Wednesday, 13 February 2013 07:45

Avoid Unskillful Multitasking to Estimate and Perform Optimally

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Pitagorsky FeatureArticle Feb13It seems that there is a never ending flow of work and that new work is almost always higher priority than old work. This leads to multitasking and "thrashing".

Thrashing is the constant shifting from one task or project to another as priorities change. In the extreme, it gets so bad that nothing ever gets finished. More often, everything takes longer to accomplish and with more effort.

Portfolio management and the management of ad hoc work, when done well, will resolve the problem by moderating the flow of work to permit efficient and effective performance.

Unfortunately these management activities are often not done so well, if at all. That is because those with the power to change the system do not understand that a "pull" based approach is far more effective than the typical “push’ approach. In a pull approach work is pulled from a queue by performers when they are ready to take it on as opposed to one that pushes work to performers as it is identified.

Eliyahu Goldratt addressed this issue in his work on Theory of Constraints and Critical Chain. The gist of the Theory of Constraints is that in any situation in which resources are a constraint for getting work accomplished it is better to moderate the flow of work so that the resources are not overloaded and forced to multitask. This is so because multitasking leads to inefficiencies. The inefficiencies are caused by stopping and starting tasks rather than completing them before moving on to the next task and/or by overtaxing the resources and forcing them to perform poorly.

Working too Fast

There is a famous comedy bit from the I Love Lucy Show in which Lucy, working on an assembly line that keeps increasing its speed, is overwhelmed with chocolates to package and much of the product ends up on the floor or in her mouth instead of the box.

Her panicked attempt at keeping up with the pace set by the conveyor belt is not unlike the attempt by software developers and other project performers to keep up with an unmediated flow of work that exceeds their capacity.

Given more work than they can handle, performers increase their speed. Working too fast is a primary cause of poor product quality. Performers cut corners, eliminate quality assurance and control steps, and make more mistakes than they would if they were working at a more reasonable pace. Note that this does not imply that performers should work slowly. There is an optimal pace that is neither too slow nor too fast and that is sustainable. Find that pace and keep to it. If there are emergency situations that call for high speed and they occur infrequently, that’s ok. If they occur chronically then the pace will not be sustainable and there will be failure and/or burnout.


In addition to working too fast, performers multitask to manage an unmediated flow of work. Unskillful multitasking is inefficient. Starting and stopping a task in the middle and then coming back to it requires ramp up and ramp down. Ramp up is the process of reaching the optimal pace for the work. Ramp down is the process of documenting, filing and otherwise putting down the work being done so that when you return to it your ramp up time is relatively short. If you don’t spend time ramping down, ramping up is far more effortful.

Efficient work scheduling calls for performing tasks to logical completion points before putting one down to pick up another. When a task is completed and its deliverable is turned over to someone else for testing or editing, or when a point is reached where there is a wait for a dependency, then it is time to pick up another task.

With projects, it has been shown that rather than starting multiple projects so that they are worked on in parallel, it is more effective to finish one before picking up another. When projects are performed in parallel all might finish at the same time. When the start times are phased properly, in keeping with the capacity of the resources, the projects that were started earlier will finish far earlier than they would if they were done in parallel. The projects started later will most likely finish before the time they would have finished if they were worked in parallel with the others. Why? Because the overhead of ramping up and ramping down is avoided.

Portfolio and Resource Management

How best to manage the work flow to maximize productivity and deliver quality outcomes in a timely manner? The answer is portfolio and resource management.

Note that portfolio management, in this article, is given a broad definition. It refers to the process of deciding which projects or tasks to perform and in what sequence. It prioritizes the work based on a variety of criteria. Often we think of portfolio management as something done by senior managers at a high level to initiate projects. But every project manager and performer has a portfolio of projects and/or tasks. While they often do not have a choice as to which ones they will perform, they should have the choice of when to start and stop their projects.

The list of work to be done plus the work in progress is the portfolio.

Portfolio management and resource management go together. Managing a portfolio of work without managing the human and material resources is not enough.

On the individual or small group level, performers assess the list of work to be done and their availability. They decide, based on established priorities and constraints, which projects or tasks are to be picked up next. It is their responsibility to fight the impulse to start everything as soon as it is identified. They work on one thing at a time and take it to completion or to a logical break point. Then they pick up the next piece.

On the higher levels, the executives and managers who make the decisions about which projects will be done and what their priorities are must understand the nature of resource constraints and promote best practices on the performance level. They must give project managers, team leaders and performers the authority to manage their work. They must promote a pull based approach that will optimize performance. They must remember that it is not when tasks begin that matters, it is when they end and the quality of their outcomes.

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George Pitagorsky

PMTopContributorGeorge Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management and PM BasicsTM. He teaches meditation and is on the Board of Directors of the NY Insight Meditation Center.


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