Agile Update: Rethinking Multi-Tasking

Agile Update: Rethinking Multi-Tasking

Insights | 13 December 2016

Is multi-tasking genuinely productive? We all seem to be busy juggling priorities and competing demands, whether in projects or in business as usual. Ask any seasoned project manager how many concurrent projects they are leading and the answer is often anywhere between three and ten.

So, is multi-tasking good or bad in a project environment? Should we as project managers be expected to juggle multiple projects at once? Should we expect team members to be actively involved in multiple activities as well as BAU tasks? Many of us are used to working in a matrix environment with SMEs working as an expert on multiple projects simultaneously, but is there a tipping point?

Good At Multi-tasking Or Not?

We are (or like to think we are) good at multi-tasking. Or are we? You only need to walk down the street or look around you on public transport to witness people using technology, often simultaneously. In an office environment, you’re likely to be on the phone at any given moment whilst busily typing your latest status report. So, do we really multi-task or is it more counter-intuitive? Ever felt like you have multiple tasks on the go, all sitting at 80% but with very few actually getting finalised? Ever felt like it would be a relief if you could just concentrate on one item and get it happening?

Ask the experts – we don’t really multi-task, but rather, we task-switch. Going back and forth between different activities is often not the best use of time. Have you ever thought, “What was I doing? Where was I up to?” That’s because, to re-engage it takes time and effort – different activities often require a different mindset.

Focus, Finish, Then Move On

So what is the alternative? Consider the wisdom of the mantra ‘focus, finish, then move on’.

Learn From Lean and Agile Practices

To improve productivity, many lean and agile practices move away from conventional ‘multi-tasking’, encompassing the following examples:

  1. Priortise. What is important? What is required today? What should be we be focussing on? Ensure that you agree on what truly is important (mandatory or the ‘musts’) versus the nice-to-haves (‘shoulds’). Take the time to have the conversation so that everyone understands what the priority really is, then focus on achieving just that.
  2. The Pomodoro Technique. This technique basically breaks work down into short timed intervals spaced out by short breaks. Sound familiar? Try working in short sprints focusing on a certain goal but with regular breaks to maintain motivation and keep you creative. For example, in a Scrum team each team member focuses on working on one user story.
  3. Limit Work in Progress. This is a fundamental Kanban concept – if a team or person is working on several items at once, productive time is wasted switching between them. Try writing a document and answering numerous emails or phone calls whilst writing, you’re like to feel like you are re-starting after each interruption. Limiting work in progress also reduces pressure. If you aren’t convinced, consider traffic control: reduced speed limits on highways actually speed up the flow of traffic during hectic times.

“…Limiting WIP reduces the impact of task-switching and multi-tasking.”


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