Convincing Management That Context Switching Is a Bad Idea

A few weeks ago, I republished an article originally published in Better Software: Convincing Management That Context Switching Is a Bad Idea on the AYE site. I'd received no feedback about the article when it was published, so I wanted to generate some discussion about my ideas.

I did generate a little discussion. Don Gray first said “Context switching is fun!“. Later on, he said the differences were:

  •  One switches between similar tasks, the other doesn't.
  • I'm not under deadline pressure. (Should anyone be?)
  • I get to choose when to switch contexts.

George Dinwiddie discusses the issues of flow in his Context Switching post and the consequences of being interrupted. Don Gray in Context Switching -Congruent Action discusses why managers feel it's ok to ask people to do multiple things.

I still think managers assign people to context switch for these reasons:

  • The manager can't decide what's most important.
  • The manager doesn't understand/remember that technical work is different from management work, and that the more things a technical person works on, the less that person will get done and the worse the work is.
  • The manager can't remember all the work required and doesn't realize he or she is asking one person to work on more than one thing.
  • The manager still believes that people who multi-task are more efficient or get more work done than people who don't.

Do you have better arguments than mine? What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Convincing Management That Context Switching Is a Bad Idea”

  1. Johanna,
    A Manager I had in a previous job always had me multitasking across multiple projects, even though I kept trying to resist it. Eventually, I just figured out that the reasons he did it were actually quite simple: 1- that way he didn’t *have* to set priorities, or rather, priorities to him were not a matter of do X before Y, but rather how much time to do dedicate to X and how much to Y. Silly if you ask me. 2- That way he really expected people to just work overtime, without actually paying for it (and it worked with most people… too bad for him I wasn’t one of those).

  2. I’ll weigh in on this issue. I’ve been railing against context-switching, or multi-tasking, in a project environment for years, both in speeches and print. I seem to strike a very sympathetic chord with practitioners and a deaf ear from managers.
    I agree with you and with Don Gray that managers seem to view project resources as fungible (the Mythical Man-Month). They also don’t appreciate the nature of project work. I once read that the average manager changes tasks at least once every five minutes, while the average developer needs blocks of time of from two to four hours to complete meaningful work.
    A couple of years ago, I worked in an organization that had to be the ultimate in context switching. All personnel worked on at least five and sometimes as many as ten projects simultaneously. Roles and responsibilities were defined very narrowly, and personnel spent little time on any one project. However, it was impossible to get people together for a team meeting or to address a specific issue.
    I think that everything you say about managers is true. I also think that managers don’t want to take responsibility, set priorities or make decisions. That’s not the way one gets to be a middle manager in a large organization after twenty years of loyal service. I also know from experience that allocating resources across competing projects to produce the best results is hard and time consuming work. Most managers wouldn’t know how to do this well, and have developed ways of operating so that they don’t have to address these issues.
    Most organizations don’t have a good idea of their capacity to perform project work. They always have way too many projects in the pipeline. Nobody wants to offend anyone else by putting their project on hold. The result is that everyone’s project is being worked on but no one’s project is being completed.
    On the subject of context switching in general, those who favor it are generally those who work pretty much in isolation rather than as members of teams. They are in a position to determine what they will on and when, and they are not continully being interrupted by people who need something from them on the project that they are not working on at the moment. I think this describes Don Gray’s “fun” case.

  3. Not defending the practice, but managers may think or say that the person has skills that no-one else available has (and that are essential for both projects).
    Another thing I’ve seen is interrupts – someone starts on a new project, but is dragged off to fix bugs/answer questions about an old project. In the meantime t hey’re still on the loop for the new project and possibly still have tasks to do …

  4. Learned a cliche in the military: “You manage things, and lead people.” A few years after retirement I think I’ve finally figured that out.
    To lead people, you must have a goal, a plan. You have to convince people that the plan is a good one, or at least one worth supporting at this time. You must also trust them not to steal or undercut the plan. Many upper level managers either don’t really have a plan, or they don’t trust co-workers with the plan. Mid-level managers learn this on their way up.
    To manage things, you don’t need a plan, a direction, trust or communication. You just dump it in the funnel. Doesn’t matter if the all funnels lead to the same bucket, doesn’t matter what the overall priority is. You just dump it in the funnel with the intstructions to “make it so.”
    Management is easy, leadership is hard.

  5. You probably already read Tony Rizzo’s series of posts on the topic of multitasking e.g. Multitasking is Costing Billions.
    But I’m not sure I understand your problem. Because context switching doesn’t contribute to any result it is a type of transaction cost. Hence it’s the manager who uses it who has to justify it. As a thought experiment assume you have seven projects on the seven hills of Rome. Each context switch involves a person climbing down one hill and up another. Every sensible management strategy would try to minimize context switching to those few cases which could be persuasively justified. Just because the manager cannot see the employee climbing down one mental hill and up another, it does not happen. The cost of a context switch is not dependent on the cost the manager “believes” it has. It’s his obligation to find out as I’ve tried to explain in “Only Opportunities Vanish If Ignored”. Thus a manager who uses context switching by default is almost certainly wasting resources on transcation cost. If the manager is really as incapable as some other respondents suggested, then you cannot convince him – but maybe his superior.

  6. I have been on both sides of this interaction. As an employee, I have found that giving managers facts, not hand-wringing, can reduce context switch requests and other negative managerial behavior. As a manager, I have forgotten previous requests and had employees further the error simply because they refuse to mention the conflict. The explanation? “It’s not my job to remind you what you told me.” I disagree.
    I have heard “we get the government we deserve”. To be sure, there are idiots out there. Lately I have been thinking we may get the managerial behavior we deserve when we don’t take appropriate responsibility for a two-way relationship in these days of flattened hierarchy.

  7. Hi Johanna,
    I believe it’s about the need to manage risk. Picture a scenario that looks like this. The product release cycle is 6 months and consists of two high-value/high-risk projects – each if done on it’s own would have 2 months of tasks/deliverables and a 1 month project buffer. The manager ha a gut feel that both projects will fit just fine into the release, but because of the risk associated with the two projects, he needs to determine if they are even feasible. So, the manager decides to spend the first two weeks having the team spend 50% on each project and let them context-switch as they see fit.
    This obviously breaks down because if he had the whole team focus on the 1st project with 100% of the effort, the manager could have determined the feasibility in the first week rather than at the end of week two (assuming perfect context switching). This is hard to explain to the old-school of high-tech managers that are on the go-go-go.

  8. Hello Johanna,
    in general with projects in the industry, there is a context switch between the “line work” and the “project work”, which is just extended in case of “multi project work”. I agree with the other comments, that the priority of work is a problem: If you have a burden of work, and then “just” a timegap of a few hours to accomplish the next step in a project, there is not enough calmness to be successful. At the end, there is much STRESS for the multi-project worker, as ANYBODY expects that “his” activities or tasks are finished in time by the worker, which is impossible in many cases.
    I was told that its easier for girls to handle concurrent activities than boys :-).

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