What does context switching cost?

In the world of product development, having a singular focus is generally recognised as one of the keys for success. Having a Product Vision, Product Goal, or Sprint Goal spring to mind as common ways focus is practised.

Unfortunately, in real life, we are asked to do lots of stuff by lots of people. It’s just the way it is. Fortunately, there are many ways to handle this depending on the complexity of the requests themselves.

Worst case, you have to abandon what you are doing to focus entirely on a new thing. It becomes the most valuable thing to work on. This is situation dependent and could be because of urgency, importance, both, or simply someone more important than someone else is asking you to do it. Some of these are better reasons than others.

Best case, you may have a minor request that takes a small amount of time to implement and you Just Fucking Do It. In this scenario, you may have an agreement with the rest of the team that a JFDI is acceptable as long as it doesn’t interrupt the core focus; for example, the Sprint Goal.

In the middle of this context switching spectrum you may also find work that is more commonplace, and accepted, but is deceptively intrusive. For example, a team working on multiple products or priorities at the same time.

There could be many factors that contribute to this situation (funding and/or management is definitely up there!). A common factor is that the skills blend in a team is simply inflated. We have too many people with too much variety, so we fall into a trap of trying to keep people busy, splitting our focus, instead of reducing waste in order to increase effectiveness and maximise the value we deliver. 

We may also find we have the correct team blend but we have too many priorities to keep a track of. Common approaches to this consist of: removing collaboration and designating all the work at an individual level to get everything finished (which we never really do); and/or, asking the same people to finish multiple things; and/or, asking the best people to work across multiple teams.

We generally know this is bad practice. We know it sucks for the team and isn’t sustainable. However, we still do it because we always have done and struggle to push back in a way that sticks, or makes sense to the people holding the purse-strings.

It’s worth knowing something important though. For every additional project added, 20% of our time is lost to context switching. 

In addition to the above image, I have previously been sent the following resources from Ryan Brook at Optilearn. These resources have changed how I approach discussions around context switching:

I also use the following high level costings to compliment these resources when summarising the financial impact to people:

  • If a person on a team costs £5,000 a week and works on 2 projects, ~£1,000 a week is wasted. If they work on 5 projects ~£4,000 a week is wasted.
  • For a team of 10 people working on 2 products this is ~£10,000 a week, or ~£500,000 a year.

If you want to make these costs more relevant to your organisation then feel free to use this calculator to understand the true cost of an employee (spoiler, it’s more than just their salary).

There are a number of ways to use this information; to change the way people look at the challenge is one, to help teams understand the importance of finishing work in a sprint, or getting to Done, is another. 

It’s also important to note that some people are better than others at this. I’m personally terrible at context switching, but I know others that are great. Regardless, I cannot remember seeing anyone who is capable of context switching between detailed or technical items without having their effectiveness, or mental health, be impacted. 

Regardless, once we recognise this challenge then we should attempt to be brave and do something about it. It can be very expensive to waste time like this on multiple priorities and isn’t something I personally believe is professional or respectful; both for businesses to ask of teams, or for teams to be complicit in. Hopefully this can be a useful tool in the fight for change.