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Why Should We Focus on Doing One Thing To Completion at a Time?

Let's face it: when working most people and Teams want to not only be working on important things, but also want to be seen to be working on important things. We also want to please people: our peers, our managers, etc. When one of these people come around and ask us to get something done, the natural reaction is to respond “sure, we can get that done!”.

We also too often face the situation where, if something is blocking us from getting something done, the simplest decision is to suspend that work, and take something else on. After all, “if this one is blocked, I don't want to be seen to be sitting around doing nothing …”

While a natural response, it turns out that both of these approaches actually mean that you slow down the deliver of value (or learning). What we should focus on is working things to completion, even working through things that slow us down, rather than starting something new. In other words we need to

Stop starting and start finishing!

To understand why, have a look at the chart below:

The top of the chart shows what happens when we switch between two jobs because we have started two jobs and are now working to finish them. The “$” signs represent value: when we can either realize value in terms of dollars because we have delivered the item to the customer and they have paid for the capability, or in terms of learning because we have delivered something to the customer and they have provided feedback, allowing us to course correct.

The bottom of the chart shows what happens when the only change we make is to focus on one thing at a time, working it to completion. As you can see, because of this focus we get value (or feedback) on the first job far earlier which means we have the opportunity to accumulate more of the value over time.

Clearly the bottom approach makes more sense than the top approach. What this means is that we should be very careful about starting new work, even though the request might have come from you manager or peer, or because it seems like you are unable to progress an item of work.

It turns out that the effect is even worse than this. Switching from job to job means that you are context switching. Each time you do this, the data indicates that you will take a significant amount of time to get to the point where you are actually doing productive work. The data indicates that every time you context switch, you will reduce your real ability to work on something by about 20% (see What is the Impact of Context Switching on the Ability to Deliver? for more information). What this means is that not only does the second approach give you more value or learning because one item is delivered earlier, but using the second approach both items are potentially shipped earlier due to the penalty associated with context switching.

This effect applies at all levels: personal, Team, and organization. This is not to say that an organization should only work on one thing at a time. That clearly would be silly, and may not make sense any way. The other side of this discussion is “how much capacity do we have available, and how do we best use that capacity?” What it says is that there is a penalty when an person, Team, or organization thinks that they need to start all things rather than focusing on completing items, and then starting new items.

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/home/hpsamios/ · Last modified: 2021/08/10 10:29 by hans