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.