellow entrepreneurs who have trouble saying no to new projects? I’d love to hear from you.

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