I recently wrote about the benefits of doing one thing at a time and the downsides of Multitasking. While listing things that can be done to facilitate doing one thing after another for a team, I completely missed to mention maybe the most important factor: having a dedicated team.
What I mean by that is having a team where all team members are working on the same single project or product with 100% of their capacity. As opposed to how it is often done, particularly in large corporations, where the team members have to split their work day between different projects, they become split heads.
The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
Subscribe to get new posts straight to your inbox.
The effects of split heads
I have led multiple teams where team set-up was something like
- Person A – 30% capacity for the project
- Person B – 40%
- Person C – 80%
- Person D – 10%
Obviously, this was pretty bad for me as a project leader. I was constantly competing for their time with other projects. This type of set-up also has some strange effects on team dynamic. It essentially leads to teams within teams. Some members are almost always present and thus get to know each other. Some will only be tangentially involved. It’s really hard to foster a spirit of ownership for the projects. I’m not sure if you can even call the resulting set-up an actual team.
It is also extremely challenging for the individuals, because they are part of several project teams they are supposed to serve concurrently. In the end, it is bad for the company. Less gets done, mistakes are made, and the team members are extremely stressed. I have witnessed exactly this.
The reasons for this are similar to why multitasking doesn’t work for individuals, only on a different scale. The team members are constantly having to switch focus. It takes time for the brain to be “warmed up” and fully present in the new topic. As soon as the brain is fully functioning, someone like me calls the team member needing something “urgently” (who knows what that word even means). Rinse and repeat.
It’s so bad, why do we do it?
I am pretty sure that many very smart people are leading organizations that work as described above (although I urge you to not assume that all people very high up in the hierarchy are extremely smart, I have met a few that proved this point, Nassim Taleb will also agree). I am pretty sure they realize that this way of working is not great. So, why do companies still do it?
I don’t have an answer but my working theory says it is related to customer commitments. Thus, it is more prevalent in B2B businesses where the releases, deliveries, or launches need to be synchronized with customer roadmaps. I can certainly attest to this being the case in the automotive industry.
This, combined with the constant pressure to grow the business through additional projects, means at some point we end up with overlapping projects and not enough people to have a dedicated team for each. We end up splitting people between them.
How to deal with split capacities
So, what can we do about it? Following what I wrote above, the most obvious suggestion is to never work in B2B. I am joking, but there may be some truth to that. If you have the chance, it might make sense to prefer jobs in the B2C world, where the company might have less external influence on roadmaps or milestones.
Some more serious suggestions:
- Create dedicated teams
- Time blocking
- Compartmentalize projects
- Use a system you trust
Let’s dig into these.
Create dedicated teams
With the risk of stating the obvious, if you are in the position to define the team set-up, always aim to create dedicated teams for one project or product. It will help all involved.
Even if it is only a temporary solution, it still helps. In the automotive industry this is usually the case when something really bad happened. A task force is created where (most of) the members are 100% dedicated for weeks or months until the issues are fixed. I urge you to do this as standard practice instead to prevent the catastrophe from even happening.
This is greatly aided by the corporate road map. If you are able to influence it in such a way that one project gets done before the next is started, you can have one temporary team fully focused on finishing the first before the second is started, possibly by a new temporary team.
Unfortunately, most of us are not in the position to exert influence as stated above. We need to resort to managing with the hand we are dealt. Luckily there are ways to do that.
What I described above is basically time blocking on a corporate road map level. However, time blocking can also be extremely effective for the individual. If you are a team member that is forced to split your capacity between different projects, I suggest creating blocks of time for each. Depending on your circumstance, you may block parts of the day, the week,or even the month, e.g.:
- Daily time blocking: Project A in the morning, Project B after 2pm
- Weekly: Project A on Monday and Tuesday, B the rest of the week
- Monthly: first two weeks Project A and last two weeks Project B
While the last is obviously the most effective, it’s also the most unrealistic. However, even if you are only able to block parts of the day, there are some real benefits. At the very least, you will then be able to focus on one project for a few hours before going to the next. You will need to switch contexts much less frequently.
The challenge is to uphold the time blocks. For that, you need to communicate it well and often to get buy-in (and maybe support from management). It needs to be clear to the team that you are only available during specific periods of time. As always, explaining the reasons why you are doing this and the benefits for all involved are imperative to getting acceptance.
Of course, there will always be phases – launches, serious quality issues come to mind – where you cannot uphold the time blocks. However, if the approach works most of the time, you will still gain some major benefits.
Time blocking is effective because you are only focused on one project for a defined period. Unfortunately, emails, notes, and other distractions may still remind you of the other projects. As soon as your brain gets these reminders, it will start thinking about the other projects and create cognitive load. Thus, you need to try and avoid them as much as possible by strictly separating the projects.
If it is at all feasible, you could set up different inboxes or communication channels, use several virtual desktops on your PC or Mac, completely separate the file storages, and the places you take notes.
In general, you don’t want to get any stimulation that makes you start thinking of other projects while you are focusing on one of them. You could even choose different places to work for each project.
Use a system you trust
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the underappreciated need for a self management system in the current context. You need a structure to deal with the fragmented reality of work life in case you are forced to split focus between projects. You need to be able to trust it so that your brain isn’t tasked with keeping track of loose ends. I use getting things done but there are plenty of others out there. See what works for you and stick with it.
A personal anecdote
Personally, I have experienced both worlds: I have led teams that had multiple split heads and I am currently working with a team that is fully dedicated to the product I am responsible for. For me, there really is no comparison, the latter is so much better. Sure, we also somehow made it work in the other set-up and got stuff done. But it was often frustrating and extremely exhausting. In the end so much so, that I actually quit my job. Of course, the team´s split capacities wasn´t the only factor but it was surely one of the contributors to my decision.
Thus, that might be the final piece of advice in extreme cases: take the leap. Look for a new job. And those of you who are in a position to change the team set-up, take the leap and implement dedicated teams. You might be surprised by the effects it has (also on employee retention).