Many Hats – Breeds Unicorns


I had to wear many hats.

The task switching made me prone to mistakes.

Bugs in the software…

The requirements that were missed…

This leads to loss of revenues, conflicts with teams and lots of stress.

I’m not alone, many jobs require multiple hats.

I could approach this from the perspective that this is all bad and we should never do it, however many positions require task switching.

Let’s focus on task switching for value creating staff in the organization.

I was able to pick up on these and adapt my strategies.

Multi Task Roles – What Not To Do

The core idea I am presenting in this article are for the knowledge worker roles in the value creation area of the business or the gemba (The place in the organization where the value work is performed). Executive leaders and entrepreneurs fall under a different column; a conversation for another time! (Peter Drucker provides executive tips in his book The Effective Executive)

Next we take one of these gemba roles and chop it up across multiple functional lines.  Think of the individual that is:

  1. The Software Developer
  2. The Product Manager
  3. The Process Owner

Bosses have the idea to split up these into nice little boxes then put some percentages beside them:

Software Development – 30%

Product Manager – 50%

Process Review- 20%

If you want to chop up the roles of your staffers so they read like a burger shop value meal, then don’t be surprised when the results look like they came from a value chain burger shop!

Your best staff want the freedom and trust to do their best. Set them up for success and support them when trouble comes knocking. This will go a long way to help them establish positive experiences among managers and their colleagues.

Key Point: Task Switching is Expensive

In my experience, task splitting value creation work creates waste. Ultimately it leads to administrative overhead for the boss and the staffer as they come into conflict about priorities. Knowledge work never falls into buckets so clean we can measure it to one place after the decimal, let alone, 2 places to the front of the decimal!

Task switching also requires a significant time investment to refocus. This is important in knowledge work, like software development where one needs to contemplate the problem, solution paths  and how best to navigate the existing software solution.

Speaking from experience, I needed to constantly juggle all of these in my mind at the same time. One slight distraction and the tapestry could quickly unweave, requiring additional effort to determine where I left off.

Tips to help with the Multi-Hat roles

Get More Help

Hire additional help to take on the extra tasks. It can even be part time work as there is a  number of freelance professionals available that can provide services. These professionals will bring their toolkit of experience to your organization. Borrow from their toolkits while they are at your organization. Continue to use and improve on the best of their toolkits after they leave.

Look for the tasks that will not result in knowledge loss when the contract concludes. Process refinement is a good one to contract out as the deliverables are changes that flow back into the organization at each step.

Another option is to find willing volunteers within the organization that want to take on a subset of the work. If a developer lead is given project management tasks and their passion is for development then transitioning the project management tasks will provide a better experience for the team.

With less tasks on her plate, the developer lead may now have time to mentor other developers,  which is a more valuable benefit for the organization.

The Team Owns the Responsibilities

Move the responsibilities to a team that will be delivering against them. For the above example, create a team that can share the roles between members. Explain why it is necessary for the team to take on the tasks. (Read: “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek) Establish the constraints for the team to operate under which can include:

  • how often to ask customers for feedback.
  • the number of process improvements active in the backlog at any one time.
  • automation test coverage enhancements.

Teams are a great way to reduce key person risk, If any member leaves the team then not all knowledge is lost. When a key individual leaves, they take with them the knowledge and the processes they developed to manage the shifting priorities.

Incentivize the team, not the individuals, for successfully meeting the success criteria. This builds the habit of solving problems as a team and forms stronger working relationships between the team members.

Agree on priorities

Agree on a standard approach to resolving priority conflicts. Conflicts are inevitable when one person takes on multiple role responsibilities. Taking a page from Lean Principles: Agree on a limit to Work in Progress. If the limit is reached, then agree on what work can be moved to a lower priority.

Create a scoring system for prioritization:

  • Determine work that can be interrupted as it is close to shipping.
  • Assign value to work not yet started so it can be ranked against other work.
  • Determine criteria that disqualifies interrupting work from… interrupting!
  • Build habits of discovering the cause of interrupts and prioritize solutions that solve for root causes.

Develop Practices for Effectiveness

Find ways to systematize work. After performing the same type of work a few times, habits will form. There are opportunities to create checklists or decision trees that could allow someone else (new, or willing to cross train) in the organization to take on the work, thus freeing the time to solve higher priority problems.

Dedicated Focus Time

If the Product Manager, for example, is also responsible for software delivery tasks then set aside dedicated focus time where they can work on those tasks, uninterrupted. This could include the person working from a different location if that helps them best resolve the tasks.

Finally: Don’t Breed a Unicorn!

Take the time to check in on the value creation workers performing multi-hat roles within your business. The best outcome is they are managing all the tasks well and responsibly. Worse,  they leave and there are no other multi-hat unicorns on the market to replace them! Balancing multi-hats is a special sauce skill.

Successful entrepreneurs are good at it, and know when to specialize out of it. It is easy to get captivated by entrepreneur success stories and think that anyone has the ability to juggle multi-hat roles. Juggling multiple hats is an expert level skill and not something everyone has in their toolbox. Have your value creation staff focus on what they do best and consult them on how best to fill the skill gaps.

What happens when your unicorn leaves?

What are your success stories or battle scars when dealing with multi-hat roles?

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