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5 November 2009 • 7:00 am

On Multitasking

Board-spinning-platesA brief Talk of the Town piece by Nick Paumgarten in this week’s New Yorker has finally shaken me out of my lengthy unplanned hiatus from the Tenacious Blog (a combination of an early October speaking gig followed by an extended trip to my alternative universe in the tropics had conspired to keep me from writing for several weeks now). For those of you who have waited patiently for my return, much gratitude for your loyalty. I’ll be trying to write regularly again, but am making no promises.

The New Yorker piece begins with a recollection of the news item from a few weeks ago, in which two Northwest Airlines pilots overshot their destination (Minneapolis) by over a hundred miles (the pilots claim they were engrossed in a complex work scheduling program on their laptop computers), then goes on to comment on the effect of multi-tasking on our performance. According to Paumgarten:

Studies have shown that multitasking, even of the law-abiding kind, doesn’t work. You just perform each task less efficiently. Marshall McLuhan predicted that technology would sharpen our senses, but, instead, as the writer Michael Bugeja said last week, it seems to split them. (A few years ago, Bugeja, with a colleague, started writing an article called “Media Saturation Kills,” but he got distracted by another deadline and never finished it.)

I first became familiar with the concept of multitasking many years ago when I started working with mainframe computers. Learning about the operating system, I came to understand that while it appeared that these giant computers were working on many things at once, in reality they could only work on one thing at a time. Much of the inner workings of the hardware and operating system was devoted to handling interruptions; quickly saving the status of the interrupted task so that work could shift to the next task in line. When there were too many tasks, the computer would spend more of its time switching between tasks than actually doing useful work, and progress would grind to a halt. Computer architecture has evolved, and some computers can actually do more than one thing in any given instant, but there is still a lot of suspending and switching going on. But enough about computers.

Human organizations, by their very nature, work on more than one thing at a time. Creating value is complicated business, and each individual’s contribution to value creation must somehow be coordinated by the organization itself. But like the pilot with his laptop, or the distracted driver texting on a smartphone, there are dangerous adverse consequences to trying to do too much. There seems to be a natural tendency for organizations to take on a larger change agenda than their capacity to accomplish them; and only deliberate intervention can reduce the agenda to manageable size.

Most of my clients easily admit to having too much going on at once, and no good way to prioritize what must be done. The sign of a healthy strategic management process is an understanding of the organization’s capacity for change, and careful management of the agenda within that constraint.

How many things are you working on right now? How many things is your organization trying to accomplish?

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