Sunday, 01 April 2012 00:00

Managers' Inability to Tie Shoes and Their Resistance to Change

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Inefficiency test

Why would anyone need to teach a group of managers how to tie their shoes? It seems improbable anyone could make it to this point in his or her career lacking this simple skill. However, I feel quite confident that a vast majority of project managers, managers, leaders, and probably you, are improperly lashing your laces. This prognostication will go one step further stating that even after proving a better method, they, and you, will be unwilling to put forth the effort to change. Adopting change, beyond just tying your shoes, is at the root of our inability to improve many of our business processes. Furthermore, studying this behavior and the subsequent difficulty of maintaining a new and better method will help us understand the high recidivism rate.

The Inefficiency Of Multitasking

Untied Shoes How we tie our shoes rarely affects our work performance. Therefore, let us look at a work pattern that most realize is inherently inefficient, yet continue to follow—multitasking. Reflect on any of the specialty project methodologies, such as Agile and Critical Chain. They have many common traits, but the most obvious is dedicating people to tasks. Intuitively you know that if you want something done quickly and with the least number of errors, dedicate the person doing the task to the work. However, our days are interrupt-driven. Everyone feels their project is most important and that we need to stop what we are doing to provide a slice of time to assist them. The result is that nothing completes on time.

Look at this simple example. Think about three tasks. Each is two weeks long and they all have the same due date. In order for your boss to make everyone feel good, you are instructed to multitask and work on these tasks in one-week time slices. On the first week you flow through half of the first task, the second week they schlog through half of the second task, and on the third week they lunge through the last. By the end of three weeks, all are half complete. Now you can complete each task in the subsequent three weeks. The result is that the first task two weeks late, the second three weeks late, and last four weeks late.

Now consider dedicating your time to each of the three tasks—completing one before you start the other. In this situation, the first task completes on time. The second task is finishes two weeks late; the third is four weeks late. The first and second tasks actually complete earlier than in the multitasking example and the third at exactly the same time. Over all, the tasks are completed earlier. The only sponsor upset is the one needing task three completed. They are, however, no worse off than when multitasking.

Task Switching


If this has left you unconvinced, consider the inefficiencies of task switching. Most of us know it is a problem; however, we struggle to express it in quantitative terms. To help, try this example.

Time how long it takes you to write down the word "inefficient" followed by the numbers one through eleven. If you want, use the template to the left. Now, in a second pass, repeat the exercise by multitasking. Write an "i" and below it a "1," then "n" followed by the "2", etc. until both rows are filled. In nearly every situation, the multitasked process tasks twice as long as the dedicated writing process.

Armed with this data, convincing your peers of the evils of multitasking should be easy. You can be the evangelist for dedicating resources, increasing your company's performance, and enhancing employees' moral. It is not that easy, however. Change is difficult and even if people are convinced that the change is good, they quickly revert to their old ways. As convinced as we are that multitasking wastes time, and regardless of how hard we strive to remove it, people will continue to jerk around priorities requiring slicing our time between different tasks. There is no way to fight the will of the group. The excuses will pour in. "But, the boss...", "she is the only one who can...", and "If we do not get this done right now..." ring around the building as people forget their lesson and regress.

Still Not Tying Your Shoes Properly

The group, however, is not the problem. It is our own comfort. To illustrate, let us return to the opening premise—your improper procedure for tying shoes. In 2005, Terry Moore gave a TED presentation (view at left) that illustrates that a large majority of us only believe we know how to tie shoes. I trust TED, but was quite skeptical of this accusation. Therefore, I carefully tested the hypothesis for four weeks. For the first two weeks, I tied left laces the way I have for years and the right shoe per Mr. Moore's instructions. Then I switched sides. Alas, he was right. Daily my wife would ask me if I tied my shoes right. She was amazed at the difference. You might think the test would eliminate the double knots and the untied shoes. Alas, today both shoes came untied. In my haste to leave the house, I reverted to my old ways. No "organization" to blame, just me.

Can You Maintain Change?

I have challenged many to make the shoe-tying switch. After a month, I get excuses on why it is impossible to maintain the new way. The most common: "When I double-tie my shoes that way they look funny" and "They still come untied when I step on the laces." We are comfortable in our messy, miserable, and misfit methods so we look for reasons to maintain our old, comfortable, and deficient ways. I challenge you to try tying your laces correctly. Set an example for your peers, your bosses, your company, show them you can change! And, show them that reversion is normal and that it takes the support of a team to go up against the norm.

Come back in two weeks and tell us how you have done with those shoes, too.

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