Reaching the Limits of Collaboration

An “intermittent” approach may be better for complex problem solving than constant collaboration.
By: | August 21, 2018 • 2 min read
collaboration

Do you ever get the feeling you spend too much time interacting with your work team? All that time together may not be yielding the best results for your organization.

Indeed, an “always on” attitude toward work may not be always effective, according to new research by Harvard Business School associate professor Ethan Bernstein and colleagues, now available online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Instead, the researchers suggest, “intermittently on” might be better for complex problem solving.

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In their study the three researchers—Bernstein from Harvard Business School, Assistant Professor Jesse Shore from the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, and Professor David Lazer from Northeastern University—put together and studied the results of a number of three-person groups performing a complex problem-solving task. The members of one set of groups never interacted with each other, solving the problem in complete isolation; members of another set of groups constantly interacted with each other, as we do when equipped with always-on technologies; and a third set of groups interacted only intermittently.

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The researchers found that the groups that interacted only intermittently fared best; they had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly. And yet, by only interacting intermittently, these groups also preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.

Bernstein and his co-authors see a number of workplace implications for these findings, including the advantages of alternating independent efforts with group work over a period of time to get optimal benefits. In some ways, he says, that’s how work has been done in organizations—with individuals working alone, then coming together in a meeting, then returning to work alone. But those cycles are being broken by the constant advancement of technology.

“As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well,” Bernstein notes.

Web Editor Michael J. O’Brien has been with HRE for more than a decade and holds a degree in economics from Boston College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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