Stanford researches announced a surprising finding last week — multitaskers are actually not good at multitasking. They constructed an experiment to identify why some people appear to be better at multitasking than others — what was their edge. Instead, the research findings indicate that those who did not multitask are better at accomplishing tasks. The research was focused on individuals dealing with multiple streams of electronic information — media multitaskers. It sounds very much like the modern knowledge worker. We are bombarded with electronic information in the form of e-mail messages, instant messaging, websites, knowledge management systems, discussion forums, etc. Worse, some of these interrupt our work to tell us that new information is available.
What does this have to do with leading sustainable innovation and product creation? Many organizations suffer from trying to do too much at one time. While most organizations operate with scarce resources, far too many spread those valuable resources over an unrealistic number of projects. This leads to massively slipped schedules, high turnover, low morale, and many lost opportunities.
If you want to assess how efficiently your organization is using precious resources, determine the average number of projects each person is contributing to. When it comes to working on projects, both the PDMA and PMI professional organizations ask this question on their certification tests. The optimum number is two projects per person (obviously varies by role, but a good benchmark). This allows an employee to work on one project if the other project becomes slow but does not causing them to excessively multitask. In contrast, I have worked with organizations that typically have people spread across four or more projects — projects that were developing new software systems or upgrading existing ones. It hurts my brain to even think about that — no one is that good at multitasking and the Stanford research findings indicate our performance actually lowers when we try.