The Plate-Drop Challenge: How to Respond to Failure

The only way to learn how many plates you can spin is to break some plates.


The question of capacity guarantees failure.


T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”


The idea is scary, even if Eliot wasn’t thinking about managing projects or tackling stretch goals.


The plate-drop problem:

You just handed another plate to a team member and you notice a perilous wobbler three sticks down.

#1. Don’t spin plates with them.

The only time to do someone’s job for them is during a crisis. But before you jump in, what if your poor management created or fueled the crisis.

If you’re the problem, work on yourself before tampering with others.

#2. Let plates fall and learn from failure.


What happened/didn’t happen that caused this failure?
How did I (leader) contribute to this failure?
What will you do differently next time?
#3. Teach them to spin more efficiently.

#4. Don’t automatically extend timelines when plates start wobbling.

Changing a timeline prolongs agony and doesn’t increase capacity. Adjust timelines only when they were unrealistic to begin with.


If you bring your best, how likely is it that you will meet your deadline?
What do you need to do to get this done on time?
What do you need to stop doing to meet this deadline?
#5. Give some of their plates to someone else.

You have two options when skillful high-performers start dropping plates.

Give them help.
Give some of their plates to someone else.
Broken plates:

The way you respond to broken plates determines your future.

I’ll never do that again. (You’re stuck)
What will I do differently next time? (Growth)
Don’t lower standards to save plates. Instead, learn, affirm, and keep spinning.

How might leaders increase productivity without driving people crazy?

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