Home > Articles > Software Development & Management > Agile

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

Put People on One Project

Individuals assigned to work on multiple projects inevitably get less done. Multitasking—attempting to work on two projects or two things at once—is one of the biggest drains on project team performance. Yet it has unfortunately become one of the busy manager's most frequently used tools. The reason for this, I believe, is that multitasking creates the illusion of progress and gives the manager the feeling that a problem has been solved. Really, though, in many cases the problem has been made worse.

Consider the case of Jon, a director of database engineering who managed a staff of database administrators (DBAs) who were woefully outnumbered by the programmers, testers, and other types of developers in his company. Jon was faced with allocating himself and his staff of five across more projects than they could handle. His solution was to create a spreadsheet like the one shown in Figure 10.5. Jon's spreadsheet allowed him to allocate DBAs across the various projects, which he did down to the 5% level. Five percent of an 8-hour day is 24 minutes. Through this spreadsheet Jon was telling Bill he could spend 24 minutes each on the Napa and PMT projects, Ahmed could spend the same on PMT and Spinwheel, and so on.

Figure 10.5

Figure 10.5 A portion of Jon's project staffing spreadsheet.

Did Jon really think that Bill would stop working on the Napa project after 24 minutes each day? Of course not. But he probably did think that Bill had enough control over his schedule that he could be close to 24 x 5 = 120 minutes in a week. What Jon was really doing in this situation was taking a problem (the correct allocation of resources) that he couldn't solve and pushing it down to the members of his team. What Jon should have done instead was push this problem up to his own manager.

Pushing problems toward the team is often a wonderful strategy. In fact, delegating problems to the team is at the heart of Scrum. However, when a problem is pushed toward the team, the team needs to be given the authority to solve the problem. In the case of Jon and his DBAs, it was obvious that one solution to consider was doing fewer concurrent projects. Without being empowered to enact that solution, they were put into an impossible-to-solve situation.

And they didn't solve it any better than Jon did. They invoked the age-old policy of "work on the project of whoever is screaming the loudest."

Time on Task Decreases with Too Many Tasks

Kim Clark and Steven Wheelwright studied the impact of multitasking on productivity. Their findings, shown in Figure 10.6, indicate that the total amount of time on task goes up when a person has two tasks to work on. After that, however, Clark and Wheelwright found that time on task decreased. In fact, with three tasks the amount of time on task decreased so much it was less than when an individual had only one task to work on (1992, 242).

Figure 10.6

Figure 10.6 The amount of time spent on value-adding tasks decreases with three or more concurrent tasks.

If you have only one task to work on it is almost a certainty that you will occasionally be unable to work on that task. You will become blocked by waiting for someone to return a phone call, answer an e-mail, approve the design, or so on. And so it makes sense that the Clark and Wheelwright study shows that a person with two tasks to work on spent more time on task than did someone with only one task. However, consider that Clark and Wheelwright did this research in the early 1990s.

What's changed since then? For starters how about e-mail, instant messaging, the proliferation of mobile telephones, and any number of ways in which we communicate? My theory is that the bars in Figure 10.6 need to be shifted one space to the left to reflect today's faster pace. I remember clearly the job I had back in 1992 when Clark and Wheelwright published their results. I remember times back then when I was at my desk and thought, "I'm caught up; I have nothing to do right now." Of course, I haven't thought that since 1992.

The pace of the world has accelerated dramatically. Just being a good corporate citizen takes more time now than it did in 1992. There's more to read, more to process, and more for each person to do. Merely being an employee should count today as a first task for each of us. The first project we are on counts as a second, and we are then already optimally productive. Any further projects we are assigned just make us less productive.

One of the main reasons that multitasking is so horrible is the task-switching cost involved. There is tremendous overhead in getting started on one task, switching to another, and then switching back to the first. The more tasks or projects we are involved in, the more likely we are to be interrupted while working on them. One study of members of a software development team found that team members are interrupted every 11 minutes (Gonzales and Mark 2004). If you're reading this chapter at the office, it is likely that you were interrupted at least once while reading.

When Multitasking Is OK

All of this is not to say that we should never allow multitasking on our projects. It is sometimes helpful. The key is to remember that a person who is multitasking and shared across multiple projects is likely to get less total work done than if she had been dedicated fully to just one of those projects.

Let's again consider Jon and his DBAs. Suppose each DBA could complete "20 database tasks" per day assuming that all database tasks are the same size. A DBA fortunate enough to work on only 1 project would achieve this level of performance. However, a DBA on 2 projects might complete only 16 database tasks per day. And a DBA on 3 projects might complete only 14 database tasks per day.

Although these reduced levels of productivity may look quite bad, they may not be. Suppose 1 of our DBAs is assigned to 2 projects and is to split her time equally between them. She will be able to complete 8 database tasks on each project. This may be the optimal use of her time if neither of the projects needs 20 database tasks done in a day. If neither project needs more than 8 database tasks a day from her, then she is better split between both projects than dedicated entirely to 1. From this we can extract the following guidelines:

  • In general, and for the majority of a project's team members, multitasking is to be avoided.
  • Multitasking may be acceptable if a person cannot be fully or nearly fully utilized on a single project. If we look back to Figure 10.5 and Jon's DBAs, we see that the Connect project was allocated three people with a total allocation greater than 100%. A better solution would likely have been to allocate a single person but for 100% of his time.
  • Rather than have everyone multitask a little, it is better to have a few people multitask a lot. Figure 10.6 illustrates how the largest drop in time on task occurs after a person takes on the first task too many. In Jon's case, a better solution would have been to do anything possible to have two or three of his DBAs not have to multitask, even if that meant the others had to multitask even more.

The Corporate Form of Multitasking

Individuals feel compelled to multitask because the organizations in which we work attempt to multitask as well. The corporate form of multitasking is pursuing too many concurrent projects. When an organization takes on too many projects, people become shared across multiple projects, which leads to individual multitasking. The detrimental effect of multitasking then causes those projects to take longer, which leads to more multitasking near the end of the project when "we need to get started" on the next project.

An eight-year study of projects at a dozen companies and published in Harvard Business Review concluded that "projects get done faster if the organization takes on fewer at a time" (Adler et al. 1996). Corporate multitasking—attempting to make progress on too many concurrent projects—is what created the situation that Jon found himself in earlier in this chapter when he resorted to allocating his people to the 5% level.

Mary and Tom Poppendieck urge organizations to limit work to capacity. An organization that has more projects running concurrently than can be adequately staffed is attempting to work beyond its capacity. As they write, "If you expect teams to meet aggressive deadlines, you must limit work to capacity (2006, 134, emphasis is theirs).

Stopping the Treadmill

One of the happiest days of my life as a consultant was when I explained the impact of personal and corporate multitasking to the general manager of a large division of a big company. I could tell the message resonated with her. She asked me to follow her as she rose from her desk. We walked to a conference room near her office. She pointed toward a huge number of sticky notes stuck to the widest wall in the conference room and said, "We just made our plan for next year. There it is. Do you think we're doing too much?"

Her division had well over 100 developers but the wall was full. We talked about the plan, the number of concurrent projects, and the ripple effect that would occur if one project was substantially late. She knew they were planning to do too much, and I confirmed this for her. She convened a meeting for the next day of the vice presidents and directors who had made the plan and instructed them to start taking projects off the board. A look of relief (and surprise) went across the faces of everyone present. They had each known that the plan they had created the week before was overly ambitious and would not happen. However, no one had been willing to say so.

I checked back with this general manager a year later and was delighted—but not surprised—to hear that her division had just completed its most successful year ever. Part of that was attributable to the adoption of Scrum and the improvements it brought across her department. But an equal part of the success was attributable to the focus that was brought to each project by having fewer projects in progress at one time.

As this anecdote shows, often the best way to stop multitasking is to stop cold turkey. However, the reason I was so impressed with this general manager is that she is one of the few I have seen with the courage to do that. If you can't stop immediately, or if you're not in a position within the organization to make such a far-reaching decision, there are other things you may want to try.

Don't start a new project until it can be fully staffed

Avoid the temptation to start a new project with just a few analysts and maybe one programmer. Try to get everyone to agree that new projects will be started only when they can be staffed with all disciplines represented. This isn't to say you need to wait to start a large project until all 50 developers are available. Starting a new project only when at least one full team can be fully and appropriately staffed will help adjust the rate at which new projects are started to closer to the rate at which they can be developed.

Include ramp-up and wind-down time in enterprise plans

If, like the general manager in this section's story, you put together a big, annual plan, be sure to include the time necessary to start and stop the various projects. All too often a team provides an estimate of six months, and six months are reserved on an enterprise calendar. However, even on a Scrum project (especially from a new Scrum team), there may be a month or two of wind-down. During this time at least a subset of the team may be needed for high-priority bug fixes or to implement great, new ideas that were discovered only upon release. Failing to plan for some of this will cause unexpected periods of overlapping projects.

Institute simple rules

Gaining agreement on simple rules can help lead to the right organizational behavior. A simple rule such as "No one can be assigned to more than two projects," can work wonders. Johannes Brodwall, chief scientist with Steria in Norway, suggests one simple rule.

  • Everyone on the team must be at least 60% allocated to the team. Sixty percent seems to be a magical number, which says to people, "This is the most important thing." With 60%, when one task suffers, it is usually one of those 10% or 20% tasks. So this structure guides people to be more dedicated to their primary team.

Go Slow but go

I can totally respect the leap of faith required to believe that doing fewer concurrent projects will lead to more projects being completed. Even if they believe that completing projects more quickly will ultimately lead to increased productivity, people will be uncomfortable postponing or canceling large-scale projects. So, start small: Remove one project from the first quarter plan and see how it goes.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020