A trap is waiting for you in today’s busy world, where everyone is under pressure to get things done, lots of things. Do it all today! Get things done now!

The trap is multi-tasking. If you try to do too much at once, you lose focus and become less productive. It’s a trap at the personal level, and it’s a trap for project teams too.

To avoid the trap, you need to recognise your limits. A person has limited “band-width”.  And so does a team, a project or a company.

Multi-tasking sounds attractive. It’s a fashionable term borrowed from the world of computing. But if it’s great for computers, it’s a trap for humans when it overloads you. Overload destroys your focus and your productivity. If a task needs some prolonged concentration, some serious brain-work, then you need to reduce your multi-tasking.

It’s a trap that project managers can fall into. Some project managers abandon good practice and try to run their project using a to-do list. They are inviting overload and burn-out.

There are several easy and effective ways to avoid the trap.

1) At the personal level, and for small teams, Kanban approaches can work well. Kanban is a “lean” technique, where you have a backlog of work (your to-do list) but you limit the work in progress using a visual planner. For example, you may decide that only one task per person can be “in progress”. When the task is finished, start another. If you don’t finish it, put it back on the backlog list, then start another. (Read more about personal kanbans here)

2) At the project level, traditional methods like Prince2 use planning and delegation to maintain focus, while Agile methods use scope management.

    ❑    Prince2 uses planning to focus on your current work: Prince2 breaks the project into stages, and the project manager focuses on one stage at time. Prince2 has a simple and effective planning technique – with a clear and simple stage plan, you know what work needs to be done this week or this month. The plan replaces the to-do list and allows the project manager to focus on a limited number of current tasks.

    ❑    Prince2 uses delegation to sharpen your focus: Prince2 breaks the work into deliverables (or “products”) that are delegated to sub-teams. Each team has its own team manager, and the project manager doesn’t micro-manage the sub-teams. The delegation of work reduces the load on the Project Manager, who can focus on managing the project (rather than on doing the work).

    ❑    Agile approaches often focus on delivering just the right scope. Methods like ATERN (also known as AgilePM) use MuSCoW prioritisation as a way to avoid overload. Business needs are prioritised as “Must Have”, “Should Have”, “Could Have” or “Won’t Have”. If the project manager or the teams are overloaded, they concentrate on the “Must Have” needs. They know how to focus – they reduce their bandwidth, knowing that the “Should Have” and “Could Have” needs can wait.

3) Sometimes the problem is wider than the single project; it’s at the portfolio management level. Companies need to avoid overload, they too have limited bandwidth for change. MoP (Management of Portfolio) addresses this with portfolio prioritisation models, which can take into account both resource capacity (do we have enough people?) and resource capability (do we have the skills?)

So next time you need to handle pressure, don’t just build a to-do list. Don’t try to do everything at once – multi-tasking is a trap that can destroy your productivity.

That glitzy to-do list app on your smart-phone is tempting. It’s perhaps a good tool, but it shouldn’t be the only the only tool in your toolbox. Don’t run your life or your project using a to-do list, you will run into overload and stress. Widen your horizons; add some additional tools to your toolbox, either traditional tools like planning and delegation or innovative ones like Kanban and MoSCoW.

Written by Jeff on April 20, 2013 in blog
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