Rework and reversed decisions are bonus rewards of excessive multitasking

poor-decisionsA quick search for the word multitasking on this blog will illustrate how little respect I have for this corrosive work allocation practice.  In past articles I have reviewed the well-known concerns with excessive multitasking including the costs of context switching and resulting impacts to project schedules.  However, in organizations where even senior workers are juggling multiple work-in-progress tasks, a more lethal outcome of this disease is its impacts on quality designs and decisions.

Multitasking is a Theory X practice which gained popularity through successes experienced with manual labour intensive activities as only a fraction of a person’s cognitive capacity needed to be focused on completing the task in hand.  However, in the case of activities which require the significant analysis of information or ideas, a knowledge worker who is burdened by a myriad of other concurrent distractions (including e-mail, smartphones & Twitter!) will find that it takes much longer to complete such mentally challenging work.

Without deadlines for completing such tasks, it might still be possible to do a good job, but one is rarely granted that luxury.  Faced with a planned end date that was likely not defined considering lower productivity resulting from multitasking, even the sharpest worker is likely to produce lower quality deliverables or decisions.

A project manager can develop a project schedule which accounts for reduced productivity by reducing the committed allocation percentages for team members by some constant factor.  But in the case of quality issues with key deliverables or decisions, the impacts have a compounding factor.  For example, poor quality requirements documentation has a cascading effect on design, development and test tasks, and these activities are also being performed by hyper-juggling knowledge workers, it is next to impossible to predict schedule, cost or quality outcomes.  Similarly, the impact of having to alter a decision increases exponentially the longer it takes for stakeholders to recognize that the wrong decision was made.

Assess the outputs from your best staff across multiple projects – if you notice that highly skilled team members are frequently reworking deliverables or that their decisions are getting reversed, your organization may be suffering from an epidemic of excessive multitasking.

While it is rarely feasible to entirely wipe out unproductive multitasking, at a minimum, strive to reduce multitasking levels for team members who are working on the most critical deliverables or decisions.  If not, the bitter taste of poor quality will linger long after the sweetness of perceived productivity gains is forgotten!

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Rework and reversed decisions are bonus rewards of excessive multitasking

  1. Steve DeLorey

    You have brought up a point that has concerned me for several years. Thanks for pointing out the cascading effect. I hadn’t considered the problem in that light. Given the increasing pervasiveness of multitasking in our society, is it possible to reduce it for a select few team members?


  2. kbondale

    Hi Steve –

    Thanks for the kind feedback! I think bringing multitasking down for a few is at best a compromise, but one that can be “sold” by showing evidence of not doing this on past projects.

    Part of it is to make the individuals aware that they are not as good at multitasking as they think – once that awareness is there, they should lobby alongside the project managers for greater focus.



  3. Vaughan Merlyn

    Right on, Kiron! Excessive multi-tasking is a scourge that is doing real harm! (I know of what I speak – I’ve been guilty and paid the price!)

    I see the results in unintelligible emails, shoddy work, lack of thought. I get bumped into in the street by people with their heads down while they text and surf. I see many near road accidents while people do the same while driving cars. People talk about “the attention economy.” What we are seeing is an “inattention economy” and it sucks!


  4. kbondale

    Thanks for the comments, Vaughan! While it might be acceptable for some project team members to produce lower quality deliverables, when those are key deliverables or decisions, the ante is raised.



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