Ill-timed phone calls and colleagues popping in are classic productivity killers, the bane of many managers’ existence. Dealing with such interruptions, experts agree, leaves many knowledge workers with the functional equivalent of attention deficit disorder. The remedy usually suggested: Avoid multitasking. Check e-mail only twice a day. Resist the temptation to drop whatever you’re doing to put out a fire somewhere else.
Our research on executive teams suggests that this bias against multitasking may be misguided. In fact, executives who doggedly plow through each task until it’s finished may be doing their companies a disservice. Under some circumstances, top management teams perform better when they accept—even relish—interruptions.
Drawing on data about CEOs and other executives of nearly 200 new technology ventures listed on the London Stock Exchange, we measured top management teams’ polychronicity—their tendency to multitask—and then looked at their firms’ returns. We chose tech ventures because executive teams in these very dynamic companies are often self-selected, and members generally have similar outlooks.
Using questionnaires and interviews, we discovered that about a third of the teams in our sample were highly polychronic. About a sixth of the teams were highly monochronic: They disliked and avoided multitasking. The rest fell somewhere in the middle.
We found that the financial performance of companies with highly polychronic teams was significantly better than that of companies with average or monochronic teams.
Why the difference? The polychronic teams proved to be superior information brokers, absorbing and disseminating more-insightful information than their average and monochronic counterparts. As a result, they were much less apt than the other teams to bog down: They could make strategic decisions faster, placing less emphasis on analyzing large quantities of data. Their expedited decision-making process, we believe, boosted their companies’ performance.
Executive polychronicity may benefit other sorts of companies, too; after all, effective information brokering and quick decision making can aid established corporations and firms in a variety of fields. But our research suggests that these skills are essential for new ventures and small companies that must negotiate dynamic business environments—social media, clean technologies, and internet security, to name a few. In such cases, a polychronic culture can position the executive team for success. Entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who back them should keep this in mind when staffing the top ranks of a start-up.
HBR Reprint F1110B
Vangelis Souitaris is a professor at Cass Business School, in London. B.M. Marcello Maestro is the managing director of Bravemarket, a New York–based investment firm.
SOME MANAGERS JUGGLE WELL, SOME DON’T
A third of the executive teams surveyed displayed a preference for interruptions. About half as many preferred to focus deeply. The quotes below are from our study.
“We multitask all the time, not simply because we can—because we want to.”
“This team prides itself on being able to oversee several ongoing projects at the same time quite easily.…We enjoy the variety, that constant switching, the challenge of needing to concentrate harder.”
“It doesn’t matter if anyone thinks one project is less revenue-generating than another. Once we’re on it, our absolute priority lies in finishing what we’ve started.”
“Hopping from one project to another? Is that really wise? I mean, there is no time to really think things through, right? I believe it would only ruin our concentration and disrupt our thought process.”