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14 tips to increase focus

Or how to fight context switching throughout your organisation

The secret to performance is to stay focussed on your goals. The archenemy of focus is called "context switching". Context switches are caused by "multitasking". Not meaning multitasking as performing rudimentary, simple and familiar task like walking whilst having a conversation on your phone, but rather accomplishing multiple complex cognitive tasks like we do at work. Context switches cause so called "switching costs". Research shows the cost for switching contexts when multitasking, could be as high as 40% productivity loss.

Although reducing the amount of context switches is worth your while, it can be a daunting task. Context switching is an issue at different levels of the organisation; from a behavioural, personal level up to the managerial level. If you can effectively reduce the amount of context switching, you can achieve more and better results. In this post I will share 14 tips to address context switching and gain more focus using Agile best practices and insights.

Fight context switching on a personal level
People tend to pick up more work than 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 think a lot of people genuinely believe they are more productive when 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 these later on.

4 Tips you should apply to decrease context switching on your behavioural level:

  1. Strengthen your individual intend to act responsibly -> don’t pick up new stuff to avoid addressing why things are stalling or on hold. Choose to deal with them instead. A great model to support responsible behavior can be found here.
  2. Keep tabs on 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.
  3. Actively manage your work time. Block your agenda to be able and focus on specific tasks.
  4. Do a context switching exercise to discuss this topic with your teammates and make it a group goal to maximize focus.

Fight context switching on team level
On the team level context switching exists as well. Product Owners can ask the team to work on various customer needs simultaneously within the same sprint. This could delude the focus of the team if not properly prioritised and adhered to by the team. Another thing I have seen many times is 'side-steering'. Team members being asked by people from outside the team, to jump in and do some other important task. This task being "even more important" than the commited sprint backlog items. The last common pitfall, is that people expect the team to be able to implement improvements and finishing work items at the same time.

7 Things you should do to decrease context switching on team level are:

  1. Use Sprint goals to create a container around user stories so there is no context switching on this level. Select 1 goal at a time and stay focused on delivering this goal.
  2. Use named magnets or avatars and only make one or two for each team member. This to limit the work items in progress per person.
  3. Make working agreements with your team, to adhere the correct usage of the magnets and personal work in progress limits.
  4. Set limits to the total amount of work in progress in a certain phase for the team as a whole. Set this limits to an amount that discourages multitasking (for instance the limit is lower than the team members active in the phase)
  5. Effectively use your scrum master capabilities and PROTECT the team from distraction. The scrum master should have enough power to deflect requests from outside the team if necessary.
  6. Always plan the teams improvement actions. Include all bells ‘n whistles. Talk about validation, estimate, plan, task breakdown etc. Treat improvements as any other work item.
  7. Introduce pair programming. It is fun, useful and chances are less that a pair is tempted to engage in multitasking than a single person.

    Daniel Burm 14 tips to increase focus

Fight context switching on the managerial level
As usual the managerial level also plays an important part in supporting good practices for focussed agility. There are a couple of things managers can do to reduce context switching.

3 Things managers should do to prevent context switching:

  1. Make sure you focus on 1 or 2 ambitions at a time. Trying to fulfill all your joint ambitions at once is a class of context switching on its own. First fulfill the most important ambition, and then move on to the next. Manage one ambition only is great, as it creates focus on results and at the same time leaves room for teams to prioritise and focus on underlying goals.
  2. Prioritize portfolios, so everyone in the organization knows the companies priorities. It might be a good idea to have single product portfolio's and matching teams and departments to stimulate further focus on single context end to end processes.
  3. Create stable teams. Context switching is also caused by people switching between teams. In the 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 for a previous project).

But wait: what about the whole "T-shaping" thing?
A scrum team has to do all things necessary to deliver on their commitment, right? Therefor team members are not always expected to only perform their main skill, but also to branch out sideways now and again if needed.

But doing this skill switch is also a type of context switch right?

Yes it is.

But maybe there is a catch here. In my opinion "the team" is the centre and main driver for success. If the team fails, you fail. This is why the teams success is more important than personal productivity. It is therefor probably the only exception in actively rejecting context switching. The advise here is to try and invest to get good at multiple skills over time. Although research shows there are still switching costs for familiar tasks, these will naturally be lower than for unfamiliar tasks.

There are a lot of things you can do to fight context switching, avoid switching costs and gain more focus. Above all, context switching is a mindset change; accepting that it is ‘ok’ to be idle now and again, if the upside is to have way better focus. People should feel ‘ok’ with discussing focus issues and honouring other peoples focus. Don’t believe the myth; “start fast = deliver fast”. Sometimes you have to wait a bit longer on a specific result, to enable a shorter average time of delivery for all results.

Context switching occurs on different levels within the organization. If you can effectively manage and decrease context switching, you can achieve great results. Imagine yourself being focussed, faster and more effective.

Sounds good? Select and focus on the one improvement suggestion from this post with the most impact given your context and you will be well on your way to achieve focus. 

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