What the Neurobehavior of the Oscars Snafu Can Teach You

At the end of the day, we made a human error.  We made a mistake.

Tim Ryan, US Chairman and senior partner of PwC

Mistakes happen.But the beauty of hindsight is the opportunity to reflect back as to why those mistakes happen.Last Sunday, for the first time in 89 years, a massive mistake happened - live on stage in front of millions of people - at the Academy Awards.Brian Cullinan, a managing partner for PwC, handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope for the winner of Best Picture.The rest is Oscars history.  Confusion reigned supreme, faces were mortified, emotions went on a roller coaster, and after much angst, ultimately Moonlight was awarded Best Picture.We don’t know exactly why Mr. Cullinan picked up the wrong envelope.  We're not him. But from all the various reports, he seemed to be distracted by the high wattage of the Hollywood starlight glowing backstage.  He was caught in a fog of social media.According to the PwC public relations team, Cullinan (and his PwC partner Martha Ruiz) were given a clear No Tweeting policy.   Once they were on-site, they were asked to refrain from using social media until the telecast ended.However, Cullinan tweeted numerous times from backstage during the program, sharing photos of the winners.   One of the tweets was sent just a few minutes before his gigantic envelope gaffe:Cullinan had one job to do:  give the correct envelopes to the presenters.  Tweeting was not part of that job.After last Sunday's experience, Brian Cullinan should win the award for "Most Conspicuous Display of the Perils of Multitasking."Multitasking matters.According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) overview of multitasking research, there are three types of multitasking:

  1. Performing two tasks simultaneously.This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a conference call.
  2. Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We’ve all know how hard it is when we're right in the middle of focused work on one thing when an another task urgently calls for our attention.
  3. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. This may be what Cullinan experienced.  It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work optimally.

In each instance, there is a cost incurred: switching time.  This is the time it takes to switch from one cognitive task to the next.  Human brains are designed to be sequential, not simultaneous.  Thus every time you switch, you lose a certain level of cognitive functioning.  It takes longer, and you make more mistakes.According to the APA , 

“Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”

 After last Sunday, the world knows what multitasking cost PwC and its reputation.What might multitasking be costing you? What can you do about it?What's your experience with the costs of multitasking?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.