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How Juggling Multiple Projects Can Make You A Better Innovator

The case for doing many things at once over choosing one focus

30May

Multitasking: Is it business’s friend or foe? The conventional wisdom says that scattering one’s attention over multiple domains will kill productivity. Whether from too many inputs or from distracting small chores, multitasking has been deemed a losing tactic. Research on the effects of multitasking on the brain backs this up.

But then we see Elon Musk. In a recent poll that asked startup founders which tech leader they most admired, 23% chose Musk. It isn’t surprising given his visionary projects, from the Tesla Model 3 to colonizing Mars. Not only are these big plans, but they’re also in entirely different domains: space, automobile, public transport, energy, personal technology, and futurism.

Musk is impressive, but he’s not a superhero immune to multitasking’s downsides. He’s simply using it the right way, with mutually reinforcing projects that drive new ideas, invigorated purpose, and cross-pollination. And he’s not alone: Jack Dorsey did this with Twitter and Square, Google has its hands in several cookie jars, and others have followed suit. Even without billion-dollar companies, this approach is possible in any business niche with just a few simple tactics:

1. Encourage Employee Side Projects.

This is the easiest entry into high-level multitasking, merely requiring the implementation of a reasonable policy that encourages employee initiative. Basic as that is, it’s still powerful because it leverages the natural drive for creative exploration that talented team members bring to their companies.

Google has understood this truth from the beginning. The company recognized a huge pool of employees with untapped potential and implemented the now famous '20% time' that allowed employees to work on their own ideas. The result? Undeniable successes like Gmail, AdSense, Google News, and Google Talk. Google has since discontinued that policy, but by then it was one of the top tech companies in history, thus requiring tighter control.

For most businesses on upward trajectories, something in the spirit of Google’s original model should work nicely. By staying in touch with what employees are working on - and being ready to deploy resources to support ideas that seem like they could take off - leaders can be poised to capitalize on this policy.

Of course, doing this well requires high-level leadership multitasking, as well as laying the groundwork for whatever new projects - or even new companies - these side projects generate. It’s no small challenge, but an engaging and stimulating idea has the potential to become an unexpected runaway success.

2. Use Project Switching to Avoid Dog-on-a-Bone Syndrome.

Focus is critical to success. Those that cannot concentrate effectively will always lose. But too much focus can be just as harmful as not enough. Imagine a hound obsessively gnawing a bone all afternoon, oblivious to its environment - even when opportunities for food or play are at hand. If anything threatens to take away its bone, the dog overreacts.

Similarly, leaders can commit too much attention to a single problem. That’s a fragile position, particularly in a rapidly changing marketplace. Leaders and key team members need to constantly look up from the 'bone' of the current project and scan for other opportunities. Otherwise, they feel backed into one corner with no options, a defensiveness which tends to create a scarcity mentality that has been shown to blunt creativity and lead to worse outcomes.

Ongoing, separate commitments essentially force leaders to loosen their focus. When I was in college, having multiple projects opened me to new options. As a result, I just felt freer. I started a radio channel, wrote the school play, and at one point was working at BBC while a full-time student. I got more energy from exposing myself to all these different types of projects and felt I could therefore add much more value to all of them. That’s just as true today in my role running several unrelated companies.

Stacking the plate is valuable as long as it’s well-managed. Our company has baked this into our operation with some simple rules. After meeting with a new client, we take one intense week to explore opportunities. Then we give ourselves 100 days to deliver a minimal viable product. By doing this, we encourage high-level multitasking - but also constrain it enough that we don’t get muddleheaded or generate too many long-term commitments that overextend the company.

3. Always Be Ready to Pivot.

Finally, leaders must maintain the right attitude: readiness. While multitasking has day-to-day benefits in promoting engagement, creativity, and a sense of employee ownership, none of that matters when companies fail. In a competitive marketplace, that’s always a possibility. To avoid it, leaders have to be ready to pivot judiciously.

But knowing when to pivot isn’t easy, nor is having the resolution to make a big move. When one pivots one’s body, it requires shifting weight onto the other foot. Likewise, business pivots require gutsy redeployment of resources. When it works, it can pay off with enormous value.

For example, Flickr started as an online role-playing game and switched to photo sharing when the company realized that was the popular aspect of its site. Twitter’s founding was born out of a podcasting company. Instagram started as a check-in app called Burbn. In all these cases, leaders read trends and repositioned themselves accordingly.

Key change often happens at humble times. One of my companies, BarkBox, started with a simple idea of mailing monthly boxes, and we never looked at it as the next big thing. Over time, we stayed open to opportunities for growth. And we have benefited significantly from that attitude. But we were willing to pivot as necessary, while I needed to become disciplined in what I spent my time on (a habit that serves me well in all business matters).

Forget the conventional wisdom. High-level multitasking is a prime differentiator for leaders that drive projects toward game-changing innovation and increased market share. Industry legends have always known this to be true, from Thomas Edison and his many businesses and inventions to Richard Branson, who now heads more than 400 ventures. It’s a natural for the entrepreneurial mind, which loves nothing more than chasing ideas — and developing them into compelling new realities. 

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