The Tennis Ball of Time

In general, having authority doesn’t mean that you can make people do what you want; it just means that they’re more likely to listen when you ask. Ask any manager about this one, and you’ll get a laugh, a resigned sigh, or both. Here’s an illustrative example:

Imagine a tennis ball; this represents your time at work. As an individual contributor, all you’re responsible for is this ball. You can throw it, roll it, bounce it, and generally get it to go in the direction you want it to without help from anyone else. That is to say, you have sole and direct control over the ball. If you’re asked to roll the ball somewhere, you put it on the ground and roll it there. So far, so good.

Now, take 10 tennis balls, and put them in a mesh bag. This represents a first-level manager’s time at work. As a manager, they’re responsible for (say) 10 people’s time, and what they do with it. You can still hold the bag in your hands, and generally throw the bag in the direction you want, but it’s harder to directly control. It’s not going to go very far if you throw it, and it’s going to be all wibbly-wobbly if you try to roll it. If you use all your strength, you might be able to make it go generally in the direction you want, but you’re going to get tired eventually. You can also take a ball out of the bag and throw it directly where you want it, but that takes time away from dealing with all the other balls. You can try using rubber bands around them to get more group cohesion, but that only gets you so far because tennis balls are spherical and this bag you have is most certainly not.

Now, take 7 of those mesh bags, and put them in a larger mesh bag. This represents a second-level manager’s time at work. They’re responsible for the work of their managers, and indirectly, the time of the 70 people below those managers. You’re now getting to the point where you’re not actually holding the bag as much as hefting it and trying not to drop it. In fact, it takes all of your concentration to put it down on the ground and use both hands to keep it rolling in a single direction. Even at this level, you can see that getting control of any one ball is close to impossible. The best you can really do is try to pack the individual bags of tennis balls in such a way that you minimize them rolling. If you pack the bag too tight, you won’t be able to fit more balls in if you have to, and the more likely it will break over time.

Keep going out from there. There’s now a person faced with a mesh bag filled with bags upon bags upon bags, filled with tens of thousands of tennis balls, in a spheroid edifice several stories tall. This person has supreme authority, but they have no direct control. They have to trust that all the bags inside their bag have been fashioned correctly, are of the correct size, have their respective bags bound together correctly, and so on. They can control the big picture, and over time move the bag (of bags(of bags(of bags))) in a new direction, but nothing happens overnight. In the end, they’re responsible for all of the tennis balls and all of the bags. Depending on how big the structure is, the primary goal could just be to make sure it doesn’t break.

So, the next time you hear someone say “I want to be a manager because then I can finally get people to get things done around here.”, ask them how far they can throw a bag of tennis balls.

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