Defeating the multitasking monster

From the Easy in theory, difficult in practice Blog
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My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Defeating the multitasking monster


Categories: Agile, Project Management


Multiple research studies have shown the negative impacts of multitasking.

Whether it is the waste generated by context switching, the elevated stress levels for staff or the increased cost of poor quality, few people would assert that it is a good practice for knowledge-based work. Front line workers might argue that their managers think that multitasking works, but I have yet to meet a management team who believe in the practice since most of their members will also suffer from its negative outcomes.

Lots has been written about the benefits of reducing multitasking, but this is not a straightforward feat for most organizations. The Lernaean Hydra (as opposed to the Marvel universe's evil organization) could be used as a metaphor for this unhealthy practice. Deal with one contributing factor and others will take its place.

Here just a few of the forces encouraging multitasking and some suggestions on how to slice and cauterize each one:

  • Using batch-based, push-oriented delivery approaches. When there is finite scope, batched work prevents team members from being kept busy throughout the delivery lifecycle. To avoid idle time, managers are required to assign additional project or operational work. Shifting to a flow-based, pull-oriented delivery approach can increase the likelihood of the full team being busy.
  • A limited capacity of high demand skills. When only a few team members within a delivery organization possess a set of technical or business competencies which are in high demand, managers feel obliged to spread them as thin as possible to help projects or products get some support. There might be insufficient funding to hire more staff with these skills, but a long term solution is to leverage techniques such as non-solo work to build bench strength.
  • Use of inappropriate metrics. Maximizing utilization is easy to do. Set up a time tracking system and track actuals against high targets. Performance incentives (and disincentives) will be based on the level of individual and team utilization. Unfortunately, maximizing utilization is not the same as maximizing the value delivered. Henrik Kniberg does a great job of illustrating this fallacy in this YouTube video. Moving to value-focused metrics should help shift team members and their managers away from just keeping busy.
  • Weak portfolio management. The essence of strategy is saying "No" to the urgent to ensure that the important can be delivered efficiently. Governance committees can start to use criteria such as the cost of delay to determine which investments really must start now and which can be safely postponed.

Similar to battling the Hydra, these ideas need to be considered from a holistic perspective to avoid sub-optimizing the whole.

Reducing multitasking might seem like an impossible feat, but leadership teams should draw inspiration from Heracles.

Posted on: May 19, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Kiron, I like that post! I am trying to convince people that there is no such thing as multitasking all the time. Great idea with the holistic approach. I only disagree with you when it comes to comics - I am more the DC-guy :)

I am reminded of an employee who wanted a raise because of the overtime he put in. I explained that raises are meant to reward performance, not effort.

Thanks Kiron,

I agree with your last point. From my experience, the ability to be able to effectively prioritise projects within portfolios and to say 'no' are paramount, otherwise, the downstream problems simply magnify. Unfortunately, politics too frequently disrupt this process.

Kiron, It is really great post and I agree with you that leadership teams need to understand this and bring effectiveness and maximization in terms of value delivered rather than maximizing utilisation. They should focus on enhancing the capability of the teams to address upcoming challenges and risks.

Interesting and Useful Post to understand the impact of Multitasking. Thanks for sharing it.

Agree Kiron, still a long way to defeat the monster, at personal level - habits die hard, we will still continue to multitask......

A few years ago I made the realization. Better to focus and close one item at a time, then have 5 items open and be frazzled. Using a time method of focus can also help - like Pomodoro. I enjoy the work of Henrik. Thanks for sharing this video.

Thanks Stéphane - the law of unintended consequences always emerges with vanity metrics.

Thanks Mark - it's hard to achieve BHAGs when we are constantly dealing with urgent, but low-value work.

Thanks Andrew - an organization's journey of a thousand miles begins with a personal first step...

Thanks Shadav & Ganesh!

Hi Kiron, a very good read with pointers on coping with multitasking. Thank you for sharing.

Thank you Kiron and I also agree with the basis of the article. Multitasking can produce low grade work and I have personally seen it lower morale among a valuable workforce. I would just like to add very important point to this article from my experiences. As you pointed out not having enough experienced staff to cover the amount of work can lead to this issue however, I believe that it is most prominent in under-experienced staff trying to "make a name" or "show the world their efforts" which can benefit an organization in the short term but have an overall shallow outcome in the long term.
Leadership has stopped looking at quality work for some reason. Performance is measured by quantity these days (unfortunately). Checking boxes that work is complete has become a normal part of the process. And as most project managers know this causes rework, poor quality in final products, unnecessary time extensions and again low morale. I suggest one way to improve is to start evaluating on quality again - not just of final products but through an entire process. At least that would be a start.
I heard a great chef say one time, he was successful because his staff knew the principles of his kitchen. "People don't do what you expect, people do what you inspect." This is achievable if people understand from the beginning that quality is important.

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