Clowns, jugglers and the ringmaster

Sep 10 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

As good jugglers know, keeping all your balls in the air isn't so much a matter of extraordinary skill as a triumph of observation and forward planning that lets them understand the patterns within complexity.

In 1881, a combination of manufacturing advances and innovation in entertainment led James A. Bailey to initiate the three-ring circus, which merged first with PT. Barnum to become Barnum and Bailey's. After his death in 1907, it was purchased by the Ringling brothers, eventually merging with their operation to become the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

With so much going on, the three-ring format was designed to maximise the spectacle by allowing multiple acts to perform at the same time, assailing the audience with a seemingly endless parade of trained animals, bareback riders, jugglers, clowns and acrobats.

While one objective of this was avoiding boredom, it had the unwanted side-effect of making it impossible for the audience to watch everything Ė resulting in dissatisfaction among the audience. Thus the term "three-ring circus" becoming an idiom for, "lots of noisy or confused activity". Meanwhile, the Ringling brothers dropped the three-ring concept, reverting to one ring and one storyline.

In life, of course, no-one can remove all the complexity or watch everything because there really is too much going on. Instead, you must choose - first, how you can shape what is happening (since it is altogether easier to follow action that you direct) - and second, what to focus on (in your life, organisation, or team) so that you understand the patterns that are there to be shaped.

Most of the world records for numbers of balls juggled are held by the almost supernaturally agile Anthony Gatto, who kept nine balls in the air for 250 catches in 2005. But if you just threw nine balls at him without warning, he would catch only a small proportion.

But it isn't superb reflexes that enable him to keep his balls in the air, or even moving his hands to wherever he happens to have thrown the balls. Rather, it is deliberate movements that send the balls to where he knows his hands will be.

Of course, it's tempting to throw the balls up as high and hard as you can and then enjoy the time you have before they fall to the ground pretending that they are going to land right back in your hands. But the illusion is dangerous - some people juggle with lives and knives not balls and beanbags.

Some people manage to throw and drop and throw and drop without adjusting their public statements about the nature of the balls, their patterns, or the laws that govern their motion. Others just move their hands very, very fast and hope that no-one notices that they have no balls at all.

Part of this is watching current activity (along with as much relevant knowledge about human nature as possible) to discern patterns that can be used to take actions now that will both shape future activity and help us prepare ourselves for that future activity.

That's why football managers sometimes drop key players from the first team, calculating that by the time that they really need them, the player will have worked harder, prepared better and be more motivated for the big game.

The thing with juggling is that it enables the juggler to keep more objects in the air than he has hands. This is the reverse of the 'monkey on the back', where you end up looking after too many of other people's monkeys (responsibilities) to the point that your reach exceeds your grasp.

However this only works if the juggler is able to keep emptying his or her hands so that they can catch a new ball which has been sent on a trajectory that will leave it near a hand for catching.

As long as each individual object ball is being held or is on its way to being caught the entire set of objects is suspended. This feat can be expanded by passing one or more balls to other jugglers according to your estimation of their skill and the value of the ball. And if you find the ball doesn't matter much, it doesn't matter who is trying to juggle it...

In a terrific article by B. John Sommers, a teacher and juggler, this whole process is compared to teaching, where "people learn to act in complex ways - and to develop a taste for complexity - through experience alone". What's more, he argues, teachers, are of most use when they are "directly influencing the attention of the student - not the behaviour (intention)."

To do this, he says, "the teacher must have the conviction that the student's behaviour is self-shaping, that it will evolve at its own rate and become its own interpretation". He describes this as the "cascade teaching method" - something which surely has application to the job of any manager in directly influencing the attention of team members rather than their intentions.

Strategic juggling requires an understanding of the forces, patterns, and people performing in all three circus rings. Watch and simplify so that the flows and connections slow down, allowing you to see the repetition within the complexity, allowing you to utilise space, objects, talents, and time to achieve your objectives.

Calm is not usually associated with jugglers or the circus, but a good ring master knows better. Don't let the clowns tell you any different ;)

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.