Recently, I was in a leadership training program – Northwest Regional Leadership Forum.  One of my assignments for the class was to facilitate the book Brain Rules by John Medina.  To illustrate one of the concept in the book, I designed a simple exercise:

  1. Team-up 2 people
  2. Have each person connect the dot  on a picture containing 100 or more dots.  Record their activity time.
  3. Have each person do simple addition and subtraction sums (I used a handful of sums using a worksheet generated from a site like this one – Math Worksheets).  Record their activity time.  Add time from step 2.
  4. Second part of exercise, I had one person start another connect the dot worksheet, while simultaneously his partner ask him to do simple math sums.  Record the time.
  5. Compare the combined time (from step 2 and step 3) to the time from step 4.

What do you think the results were? What took longer – the time spent connecting the dots and the math sums, when done serially; or, the time it took  to do them simultaneously?  Before starting the exercise, I asked this question, and almost all my classmates thought, it would be when we multi-task.  After all, we were all managers and we were masters at multi-tasking, right?  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Everyone took more time to complete the exercise when trying to multi-task compared to when they focused on doing each activity serially.  (I should add there was one person, who was an exception – so either he is a freak or he cheated!).

So what’s going on?  John Medina says research show that, we humans cannot multi-task.  What we do instead is task-switch.  So for my classmates, the sequence went something like this: start connecting the dots; got an interruption in asking him to do a math sum; stop connecting the dots; do the sum and then go back to connecting the dots.  What was more interesting is that some people got so distracted that at the end of the exercise, they didn’t have the dots connected properly or made mistakes on their math sums.  And this is precisely what Medina says to expect: “a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task.  Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”

Similar studies of multi-tasking while driving (especially talking on the cell phone) shows that it impairs a driver to such a degree, that it is almost like driving under the influence.

Mary and Tom Poppendieck in their book Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, list task-switching as one of the sources of waste.  And a very common way, we ask our team members to engage in task-switch by design, is by putting them on more than one agile teams.

What’s more, we also have to battle with constant interruption from phones, emails, IMs, streams of social media, and walk-ins.  How do we manage to get any work done?

So how can we support our teams to minimize distractions?   Well, we can transition them to work on a single agile team.

We can create common space for co-located teams.  So that it allows team members to be available to answer questions, collaborate, to problem solve, or be around to soak in information from the ambient conversations.  And we can create  hotel cubes, which allows people to get away for a while and attend to private matters, and this way, they don’t clutter the team space with unwanted noise.

We can shutoff our collection of communication tools even if it for few hours, when we really have to focus on tasks.  I have seen some team members do this very effectively by putting specific messages on their emails or IMs that they are unavailable during certain time period.

We can cull the lists of in-flight projects and try a no standing meeting day.  Both of these last items are getting tried at my work.  And it will be interesting to see what improvements we will see.

We humans still haven’t evolved to effectively multi-task, unlike hindu goddesses, who have multiple limbs and heads and can slay multiple demons at the same time!

So it is best to heed the advise of a zen master: “When washing dishes, wash dishes!”