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What Is Context Switching in Agile?

When you hear the phrase ‘context switching’, Agile is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. That’s because it originated as a computing term. It describes how a computer can pause a process in its current state and move on to a new one. In this way, the central processing unit can handle multiple tasks at one time. Context switching is, essentially, a form of multitasking.

In Agile, context switching follows a similar vein, but there is a person in place of the computer. In this scenario, a team member stops working on a particular Agile task in their user story to move to a different task. This may be an intentional decision, or they could get distracted by something external, e.g., an email notification. 

Example of Agile context switching

An example of context switching in Agile could be a Scrum developer working on a new product feature. Halfway through the sprint, they are interrupted by a team member who has a question about the code used in a previous software version. The developer pauses their current task to address the query. When they are finished, they resume their original task.

Should you use context switching in Agile?

Though many will extol the benefits of multitasking, there is also plenty of scientific evidence to show that it simply doesn’t work. Take cooking as an everyday example: when you multitask while cooking a meal, you are far more likely to overcook your pasta while you are preoccupied chopping your vegetables. 

Moving back to the Agile workplace, you could argue that the practice of context switching is simply not compatible with an Agile workflow model. The division of Agile workloads into short iterations means team members are encouraged to devote all their efforts to a particular user story in a timeboxed period. The idea is to finish one iteration and refine the end deliverable until it meets the appropriate quality standards before moving to the next iteration. 

What’s more, it can be very difficult to switch your brain back to your original task after an unplanned interruption, potentially leading to a loss of productive hours. In his book Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking, psychologist Gerry Weinberg suggests that a single context switch can cost you 20% of your productivity. This could skew your story point estimation, meaning you run out of time, and your deliverables run the risk of late delivery.

One of the principles of Kanban, a widely used Agile framework, is to focus on the task at hand. This means limiting the number of items in your ‘Work in Progress’ column so you can accelerate delivery and eliminate bottlenecks. Adding an unnecessary item to this column can slow your pace down and reduce overall efficiency.

In summary, context switching is not a recommended practice for your Agile projects.