A 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!