Things that are common practice in normal day-to-day working life can undoubtedly lead to difficulties in the field of project management: implementing too many projects against a backdrop of scarce resources.
How strong the negative influence of multitasking in project management can be, the circumstances in which interruptions can take place, and what consequences this can have are examined in a current study carried out by the company VISTEM, in conjunction with Prof. Komus from the Hochschule Koblenz university of applied sciences, from April to the end of June 2016 (http://multitasking-projektmanagement.de/). Around 500 project managers from 20 sectors have taken part in the study.
Where multitasking is involved, project-related successes can be delayed or even lost altogether
Around 80% of the project managers, persons responsible for PMOs, portfolio managers, heads of product management, heads of development, and managing directors who were surveyed state that continuous changes in the operational priorities lead to frequent interruptions. This means that work assignments cannot be finished before a new assignment is due to begin. This can lead to a significant prolongation of all assignments.
Only in a small minority of cases (10% of respondents) is it possible for the participants to work on their assignments without being interrupted. A far lower proportion is accounted for by those project managers for whom it is possible to finish their assignments with no interruptions. These comprise only 2% of those participating in the survey.
Another shortcoming is the insufficient preparation devoted to the project and the resultant additional expense that hinders the project’s success. According to the survey, this applies for up to 75% of the projects.
Constantly recurring themes in project management are the priorities and the support received from management, as well as the consistency with which these are upheld and indeed their faults – some 70% of the group leaders constantly describe changing priorities. And even in the area of management support, clear optimisation potential was discernible in almost 70% of cases.
What solutions might be possible?
Probably the two most important principles for solving the negative multitasking in project management are
- generating and preserving resources
- concentrating on the essentials.
We have known for a long time from brain research that being distracted from tasks devours a multiple of the time originally calculated if we are to get back on track with the prevailing assignments and complete them successfully. Disturbances such as telephone calls or other projects can intensify and become hugely time-consuming activities, cost generators and stress factors if they are not monitored.
Similarly, it has been confirmed on numerous occasions in recent years that efficiency is increased significantly when tasks are processed one after another rather than parallel to each other. Furthermore, this approach facilitates a “flow state”, in other words a highly satisfactory situation in which the responsible persons are able to devote all of their concentration exclusively to complex terms of reference and their solution.
This very point clearly reflects the disadvantages of multitasking: people who are used to multitasking are always on the lookout for new stimulations. This has the consequence that focusing on long-term tasks or projects is often no longer possible because multitaskers are incapable of concentrating for long enough. This was confirmed by a survey conducted at Stanford University.
Ernst Pöppel, a psychologist at the university LMU Munich (Bild der Wissenschaft 5/2008) even believes that from a purely physiological standpoint, the brain is incapable of responding to several things at the same time. This means that genuine multitasking would be impossible.
Planning, generating and preserving resources
Practice shows that efficiency and goal fulfilment are to be found in the projects where sufficient project team members are planned, recruited and, above all, retained. Optimal resource planning makes it possible to allocate all tasks within the project in such a way that they can be implemented and solved by every individual in a focused manner. In the further course of the project, too, constant monitoring of the necessary resources and making appropriate adjustments as and when necessary have proven their worth.
Concentrating on the essentials
Focusing provides a further lever for the successful implementation of complex undertakings and projects. The most efficient projects processed are those in which one employee is assigned to precisely one project and can pursue it with his or her full concentration.
Basically, the rule of thumb in project management, as in everyday working life, is to have as little distraction as possible.
In order to facilitate the maximisation of the employees’ and project team members’ concentration on the success-relevant tasks and projects, it is frequently useful to have a rethink with the aim of changing previous team structures as well as the behaviour of each and every individual in the interests of self-discipline.
To ensure that projects can be processed consecutively rather than simultaneously, the personnel resources should be checked and optimised. Similarly, the prioritisation of projects should be carried out as a management-level task. Then, during implementation, the individuals entrusted with the project management should each deal with clearly defined bundles of tasks and be able to fulfil them in a focused manner without having to fall back into a multitasking loop due to additional tasks or projects.
It can likewise be highly advantageous to fall back on human resources who are specialists in the field of project management. These can guide a professional implementation of the individual tasks, monitor the course of the respective project and carry out any optimisations that may be required. Furthermore, these project management experts can take on strategic tasks and projects that cannot be depicted with the respective company’s available internal resources.
The shape of the workplace, too, can have optimisation potential in some places: according to a study by Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, employees in open-plan offices are distracted more often and even sick more often. The number of days off sick increases proportionately with the number of people who work together in the same office, say the researchers. (Source) An expedient way of implementing complex undertakings successfully is to apply team rules that promote concentration and “safe havens” that make it possible to work without being disturbed. In this area, too, project management experts can offer varied support and advice.
As part of my preparations for a further study, I would be very interested to find out which project-management challenges are pending on your premises and what future developments you expect to see in the project management field. If you are interested in taking part in this study by answering some very brief survey questions, I look forward to hearing from you.