Stop spinning plates; start designing your future.
by Kerry Bertram
Spinning plates. Multiple tasks and priorities, all needing attention, time, effort. All needing you to keep things moving, react to problems and, above all, not let any fall down – and that’s just your workday.
When you’re in the spinning plates performance it can feel overwhelming. The temptation is to give up, work harder and faster, or to cut your losses and run. This might look like stagnation, burnout, or even quitting your job.
The paradox is that in our effort to maximize our effectiveness and impact (personally or professionally), we commit to so many things that we end up crippling our effectiveness and impact. When we say “yes” to everything, we end up not doing anything well.
Maybe you recognise that you are not only spinning your plates but creating a culture at work where everyone is expected to manage multiple, competing tasks. In the charity sector this can be especially prevalent, as the motivation to keep things spinning is not only about completing work but a response to the cause or issue you are tackling. You feel that if you stop, or your team stops, you are letting your cause down.
The problem with this (oh, so easy to fall into!) trap is that plates cannot endlessly spin. Even with the best will in the world, one day soon, either the plates or you will drop. This is exactly why I developed the Empathy and Innovation Retreat for non-profit professionals.
My retreat, and Brilliant Things’ philosophy, offers an alternative to burning out or falling down. Instead, we must design forward. It took me about six months to design beyond my immediate plate spinning situation and design forward to shape a new work world that focused on my needs, skills, personal qualities and strengths, and its possible for you, too.
If you have Googled ‘Should I quit my job?’ then designing forward is essential.
Before making decisions fueled by exhaustion, take some time to think like a designer and create a version of your future beyond your current position.
First, take 10 minutes to reflect on these prompts:
Where do you come alive?
What people, places or situations light you up?
What are you squashing down inside you?
What do you need to survive, financially, emotionally, physically?
What is impossible?
What opportunities can you imagine?
How might you create more of what inspires you, in your current situation?
What if you did the opposite?
How could you combine ideas and possibilities?
What is the first tiny step?
How can you test your potential in the real world?
What is the most valuable action?
This process is called ‘design thinking’. Stripped down to these four phases, it describes the creative process that a designer might take to design a functional object (like a chair). A functional solution is important but qualities like aesthetics, comfort, materials, joy, and usability are equally considered. A designer might also explore the possibilities and constraints of raw materials, combine techniques to create something new, or challenge if a chair is even needed (standing desk anyone?).
This design process can be applied to designing a vision of your ideal work/life.
With a vision in mind, you might start a conversation with your employer about reshaping your current role or begin the search for a new job that better meets your needs. You might discover the parts of your job that bring you joy and explore how these could be amplified in another role or profession. You might define the learning you need to do to progress into the career you want or develop a side project.
Working towards your own designed work blueprint means you are less likely to recreate another plate spinning situation as you will be clearer on your boundaries and goals. I developed an email series about Navigating Career Change to share the self coaching tools and reflections as I worked through this process for myself.
For leaders, working through a design process with your teams offers the opportunity to co-create organisational cultures that both produce valuable work and align with employees’ strengths and desires. This creates a collective purpose and strengthens morale, ultimately improving relationships, teamwork, and staff retention.
Design thinking not only leads to increased innovation and improved end products, it also creates a great team spirit, boosts work ethic and bolsters individuals’ confidence in their creative abilities
When people feel seen, valued, and able to contribute in a team, without being expected to spin plates harder and faster, they are more committed and motivated. An organisational design process is useful when navigating a change, introducing a new system or service, or when developing the big picture.
If you are a non-profit professional, and burnout or stagnation feel like risks in your team or own life, I’d love to have a conversation about how design can reimagine your work life and create work that matters in the world.
Kerry is a design thinker, coach, mother, and maker – and the person behind Brilliant Thing. With a background in Arts, NHS, public sector and non-profit management, Brilliant Thing combines creative facilitation, coaching, and design thinking to deepen the social impact of the work we do. Kerry’s favourite phrase is said with a twinkle of the eyes: ‘I have an idea…’