Funny thing, but as we grow-up and get “smarter,” we tend to make things more complicated than they need to be, and innovation is no exception. New product innovation is complex enough to begin with; so let’s look at a lesson we learned as children that can help simplify it and deliver more impact.

My wife taught four and five-year olds for many years, and whenever I was lucky enough to see her in action I always learned (or re-learned) something myself. During one visit, it struck me how smooth playtime was. You would think that a room full of five-year olds would be a real beehive of activity; while the children were certainly displaying all of the energy and enthusiasm you would expect, they weren’t flitting from one activity to the next. Since five-year olds don’t have the longest attention spans, I marveled, “How do you keep them so focused?”

“It’s easy” she replied. “They know they’re not allowed to start a new activity until they finish playing with the old one and put it away.” Wow!

What a simple, but powerful lesson – focus on one thing at a time and finish it before moving on to the next task. The children know they can’t jump from working on a puzzle over to the sand table until they’ve finished, picked up all the pieces, put them back in the box and put it back on the shelf.

To observe any new product group today, you would think it was just the opposite. Multitasking would appear to be critical to productivity. Why else would we hail it as a “must have” talent? Why would job descriptions list it as a required skill? We’ve forgotten that simple lesson from childhood. The reality is that multitasking is a myth, a myth that destroys productivity. That’s right; people can’t do multiple things at the same time.

Don’t take my word for it. Cognitive research has verified that people are incapable of multitasking. Yes, almost anyone can walk and chew gum at the same time. But for any task that takes cognitive function such as thinking, writing, speaking, planning or designing, we actually switch-task. We switch back and forth between tasks. That’s why talking on the phone and driving at the same time leads to the dangerous behaviors we’ve all seen like swerving, driving through red lights or veering across multiple lanes to get to a missed exit.

Physical peril aside, the real problem is that multitasking is a huge productivity killer. Your brain takes time to switch from one activity to another; for highly complex tasks, like new product development, it can take 20 minutes to get back into a highly productive flow. Many times people struggle to get 20 minutes of uninterrupted work, so they rarely get into the zone. Additionally, when you switch tasks, you often forget some part of what you had been working on previously. Compound this with frequent switching throughout the day and it’s a wonder anything ever gets done.

How does this affect innovation? A study of engineers detailed in Revolutionizing Product Development: Quantum Leaps in Speed, Efficiency and Quality found that the percentage of value-added work dropped rapidly when they were assigned to more than two projects at a time. With five projects, value-added work had dropped to only 20%. As multitasked as people are today, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s taking longer and longer to get all of the work done. What a demoralizing effect.

How can you avoid this problem? Simply limit the number of project assignments to just a few at a time and encourage focused effort on one task at a time. I routinely find companies assigning people to five or even six projects; so this one change could easily double productivity. Additionally, think about how much more engaged your workforce would be if 60-80% of their efforts were adding value rather than only 20-30%.

In kindergarten, we learned that it’s best to focus on one thing at a time. As adults trying to jam as much as possible into our busy days, we quickly forget that lesson. What strategies can help you eliminate distractions and improve your new product productivity in your new products group? Here are some steps you can take:

  • Work on one task at a time, trying to finish it before picking up another task.
  • Don’t check email during that time. Turn off any email notifier, and try to limit yourself to check them only at two or three set times each day.
  • Ditto for voicemail. Change your message so callers know you are busy, but will get back to them in a few hours. Also, let them know how they can reach you in an emergency – which it will almost never be.
  • Ban smart phones and laptops in meetings. It’s like an IV for email addicts.
  • It hurts everyone’s productivity when people drop in on each other any time they feel like it. Set aside certain times when your door is open and use the other times for productive work. If it’s important, they can interrupt. Better yet, they’ll learn to solve 80% of their issues without you.
  • Get clear on when interruptions are important – such as when someone is working on a critical chain task and needs input from someone else before they can proceed.
  • Encourage your team members to do the same.

Communicate these changes and the reasons behind them across the organization so people understand and support the change.

Mike Dalton's Guided Innovation Group focuses on helping industrial B2B businesses to uncover hidden innovation capacity so they can get the right new products to market on time every time without adding resources. Download their Growth Equation Diagnostic to identify the best opportunities for improving your innovation productivity.