It’s heard often that concentrating to one thing is good. Many agile methods assumes that there’s only one project going on. Also principles of Lean Development¹ implicates a glory of single project by encouraging to keep cycle time low. Deliver as fast as possible.
One project at a time is good. Among many benefits, it helps to
But there’s an other side. According to Bernice Eiduson extensive studies², most successful scientists tend to have many fields of interests and they change their focus between them often. It’s natural, connecting things is vital to creativity. (Actually, I believe that real creativity happens when solutions conflict creating a new reality.)
I don’t see why having multiple projects going on would be good specially for scientists. Being able to see different aspects and having vast variety of skills is good for anyone doing creative job like software development. And as Mr. Appelo puts it³, having multiple projects:
It’s good to remember though that multitasking is still bad. It destroys brains and decrease performance.4 But switching tasks couple of times a day is not the same than checking emails every minute. Actually, distractions may be the best things happening to you5. Distraction ”may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution5”. And even without distractions switching tasks every now and then may help your creativity. According to Shelley Carson’s and Justin Moore’s studies task switching slowed problem solving but increased divergent thinking6.
So how many projects one should have? Of course it’s a personal thing… …but some analysis can be done. First, feedback loop need to be fast enough so that things stays in mind and one can react to the feedback got from customers or other sources. Second, although it’s not good to stuck for too long in on problem, harder the problem is more time you need for it. Complex problems can’t be solved in seconds.
Mr. Donald G. Reinertsen speaks in his book ’The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development’7 about Marines who put all their power to the most focal point. In case one’s not Marine or establishing a startup, it’s impossible to have only one focal point. But there should not be more projects going on than there’s ”best value projects” available; it’s always better to put more effort to fewer valuable projects than having theatrical projects for showing much activity. And final reminder: two many projects causes multitasking.
Let’s take a real life example: In my job we do product development based on account managers’ orders. We have more account managers than we have software developers. For one software developer we have two contact managers, each making orders. Most of the orders are quite small. We use in average about 5 days to complete the order. Still, we have always couple of long infrastructure projects going on. We are a DevOp team; we have our own infrastructure development and up-keeping activities going on all the time.
So, at a time, for every developer there’s two account managers waiting for order to complete and at least one task to maintain the system. In theory we have three projects going on with every software developer. How would that make developer’s day look like (hope she’s understood that multitasking is bad and is doing things in junks):