Effective IT Service ManagementLean Project Management

Multi-Tasking: Good Strategy or Necessary Evil

Juggling multiple activities or assignments…we all do it.  Is multi-tasking a good strategy or a necessary evil that we are forced to adopt?

I multi-task.  I am constantly squeezing new requests into a crowded schedule and most of the time I do this willingly.  Working on the same assignment day-in and day-out can be tedious.  Sometimes multi-tasking is necessary because one assignment is waiting on information or a predecessor activity so working on another assignment is an efficient use of time.  This isn’t really multi-tasking when one activity cannot be worked on because of issues.

Let me move the discussion out of IT for a moment.  I grew up in a restaurant where multi-tasking was a mandatory skill.  We did not have the luxury of taking an order and waiting for it to be cooked so we could serve the table.  Servers were assigned multiple tables.  Cooks also had to balance the preparation of food for multiple tables and adjust to the different cooking times.  In this world, multi-tasking is a critical success factor.

What does this example have to do with IT?  We don’t actually multi-task in IT.  While it is possible to work on multiple physical tasks at the same time we cannot design two systems at one time or resolve two problems at one time.  What we call multi-tasking in IT really means we are stopping one task prior to completion and starting another task.  Stopping and re-starting an activity can significantly increase the total time required to complete that activity as compared to working on it without interruption.  In other words, this practice is quite wasteful.

I know what you are thinking.  This guy lives in a dream world.  Interruptions are a necessary part of the job and this discussion is not relevant.  Well, you are correct.  Interruptions are unavoidable but here is the secret…they can be managed.  Here are some tips for managing interruptions and reducing the resulting waste:

  1. Recognize that interruptions in your organization or team will occur.  Determine the most common sources of the interruptions and manage them.  Are you the primary cause?  Is it necessary to drop current assignments or is it more efficient to log and schedule the request to avoid the disruption to current assignments?
  2. If interruptions cannot be logged and deferred, assign designated individuals to handle the interruptions for the week to allow the rest of the staff to work on their scheduled assignments without interruption.  They can perform the initial triage and either handle the request or log it so it can be scheduled.  This is the role of most help desks but we all know that many people bypass the help desk and we encourage this practice by responding to direct calls.
  3. Assign staff completion dates and service level goals and recognize and reward people who meet their dates and goals.  This will minimize the temptation to sacrifice completion of current assignments to handle an interruption.  It will also encourage staff to obtain a clarification on priority conflicts.
  4. Avoid scheduling a person to work on multiple tasks at the same time.  People have a natural tendency to “time slice”.  They try to work on the multiple tasks at the same time which disrupts the completion of each tasks.  This cannot always be avoided but it should not be routine.

These techniques will result in a more efficient team, reduce waste, encourage knowledge sharing, improve performance on scheduled tasks, and minimize cost over-runs.

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