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The Ping Pong Ball Test

December 4, 2017


In Roy H Williams “Wizard of Ads” he asks readers to picture themselves in front of a co-worker who has a half a dozen ping-pong balls. All the sudden, the co-worker tosses those balls at you at once. You fling out, trying to catch them at the same time and in the chaos…you catch none of them.


This visual is a great representation of our lives in the IT department. The reason you’re feeling tired, beat up, and spinning out of control isn’t because of all the things you must do in each day; it’s not the number of balls! Williams suggests that the reason you’re worn down is because of the burden of all the things you can’t get done. Let’s say you catch one of the six balls, your first thought isn’t going to be “great, I caught one,” it’s going to be “I let five of the six drop!”


Much like the ping-pong ball example above, it’s not possible to do everything your company needs you to do, at the same time. You understand that prioritization is necessary, but where we fail is in what tasks gets prioritized.


Overchoice Is The Problem


One of the biggest challenges we face in technology today is overchoice. There are too many options. We struggle to prioritize because we have an innate need to explore all those choices before making decisions. We feel the need to create rank-stack spreadsheets with pivot tables, debate each technical feature. It’s a nearly impossible task. There are too many options for each project you choose to pursue.


This often leads us to prioritizing tasks that are easier to complete. Not because those activities are more strategic, but based on the very fact that we can finish something!


Increase Your Success


Let’s go back to the ping-pong ball example. Let’s say you grab five other people from your department and have the balls thrown in the air. What is going to be your success rate? Likely higher than going it alone!


To have success you must reduce the number of tasks that you focus on. You need to look at your operations and figure out what can be done by others that will reduce the number of ping-pong balls coming your way. It’s not that those balls drop or disappear, it’s that someone else is now responsible for catching the other balls.


Strategy vs Tactics


Increasing your success just sounds like opening another Pandora’s Box of choice. What projects and tasks do you offload? How do you make that decision? Group your tasks and projects as either “strategic” or “operations.” You want to own and control anything strategic. The tactical execution of your operations is an easy task to outsource while the strategic requires your intimate knowledge of the organization and its’ goals.


To improve not only our own personal situation in the workplace but also that of our entire company, we should reduce the number of balls in the air or have someone help us flag them down. Otherwise, you’re going to continue to drop a lot of balls.

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