The secret to 3-digit productivity growth is simple; stay focussed on your goal. One thing that keeps us from staying focussed is context switching; picking up a task, then interrupting it for another task and the starting up the previous task. Context switching originates from different levels within the organization. If you can effectively manage and decrease context switching, you can achieve amazing results and save a lot of resources. In this post I will tell you how to best combat context switching and gain more focus.Last week we did sort of the same exercise with a group of six people at once, naming the sequences; a to z, 3 to 42 (in steps of three) and 5 to 60 (in fives). It was part of a presentation by Olav Maassen about context switching. He got really inspired by a talk at agile 2013 from Peter Saddington and decided to pass on some of the learnings to my colleagues and me. Olav led the exercise and he would tell us when we needed to switch context. You can imagine the results. When Olav turned up the amount of switches, our team resulted in total chaos. Leading to a lot of laughs, but also many, many mistakes. In the last round, with the most context switches, we were six times slower to finish the exercise than without switching. That's simply amazing; 600% better results with less context switches.... So if reducing context switching is a good thing, then let’s take a look at what practical things you can do to combat this phenomenon. Context switching is a multilayered beast. "Why", you ask? The answer is, because it is not only an issue originating on an individual level, but also on various other levels throughout the organization. In the section below, I will illustrate the individual, team, managerial and organizational levels and share measures you can take to combat context switching. The individual level People tend to pick up more work then they can handle at once. Of course there is a myriad of reasons as to why we like to do so, some positive and some negative. I believe people genuinely believe they will produce more by multitasking. Filling in the short periods of waiting time in between tasks, starting up activities and contributions by others so you do not have to wait for it later on etc.. From a negative perspective: to have the feeling we are busy and important, have the feeling we are worth our pay (the worst that could happen is idle time…), cover up for mistakes or to strengthen blame on others and avoid taking responsibility for seeing things through, solving issues and finishing work. 4 Things you can do to decrease context switching on an individual level:
- Strengthen your individual intend to act responsibly -> don’t pick up new stuff to avoid the issues but choose to deal with them instead. A great model to support responsible behavior can be found here.
- Keep administration of things causing you to switch context and then work to get the #1 thing off your list. then move on to #2, and so on.
- Actively manage your work time. Block your agenda to be able and focus on specific tasks.
- Do the context switching exercise with your team and make it a group goal to maximize focus.
- Use Sprint goals and WIP goals to create a container around user stories so there is no context switching on this level. Do 1 goal at a time and stay focused on delivering this goal. This is also a practice described in the 2013 scrumguide, Woohoo!
- Use magnets and avatars and only make one for each team member
- Make working agreements, to enforce the correct usage of the magnets
- Set limits to the amount of work in progress (or any other stage of work) to an amount that discourages multitasking (for instance the limit is lower than the team members active in the column)
- Effectively use your scrum master capabilities and PROTECT the team from distraction. The scrum master should have enough power to deflect other requests from outside the team if necessary.
- Always plan the teams’ improvement actions. Include all bells ‘n whistles. Talk about validation, estimate, plan, task breakdown etc. Treat improvement as normal work.
- Introduce pair programming. It’s fun, useful and chances are less that a pair is tempted to engage in multitasking than a single person.
- Make sure you focus on 1 goal at a time. Be it a business goal, program/project goal, sprint goal or KPI (beware that these goals should be stringed together so they add up). Trying to fulfill all goals at once is a class of context switching on it’s own. First fill in the most important goal, and then move on to the next. Most times people like to have slack, so they can reduce goal scope if things get hairy. Of course we know better and tell them we can do far more if we focus on completing the number one goal first.
- Prioritize portfolios, so everyone in the organization knows the priorities. Sure there can be deviations and changes, but at least it will be a conscious decision to do so.
- Create stable teams. Context switching can also be caused by switching teams. In light of decreasing context switching, it would therefor be wise to keep teams together as long as possible. Team members will not have to get used to the new circumstances all the time, saving them energy and focus. Another advantage of stable teams is that people will be less tempted to ask a team member to do work outside the team domain (for example a previous project)
- Project/ program orientation: People have to learn to work with new teammates all the time, work for different clients or market-segments and on different products
- Component/ technical orientation: If stable, people need to work for different clients and products.
- Client orientation: If stable, people need to work on different products (except if there is only one product).
- Product orientation: If stable, people need to work on the same product and build features fulfilling different needs and goals.
Like our ideas? Please check out our Xebia ACT website to learn how Xebia can help you improve your time to market, reduce costs and improve quality using Agile and Lean best practices.