An organization full of poor multitaskers will find itself tied up in knots, according to Ron Ashkenas—and a new Stanford study
Posted on Conversation Starter: September 10, 2009 9:12 AM
I used to be amazed when I would watch my daughter at the computer terminal working on a high school paper, listening to music, eating a snack, and conducting simultaneous instant messaging conversations with a dozen friends around the world. Had her brain been re-wired by the constant use of technology so that she could concentrate on different activities and actually get things done; or should I worry that she was trying to do too many things at once?
Now a study from researchers at Stanford University suggests that my concerns may have been well-founded. The study conclusions, reported in the Aug. 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are unambiguous: "Multitaskers were just lousy at everything," according to Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford and one of the study's investigators. Despite starting the research on 100 college students with the hypothesis that multitaskers had some special abilities, the study found that multitaskers were actually quite ineffective at managing information, maintaining attention, and getting results. Compared to study participants who did things one task at a time, they were mediocre.
While a single study of 100 students doesn't prove anything definitively, it does reinforce what many of us have probably suspected—that trying to do too many things at once often means getting none of them done well.
In organizations however, the implication is much more pernicious because individual performance, for better or worse, is multiplied and amplified many times over. If dozens of people are reducing their effectiveness by multitasking, then the organization runs the risk of being tied up in knots.
Anyone who has been through a post-merger integration or a major systems implementation or a large-scale reorganization knows what I'm talking about. The success rate of big projects like these is around 30%. One of the reasons for this dismal track record is that well-meaning project managers try to cram everything in at once so that multiple work streams involving hundreds of people are simultaneously making changes in work processes, reporting relationships, technology usage and more—while everyone also attempts to keep going with their regular jobs. It's an organizational version of multitasking, or multitasking on steroids. And just like individuals who (according to the Stanford study) reduce their effectiveness by multitasking, so do organizations. If it's hard for one person to concentrate on a meeting while responding to blackberry messages while eating lunch, imagine what happens when you multiply the distractions by the thousands?
Before you turn in your Blackberry and refuse the next big organizational project however, let me suggest that the alternative to multitasking is not single-tasking. In this day and age, that would be too slow. Rather the answer is to shift our mindsets from a focus on volume to a focus on value. Instead of checking off all the boxes and trying to get everything done, let's identify those activities and initiatives that will truly add value. It's OK not to do certain things, or to do them later. For example, in a recent merger, a team was debating whether to adopt Lotus Notes or Outlook as the standard email system. It's an interesting discussion, but in the short term it's not a value-creator for the combined company.
We all have choices to make, as individuals and as managers of organizations. What can you do to make sure that those choices are based on value rather than volume?