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In the good old days, most people worked on one and only one task. As we've learned to "work smarter," this is less and less often the case — people split their time across several tasks that need their particular expertise. Is this really smarter? What are the full costs of dividing a person's attention?

Let's say, just hypothetically, that there are some people in your organization who have some extraordinarily rare skills, knowledge, or talents. They're probably in high demand. You've tried to hire more like them, but in today's market, it's next to impossible. So somehow you live with what you have.

Three piles of coinsIn many organizations, the "make-do" strategy of choice is to time-share the people who have rare capabilities. We assign them 50% to this project, 30% to a second, and 20% to a third. Oh, and if something else should come up now and then, something short that needs their attention, they get to do that, too.

This might not be good management — it might not be your preferred way to work — but that's life. In this note, I'll explore ideas that suggest that the costs of this arrangement could be significantly higher than most of us ever imagined. My hope is that after reading this, you'll take a look around your organization and see if there isn't some other way to deal with the problem. And I'll give you some ideas for alternate strategies.

The importance of knowing the true costs of time-sharing a mind

When you assign a person to a task, you're using a model of how people manage their time. That model contains a representation of how the work gets done, how the person manages time, and how interactions occur on a team. For example, most of us assume that each person gives a full day's work to the task assigned. And you might also assume that each person gives no work to any other task. How realistic are these assumptions in project work? And how realistic are these assumptions when someone is assigned to multiple tasks?

Since managing projects well requires that you manage costs, it's important to understand how people manage their time, because professional people have to do time management largely without supervision. To the extent that your model of personal time management accurately reflects how people do it, your estimates of labor costs accurately predict actual costs.

The ability of professionals to manage their time is affected by the context in which they find themselves. People use various time management strategies, and it's reasonable to suppose that their choices are somewhat influenced by the number of projects they work on.

If part of your job is to use resources wisely, it pays to know how the manner of their use affects their availability. In this essay, I'll explore some of those strategic choices and some of the constraints the context places on those choices.

The hidden costs of split assignments

Life for people with multiple project assignments is complex. They must bear the cost of dividing their attention, and since we rarely account for these costs in any explicit way, the costs are buried — they appear only as depressed performance. Here are some examples of these implicit costs.

Shifting gears
Split assignments usually increase the number of different activities that comprise a typical day. The variety of intellectual contexts increases, along with the number of things that you have to keep straight in your head. Whenever you switch contexts — shift gears — you have to temporarily set aside one set of contextual facts, and slide another into place. This is a costly operation that takes some time — depending on the individual and the complexity of the work, it can be ten or fifteen minutes [DeMarco 87, p. 63]
Frequency of interruptions
Split assignments often increase the number of people you work with. And increasing the number of people increases the chances that you'll receive a phone call, a page, or an email. These increases lead, in turn, to more lost time by shifting gears.
An appointment calendarCalendar management
When you're on split assignment, your calendar is more complex. You have more meetings to attend, more deadlines to keep in mind. The effort you must invest in calendar management increases faster than the number of projects you support, because of interactions and conflicts between calendar events, and because of further increases in the frequency of the need to shift gears. Most important, the load presented to the calendar management activity by a 50% task is roughly identical to the load of a 100% task.
Conflicts internal and external
The contention for time that you feel when you're on split assignment is a clear example of conflicting priorities. But this conflict can also appear internally. Let's suppose that you're on split assignment, and that you're achievement-oriented. Not an unlikely combination — people who have performed well in the past are often in demand. Since you can't give to each of your assignments the same focus and concentration that you used to be able to apply to a single assignment, you can have a sense of conflict, not only between the assignments, but between your desire to perform at high levels and your limited ability to do so when on split assignment. This internal conflict is a source of stress, which can lead to depressed productivity and performance.
Damage to relationships
Another hidden cost is the damage done to relationships between the person on split assignment and others. All kinds of relationships can be affected. For example, when you have two project leaders, you have (at least) two — possibly conflicting — supervisory relationships to manage. The conflicting priorities of two projects can lead to questions about the personal loyalties and trustworthiness of the person on split assignment. If this happens, the organization can suffer — perhaps not immediately, but in the long term, certainly. This kind of damage is almost impossible to account for on a spreadsheet, but it's very real. It can be a source of stress for everyone involved.
Stress
Ah, stress! Stress in this context is a catchall for all the things that go wrong when we take on too much. Too many meetings, too many conflicting priorities, and most especially, too much work. Why too much work? Aren't two half-time assignments the same amount of work as one full-time assignment?
A woman under stressIn theory, they might be, but because we fail so consistently to notice all the overhead items in this list, somehow the gaps have to be closed. And if the people on split assignment are achievement-oriented, they're the ones most likely to take responsibility for closing those gaps. It usually means extra hours, maybe not at the office, but someplace. Maybe at home. Or on the way to work. A shorter lunch perhaps. Unfortunately, extra hours can often mean shoddy work due to fatigue, and for people who take pride in the quality of their performance, this in itself is a source of stress. And of course, there are the other factors: frequency of interruptions, conflicts internal and external, damage to relationships, and so on. It all leads to lower productivity, higher rework rates, increased sick time, and schedule disruption.
You might think, at first, that stress management training might help, and it will, to some extent. But keep in mind that showing someone how to manage stress better is second best; better still is to reduce the sources of stress. Consider an analogy: starting a stress management education program instead of reducing sources of stress is a lot like teaching pedestrians how to do self-surgery rather than building a pedestrian bridge over the freeway.
Rework rates
How often do you have to redo what you've already done? For example, as I write this, I make revisions. What you're reading is the result of my writing, and my rewriting. If I'm really on a roll, my rewrite rate is lower than usual. Words come out, ideas come to me, and the incidence of revisions drops. To get into that state, a state of flow, I need to focus and concentrate my attention. To read more about flow, see [Csikszentmihalyi 1991]
When you're on split assignment, it's more difficult to get into flow. Average rework rates are higher. Now, in itself, that may not be so bad in a project. But consider what happens when average rework rates climb for a person whose role in a project is central. I'm thinking about someone whose work affects the work of large numbers of other project team members. If their work needs rework, it might happen that the work of those who depended on the upstream results might also need revision. As a project leader, it's important to make sure that rework rates are low for people whose output is far upstream.
Unfortunately, these "upstream producers" are just the kind of people who can find themselves on split assignment. Uh-oh.
Reporting
People on split assignments must write reports, just like people on single assignments. The difference is that they write one report for each partial assignment. Thus the fraction of their time spent reporting is somewhat higher than that of people with single assignments. Not a big effect, you might think, but when you consider what happens to that report, the little bits add up. It's processed through your project in just the same way as your project process the report of a full-time team member. A team of 20 full-timers might have to deal with 20 reports per time period. But if the 20 are actually full-time equivalents, and there are really 32 people on the team, then we're talking about 32 reports, not 20. And correspondingly higher numbers of reminders to people who are late with reports, higher numbers of reports to read, file, merge together, compare with each other, and so on.
Travel
When a person on a half-time assignment must travel for that assignment, two things happen. First, while on travel, they become full time. Second, the costs of travel — airfare, food, lodging — are full costs, not half costs, even for a half-time team member. Thus the cost of sending a part-time team member off site is sometimes unrecognized during budgeting exercises. This happens because financial models sometimes model travel costs on the basis of FTEs (full time equivalents) not on the basis of the number of people who travel. Check your budget and cost proposal computations before you think about using someone on a split-time assignment basis.
Meeting costs
What is the cost of a meeting? Well, it's the hourly cost of each person attending multiplied by the amount of time they invested in the meeting — including travel to and from, preparation, attendance, breaks, everything. But meetings are like travel. Whenever people are attending a meeting, they're full time on the project, whether they're dedicated to the project or assigned only part-time. When you use split-project assignments, you raise the average time spent in meetings, relative to full-project assignments.
A meeting
Split-project assignments also increase the possibility of schedule conflicts, especially for meetings that aren't regularly scheduled. Because such meetings are more likely to be convened on short notice, schedule conflicts are often resolved using phone calls, which raises the overall frequency of interruptions.

What you can do

By now, you might be wondering how you can reduce the number of people who are on split assignments. The obvious solution, hiring more people, is rarely practical. Downward pressures on head count not only preclude this, but may even exacerbate the problem. Using contractors is a possibility for some, especially if you have access to a source of reliable, competent people. But there's a lot you can do that will reduce your reliance on the hiring process as a way to address these problems.

Encourage technical mentoring
If you have someone with rare skills or knowledge, consider each project as an opportunity for that person to mentor one or more others as they gain those skills. Use projects as training opportunities — propagate capability throughout your organization.
Use consultants as capability builders
In technical work, we most often use consultants to perform tasks directly, with little effort spent transferring to our staff the skills the consultants have. Consider retaining consultants — both internal and external — with the express purpose of educating your people. This could help close your capability gap rapidly.
Coordinate projects
It just might be possible to coordinate projects in such a way as to avoid contention for the same people. That is, if you can schedule an activity in one project so that it doesn't overlap a similar activity in another, the people who have to work both activities can do them one at a time, rather than simultaneously. This reduces the chances that someone will be split across projects.
Cancel or delay projects
Is this project really needed now? Is it needed at all? It might be nice to get this project done, but where does it really sit in the organization's priority list? When answering these questions, consider the effects of splitting the time of the people who have to work both projects. This may give you added reason to delay or cancel projects that create contention for people with rare capabilities.
If you can't delay an entire project, perhaps you can delay or reschedule those parts of it that create the greatest potential need to have split-time assignments.
Reuse components
If two projects are planning on building similar components, it might be possible to make them identical. If it is, then they're built only once. Reuse does reduce direct costs, but it also reduces contention for the time of those with specialized knowledge.
Buy components
It might not be your practice to buy components built by other organizations, but if the alternative is splitting the time of a number of people, the factors above might enter into the build-buy decision.

Splitting people across projects can be like getting only $0.82 when you ask for change for a dollar. You start out with one FTE, and by the time you deduct all the overhead costs of splitting their time, you have much less than one FTE. The return on effort spent trying to avoid split-time project assignments can appear immediately, and it can help lower the level of frenzy in your organization.   Go to top  Top
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References

DeMarco, T., and T. Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd edition. New York: Dorset House, 1999. Order from Amazon.com

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. Order from Amazon.com


Do you want to reduce the rate of split assignments in your organization? Through consulting or coaching, I can help you to:

Contact me

Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.

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