By Sanjeev Gupta
Stroll through a typical American workplace and you’ll likely see a lot of very busy people. Listen to their conversations and they’ll tell you how busy they are. In fact, most of them say they’re so busy they can barely keep up with their work. Unfortunately for American business, even though most employees are working hard, much of their work is wasted. The cause? Multitasking.
More than three decades of academic research has established the negative impact that multitasking has on individual productivity. Research shows consistently that concentrating on a single task at a time produces the maximum efficiency and that people who multitask suffer a wide array of negative effects, from an average reduction in output of 25% to a heightened susceptibility to distraction.
A University of Utah study found that 98% of us simply cannot multitask. We perform none of the tasks well when we attempt it. Another study at Stanford University found that people who exposed themselves to a number of information or media inputs at the same time failed at “every cognitive control task necessary for multitasking.”
Unfortunately, nearly all of the research on multitasking is focused on individuals, and researchers have paid little attention to the effects of multitasking on organizations. Experience shows that since most work in an organization is the result of collective rather than individual efforts, the losses caused by multitasking multiply and spread. The net loss in organizational productivity can be as high as 50% to 75%.
The Effects of Organizational Multitasking
Organizational multitasking hurts productivity in several ways:
Multitasking workers keep others waiting for their output. Moreover, when people don’t have everything they need to complete a task, they either begin work with the incomplete inputs—only to be interrupted later—or they start new tasks, spreading their focus and reducing the quality of their work.
When managers multitask, even small decisions can take days. Instead of spending a quality 15 minutes with people, they can afford only a rushed and ineffective two to three minutes.
Every task seems equally urgent. When everything is urgent, it becomes difficult to identify the truly critical issues and genuine bottlenecks. The organization wastes its resources solving the wrong problems.
The good news is that it’s far easier to stop organizational multitasking than to change individual habits. Organizations can do more work faster (and better) if they follow these three simple steps:
Reduce the number of open workstreams by 50%. A workstream is a series of activities that results in a measurable output. When the number of workstreams is reduced, the number of tasks decreases as well, which reduces confusion about task-level priorities. As a result of reduced work in progress, your constrained resources such as managers and experts can be more responsive, because they have fewer issues and questions to deal with at any one time. Simply reducing the number of open workstreams by 50% can double-task completion rates.
Don’t begin work without adequate preparation. Follow the adage that “well begun is half done.” If people have everything they need to complete a workstream before starting it (e.g., accurate and final specifications, clear goals, and necessary inputs), they will encounter fewer obstacles during execution. As a result, the dependence on managers and experts will be reduced, and work will be completed faster.
Establish a clear rule for task-level priorities. For simple workstreams, use this rule: workstream priority equals task priority. In this scenario, priorities are clearly communicated to everyone in the organization. When priority conflicts arise, people know to work on the highest-priority project first. For more complex workstreams (or projects), the critical path of the project must also be considered. For maximum efficiency, prioritize tasks based on project priority as well as whether or not those tasks are on the project’s critical path.
Organizational multitasking is a hidden problem in most organizations. Everyone appears to be working hard, so it’s assumed that little can be done to improve efficiency. The above steps can help organizations reduce multitasking and reclaim lost productivity. As a result, they will find that they not only finish projects on time but even ahead of schedule. More important, people are happier because they feel a sense of accomplishment every day. And that is a real competitive advantage in knowledge-based organizations.
About the Author(s)
Sanjeev Gupta is the CEO of Realization, a Silicon Valley firm that helps organizations reduce multitasking in engineering and projects. It has helped more than 250 companies produce a total of $4 billion in additional cash and profits by finishing projects 20% to 50% faster.