ABCs of KMAgile decision-making

Management and multitasking [Agile decision-making series]

This is part 4 of a series of articles on modelling and enhancing how decision-making occurs in an organisational context.

A key limitation of most decision-making methods is that they assume a single end-result is being optimised: one project to deliver, one widget to manufacture.

In this sense, these methods are best suited to the optimisation of a single taskforce (although obviously the technique can be applied multiple times to individual areas).

By contrast, managerial groups are required to coordinate and execute multiple tasks in parallel. When tasks are distinct, each can be thought of as a separate OODA loop or Deming wheel; but where objectives are entwined, OODA and Deming break down.

If execution of one task is constrained by a resource being available or another task being completed, it is no longer enough to optimise the execution cycle. Rather, we must look at techniques that strategically optimise the process of management itself.

Organisations have traditionally attempted to coordinate and contextualise their activities through the use of division of responsibility into a hierarchical structure, supplemented by the use of strategic and operational plans.

However, these plans aren’t executed in a vacuum. Whether support is needed from HR, procurement, facilities, marketing, public relations, or information technology, contemporary work is almost always the product of some form of cross-team collaboration.

At team meetings and in other collaborative forums, ‘action items’ are typically assigned to one or more managers, who must then go away and determine the best way to complete that action. These action items do not replace existing plans for the year, but become additional work assigned to the manager.

What will typically not be discussed at these meetings are vital questions such as:

  • the relative importance of each action item
  • the relative importance of action items compared with progressing existing projects or initiatives
  • whether the cooperation or input of other teams is required in order to complete the action item
  • whether one manager’s work should take priority over their colleagues’ work, and
  • if there are dependencies on other areas completing precursor actions before the action item can be completed.

To address these issues, the language of multitasking is required:

  • Cooperation refers to the act of voluntarily sharing a resource (person or thing) with multiple streams of work. Just as in computing, a badly-behaved process which refuses to share a resource can bring any system to a complete halt.
  • Overhead is any time spent coordinating multiple tasks, instead of executing the tasks themselves.
  • Pre-emption establishes a defined set of priorities for tasks, which allows involuntary overriding of existing work. A boss calling their staff member into an impromptu meeting is a commonly practiced form of pre-emption.
  • Context switching is the overhead of transitioning from one task to another. Research increasingly demonstrates that as tasks become more complex, the time lost through context switching increases substantially.1
  • Deadlock is any situation when two or more resources must wait for the other to finish their process before continuing. The only way to resolve a deadlock is for one process to be stopped before completion.

The resolution of these multitasking issues is critical to effective management at any organisational level. In the next article, we’ll look at what typically happens in the absence of any formal governance around decision-making and suggest a better approach.

  1. Rubinstein, J., Meyer, D., Evans, J., ‘Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 2001, pp763-797.
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Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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