3 Skills Every 21st Century Manager Needs…Multi-Inspiring v. Multitasking

This month’s Harvard Business Review Magazine had an article that caught my eye: Three Skills Every 21st Century Manager Needs.  The three skills are:

Skill 1: Code Switching Between Cultures
Skill 2: Wielding Digital Influence
Skill 3: Dividing Attention Deliberately

I locked in on Skill #3: aka Multitasking.  We’ve all heard about why we should stop multitasking. Distractions make us less productive and efficient.  You are not present in the conversation or the meeting if you are trading blackberry messages.  It’s tough to re-fire the engines on the task you were previously working on if you jump to another task.   In order to minimize the temptation of distractions , it has been suggested that we turn off email, turn off phones, turn off other distractions and focus on the task at hand.  I understand that extreme multi-tasking can be counterproductive. [Quote: “Moderation in all things.” TerenceAndria Roman comic dramatist (185 BC – 159 BC)].  Yet, I’m not a buyer of the argument that multitasking should be eliminated altogether. HBR argues that “instead of battling distraction, you should embrace your brain’s proclivity for it” and suggests that this is a critical management skill for the 21st century.  I believe they are on point here.  You’ll find key excerpts below:

…We all know the story of contemporary distractions. In the past decade the world has gone from a total of 12 billion e-mails a day to 247 billion, from 400,000 text messages to 4.5 billion, from an individual average of 2.7 hours a week online

…We sit in offices or cubicles designed to shut out the external world, but the center of our work life is a computer that keeps us connected to that world—to colleagues, customers, clients, family, community, entertainment, and hobbies; to everything we know we should be doing and everything we know we shouldn’t.

…Are these employees distracted by 21st-century technology? Or has 21st-century technology empowered them to pay attention in a new, perhaps more natural, creative, and productive way?

…modern workers switch tasks an average of once every 3 minutes.  Once their focus on a given task has been interrupted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to it. Some say we should try to eliminate those distractions. But I think today’s managers are capable of coping with and sometimes even thriving on them.

research also shows that 44% of the switches cited above are caused by “internal” rather than “external” sources of distraction—meaning that our minds simply wander. We can’t blame technology for our failure to focus, because our brains are built to multitask. Close your eyes for five minutes and notice how your thoughts stray, jump, zigzag, and double back. Success in 20th-century factories and offices may have required paying strict attention to systematic tasks and taking those tasks to completion, but that is not a natural way for humans to operate. Perhaps our 21st-century connectedness gives us the freedom to acknowledge this.

…Why should we make undivided attention an ideal and cling to it in an environment where it is so hard for us? Why not “unlearn” that skill…in order to let our brains work the way they do naturally? 

…a study shows that although people who use the internet at work for personal reasons assume it makes them less productive, it actually increases their productivity by 9%. That isn’t true for internet “addicts” who use social media to excess. But for those whose minds simply wander between work and play, a break to surf the web can provide a cognitive refresher that improves their performance when they return to the task at hand…Maybe managers will learn to embrace it as a positive distraction that relieves stress and boosts creativity.

…Another productivity-enhancing strategy is to deliberately divide attention and harness it…managers are more engaged in their virtual meetings because of the simultaneous text messaging that has become standard practice; in fact, when the feature isn’t turned on, they start to worry that someone isn’t being heard. By encouraging these multiple conversations, managers marshal wandering minds. They also promote more-equitable participation in group calls—people can respond without interrupting—and ensure that the entire conversation flows in an interactive and productive way. Attention is “distributed” more evenly and fluidly, rather than being dominated by one or two loquacious participants who leave everyone else disengaged and distracted.

…At the individual level, a good example is the software developer Aza Raskin, formerly of Mozilla and now the CEO of the start-up Massive Health. Raskin knows he can’t spend all day, every day focused on only the most important tasks. But he sets limits on his divided attention by using two computers at his workstation and another down the hall. The work he must accomplish is loaded onto the first, most prominent device, with no internet connection. Off to the side is a machine that offers access to e-mail and the web. The third, a short walk away, is linked to Twitter and his blog, with a flashing reminder of the “real” work he needs to do back at his desk. His strategy is to make procrastination difficult but not impossible, because complete focus is beyond his reach—and not necessarily even desirable in today’s workplace. Raskin’s three computers help him program interruption and mind-­wandering into his day.

…Not everyone has the same style or requirements for attention, so a good 21st-century manager needs to figure out how to let multimedia work to everyone’s advantage. Gazing aimlessly out the window is as important to creativity as logging on to Facebook to view the latest photo of your young nephew and then returning to work in a better, lighter, more productive mood. Research shows that accident, disruption, distraction, and difference increase our motivation to learn and to solve problems, both individually and collectively. The key is to embrace and even create positive interruptions.

In the future, continuous partial attention will perhaps be seen not as a problem but as a critical new skill. And maybe we won’t call it multitasking—we’ll call it multi-inspiring.

Image Source: Noisyworkers.com


  1. “Multi-inspiring..” I like it. It is a skill that is very powerful if you can keep it controlled and not disrespectful to others (not giving people your full attention.) Thanks for sharing.


  2. I think balance is key. There is a time for focus and a time for multi-tasking. Knowing what time it is – that’s a skill.

    Also, I find it substantially easier to multi-task in written form (e.g., multiple IM conversations at once or multiple emails at once) as opposed to oral/audible communication. Here’s an interesting link about how women can follow 2 conversations but men only use half their brain to listen so they can only follow 1 at a time:



  1. Marenated says:

    […] And I think that’s the point that all these people miss. If you multitask all the time, surely your brain is never going to be useful when it’s time to go down in the basement and LEARN or STUDY or WRITE. The people they are […]


  2. […] 3 Skills Every 21st Century Manager Needs…Multi-Inspiring v … Published by admin on Feb 5, 2012 under Uncategorized | Post your comment now « Dunbrooke 9516 […]


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