I’ve written a few articles about the issues with too much multitasking, but one I had not covered to date was the impact it can have on transformational projects.
On tactical project that are aimed at refining an existing set of processes, excessive multitasking will usually only cause schedule delays or cost overruns. While not an ideal outcome, for internal projects, this might be considered an acceptable compromise so long as scope and quality are spared. The argument that could be made is whether the greater availability resulting from better focus on a smaller number of such projects would translate into productivity increases or would it be just be spent on Net surfing or water-cooler chit-chat.
However, on a change initiative that will result in fundamental transformation of the roles of staff or their daily practices, having the core team that is designing the new processes multitask at high levels will impact the quality of the new processes themselves. The reason I say this is that such work requires a reasonable amount of “navel gazing” and focused analysis – neither of these are immune to the impacts of constant interruption or context switching that accompanies excessive multitasking.
Two analogies I would use are the well known (though likely apocryphal) tales of Archimedes and Newton. Their breakthroughs occurred not when they were toiling in a lab or surrounded by others, but rather when they had the time for quiet introspection – Archimedes in his tub, and Newton under the apple tree. With process design, a team has to be able to take the time to envision a future state and think through its full ramifications. Such creativity can’t be forced, and requires significant base knowledge (e.g. existing processes, organization culture & constraints, system capabilities).
Under negative multitasking situations, you are more likely to get incremental tweaks to existing processes instead of the transformation that was desired. On the other hand, if the design team insists on a high quality standard, project timelines and cost constraints are likely to be significantly violated and sufficient pressure will be brought to bear on them to compromise their ideals.
So are there methods that will not impact quality while acknowledging the reality of multitasking in today’s business environment?
One approach could be to time-box the creative component of process design, and ensure the core team that is involved in this activity is not excessively multitasking. By doing this, it will create a sense of urgency that can help break through analysis-paralysis situations, but will also ensure the team is able to focus and will avoid the wastage of context switching. If budgets allow, the team should work off-site to avoid the double whammy of undesired interruptions (“out of sight, out of mind”) and the potential for letting visibility of current practices cloud the definition of the desired future state. This same approach might be applied for any other activities that require similar focus and could be a “sell-able” compromise to senior management.
While multitasking provides the illusion of optimal resource utilization, on transformational projects it can result in “Plus ça change plus ça reste la même chose“!
Postscript: two days after publishing this, Scott Adams showed that he is also not a fan of multitasking with the following Dilbert: