Sunday, June 10, 2007

How To Avoid Task Saturation

How do you avoid task saturation in today's world of too much to do and too little time? In Flawless Execution: Use the Techniques and Systems of America's Fighter Pilots to Perform at Your Peak and Win the Battles of the Business World, James D. Murphy writes about how fighter pilots deal with task saturation and how you can leverage the technique.

Why Worry About Task Saturation
James writes:

Task Saturation is too much to do with not enough time, not enough tools, and not enough resources. It can be real or imagined, but in the end it can do the same thing. It can kill you.

What fighter pilots know about task saturation should worry every CEO. As task saturation increases, performance decreases; as task saturation increases, executional errors increase. ... The correct action to take is to acknowledge that it exists, acknowledge that it creates problems, identify the symptoms and then work to eliminate it.

Shutting Down, Compartmentalizing, or Channelizing
There are 3 symptoms of task saturation:

  1. Shutting down.
  2. Compartmentalizing.
  3. Channelizing.

James writes the following on shutting down:

The first coping mechanism is to shut down. You quit. You stop performing. ... Shutting down is the most harmless of the coping mechanisms. When you leave your desk or amble around the office, people at least know you're not executing your mission, you're not on task. You may get a bad reputation for "leaving early" or not pulling your weight, but at least you're not masking your mental collapse.
James writes the following on compartmentalizing and channelizing:
Compartmentalizers and channelizers, on the other hand, are risky people because they act busy but do little, and kill you while they're at it. ... compartmentalizers start making lists, organizing their projects, and shuffling things around as if the list making and the shuffling are akin to doing the work, which they are not. Then they start going top to bottom, ticking off one item after another. They become obsessively linear, first-things-first, one project at a time.

3 Processes to Reduce Task Saturation
There are 3 processes that fighter pilots use to reduce task saturation:

  1. Checkklists.
  2. Cross-checks.
  3. Mutual support.

James writes the following on checklists:

The first tool fighter pilots have to eliminate task saturation is their checklist. ... For them, a checklist is a condensed portion of the flight manual -- the standard operating procedures. It's a memory jogger. It's based on training, people's experience, and the standard operating procedures of our company. It's designed to get pilots pointed in the right direction very quickly by taking an action that pulls them through task saturation.

There are two types of checklists: a normal procedures section and the black-striped pages, or the emergency procedures section. The normal procedures checklist is how to do everyday things - how to start the engine, how to configure the aircraft for takeoff, the air-refueling checklist, the landing. ... The black-stripe pages are known as the emergency procedures section. This is the checklist that comes into play when the problems are life threatening. These are one-liners that can be read in an instant. Pilots go right to a page that fits the problem and they see memory joggers and actions to take to solve the problem quickly.

... Find your choke points and build in a stress reducing checklist that the everyday employee can revert to.

James writes the following on cross-checks:

The pilot's second tool is cross-checks. ... Cross-checks are so important that pilots call them their "Cross-checks to Success." Among those 350 instruments in the cockpit are four or five instruments that they really pay attention to. ... Back and forth to the key instruments, always including a regular scan of the attitude indicator in between. Eyes moving quickly from one instrument back to the attitude indicator, never channelizing, always scanning.

How does this translate to business? For most companies, your attitude indicator is customer satisfaction. You read this every day, every hour. Are your customers happy? Do they rate your service highly? Then on to the rest of your nstruments. These are determined by your business. ... maybe it's click-through on a webite ....

Have you defined your instrument panel, do you get data inputs from your instruments with regularity, and then, do you have a smooth disciplined cross-check, just like figher pilots do in the cockpit?
James writes the following on mutual support:

The last tool that we use to eliminate task saturation is called mutual support. We never go anywhere -- anywhere -- without a wingman. We fly as a team, usually in two-ship or four-ship formations. My wingman is my partner.

Mutual support required that we learn each other's roles and rely on each other. The more I know about your job, the better I can provide mutual support for you.

But far more importantly, you can eliminate task saturation and improve your fighting odds if you literally go into major meetings as teams. Words are the swords in the combat of business, and two people do a better job than one of "hearing" what's said and fielding questions. Operating as a team allows for lattitude in negotiations and role playing in the meeting, and gives you someone who's backing you up and hearing what you miss.
Key Take Aways
  • This is the most precise distillation of task saturation I've seen (3 symptoms and 3 solutions.)
  • I think it makes a lot of sense that checklists can help reduce stress.
  • I really like the point on cross-checking the figher pilot's instrument panel and applying it to your business