Multitasking is poison for productivity, quality, focus, motivation, and collaboration. It is cost and stress-intensive; it causes frustration, rework, and bad service. This has been proven over and over – in studies, books, blogs, and articles.
And all these studies, discussions, and debates are merely intellectual, something you read and acknowledge – but don’t really change your way of working. So, how do we come to action?
Here is a remote-friendly exercise that has helped dozens of my teams find and implement tangible, actionable ideas to stop starting and start finishing. The exercise is quick, doesn’t need much preparation, and lets participants experience the downsides of multitasking very directly on a physical level. Therefore, I regularly use this exercise in my 👉🏻 Professional Scrum Master Trainings.
Let participants experience the effects of multitasking and contrast it to what becomes possible when using a single-tasking working mode. Invite participants to come up with concrete countermeasures to cope with and change their multitasking context.
Everybody struggling with the side effects of multitasking. So you (as you are currently reading this blog post), maybe your team (if it is struggling to keep milestones, motivation, or quality levels); and maybe your boss who is not (yet) aware of what this “small additional task” really means. 😎
Number of participants
1 – unlimited
10′ + reflection time (depending on how detailed you want to dive into “decide what to do”)
How to run exercise
Introduce exercise and goal
Invite participants to fetch a pen and piece of paper (you will see some people run to their printers 😎) and get their stopwatch ready.
Explain project assignments of round 1
(Project assignments round #1)
Explain that all three projects must be done simultaneously: we can’t let the customer wait!
This means that we write one character from the first project, then immediately move on to the second project, write the first number of the series, then move to the next project and write down the first number of the series here as well. Then, move back to project #1 and continue with the second character. Jump to project #2, calculate the second number, continue with project #3, and so on until all three projects are done.
Explain that each person individually measures the duration of how long they need for all projects combined. Show where the duration should be recorded (👉🏻 result sheet). Emphasize the use of whole numbers here.
Watch the participants sweat or join them by doing the exercise yourself. 😊
Wait until all results have been captured.
Move on to the second set of projects
(Project assignments round #2)
Introduce a change in the working model: Now, we reduce the work-in-progress limit to one. This means we now fully focus on the most important project #A, first. When finished, we continue with project #B. When this project is done, we finally move on to project #C.
Explain where to capture the results. Using the 👉🏻 template, you can unhide columns C and D to let the participants enter the results from the second round. An automatic calculation illustrates the differences when the participants enter their individual results.
(Some sample results)
The second round is usually much faster (up to 300%). Participants also report that the second round is less confusing, error-prone, and frustrating.
The following questions may be useful for debriefing the exercise and sparking impulse for the follow-up activity.
Comparing round #1 to round #2, what is different? What does this mean? What becomes possible in round 2?
What else? 😎
How did you feel in round #1? .. in round #2?
👉🏻 (usually, frustration vs. flow is mentioned)
How was the quality of the results? Which round yielded better results quality-wise?
👉🏻 (often, participants make errors in the first round)
When did the most important project finish in round #1? .. in round #2?
👉🏻 when focusing on the most important project (round #2), it is finished a lot faster than in round #1, where all projects finish shortly after each other
When working with teams, I follow up with the following invitation:
Having experienced the side-effects of multitasking: What is keeping us in multitasking mode? Where could we benefit the most if we limit our work-in-progress limit?
What is an experiment we can make that would drive us forward?
Pitfalls / trainer tipps
Make sure the working mode for the first round is well understood. I often give the first sets away (“M, 33, 13, U, 30, 16, ..”)
Make sure access to Google Sheets is available for the participants; otherwise, offer them to put their results in the chat console of their videoconferencing client and transfer the numbers in the sheet for them
Make sure that they put integer numbers in the result sheet. Be clear that “1:05” becomes “65”; “66,7” becomes “67”, “133.3” becomes “133” (otherwise, the formulas in the sheet break).
Note that the third project in each round is misconfigured! (You can’t count from 13 to 43 in steps of 3, nor from 36 to 2 in steps of 3). This is rarely pointed out in round #1. When this misconfiguration (=wrong requirement) is identified, it is almost always identified in round #2. This plays nicely into the quality issues when multitasking
The exercise has been designed to be used in online settings but can be run in in-person workshops, too! Here, the Naming Game from Henrik Kniberg, which inspired this exercise, might be used alternatively.
Anyone who finds this guide useful and misunderstands it in a way that leads to new ideas and ways to use the simulation is warmly invited to share them with me!
Stop Starting. Start Finishing.