You see your manager bounding down the hall towards your office. You know what’s going to happen before he gets there–he's going to ask you to take on yet another project in addition to the three you’re trying to juggle now. You want to run and hide. But you know that hiding just postpones the inevitable. He will find some way to make sure you have too much work on too many projects. You’re stuck in the Split Focus schedule game.
Split Focus, the multiproject multitasking game, is when you’re supposed to “focus” on several projects at one time. Many of us react to the request to work on more projects by trying to multitask on several projects at once.
But multitasking doesn’t actually work. Some rare people can work on more than one task at the same time. But the rest of us mere mortals can only switch from task to task, incurring a time cost every time we switch. Some task switches are quite fast, and don’t have much cost associated with them. But as knowledge workers, we tend to incur several costs every time we attempt to multitask:
* Stopping your current work
* Swapping out the current work
* Swapping in the new work
…and sometime later, swapping the original work back in.
You can see, the more unrelated tasks you try to do, the less progress you make on any one task. So the more projects you have, the fewer projects you finish. That not-finishing problem frustrates you and your manager. Both of you want to see the work finish!
Here are some actions you can take to make progress on your work, so you can stop trying to multitask:
1. Try short timeboxes with the entire project team. If Split Focus is a way of life at your organization, move to one-week iterations for each project making sure everyone you need for that project is available the same week. It’s best if you work in an incremental way, so that you have releasable product at the end of an iteration. A one-week iteration helps people stay focused on just this one project for that week, because they know they can move to another project after this week is done.
2. Try working incrementally. If you can't manage a short timebox, implement by feature, and stage the release of the product as you complete each feature. Make sure you have release criteria for each project so you can finish the minimum work on each project.
3. Rank the requirements for the project, and complete a high-ranking requirement. Sometimes Split Focus occurs because some of your stakeholders can't believe you'll finish anything quickly enough for them. They think hedging their bets by having you work on several things will help them get something faster. They're wrong, but they don't realize that.
Multitasking is a way to guarantee everyone completes less and less work in the same time period. Finishing something, making sure you’re working on the highest value work, and providing your management product they can see often helps you move out of Split Focus.
Public Project Management Workshop
Want to learn more approaches to avoid and solve Split Focus and other schedule games? I'm offering a public project management workshop Sept. 22-24, 2008 in Waltham, MA. If you'd like to learn ways to start a project, steer it to success, and complete it successfully, consider participating in the workshop. See the Manage It! Pragmatic Project Management Workshop description to see what experiential project management training looks like and for the registration page. Expect to work hard and have fun! Please do contact me if you have questions.
How Well Are Things Working For You?
f you're not sure how well your projects are proceeding, or if you’re stumped by your attempted transition to Agile, or if you think a project or group is stuck, consider an assessment. I timebox my assessments, so you receive the value of an in-depth investigation without having to wait months for the answers. You'll receive an action-based report and I'll facilitate your action planning. Call me if you're wondering about what an assessment can do for you.