When they are looking for creative solutions to new products or problems, businesses often turn to teamwork, believing that the odds of coming up with good ideas increase when employees collaborate. This may not be entirely true, however.
The best way to create a situation that encourages employees’ creativity to the fullest, researchers from Harvard, Boston and Northeastern Universities found, is to allow them plenty of time to work alone and come together only occasionally. That's how the best ideas happen — when coworkers collaborate intermittently, rather than all the time or never.
The researchers had people complete brain teasers in one of three conditions. In one, they always worked alone; in another, they were in near-constant contact; and in the third, they worked alone but came together intermittently.
The team had a hunch about what the results would be in the first two scenarios based on earlier research. They figured that people working alone would have a large range of ideas — from some extraordinary ones to some duds. Overall, they’d have a low average, but some of the best individual ideas. The group that collaborated all the time, the team predicted, would have a higher average, but they’d also have a narrower range of ideas, partly because they wouldn’t produce as many outstanding ideas.
Though collaboration definitely has its benefits, the study suggests that it's important to preserve time alone to let the mind wander and arrive at creative solutions.
And that is what they found in the results from these two groups. People working alone all the time found the best solutions to the brain teasers in 44 percent of the trials; people working in constant connection found it in 33 percent of trials.
Most impressive was the group that collaborated only occasionally. It seemed to have the best of both worlds: It arrived at a higher average quality of solutions, like the always-in-touch group, but they also came up with the best ideas more of the time, finding the best solution in over 48 percent of the trials.
This may be because working together only intermittently offers some interaction but preserves enough of the beneficial alone time to generate more unique ideas, the authors suggest, explaining that people in the intermittent collaboration group “displayed a balance between learning from peers (through social influence) and trying diverse new solutions (through independent exploration).”
The findings are particularly relevant these days when there’s so much more collaboration in offices and classrooms than in earlier years. Though collaboration definitely has its benefits, the study suggests that giving workers time alone to let the mind wander and arrive at creative solutions is worth preserving. Offices that allow employees to work alone and come together regularly for team meetings or brainstorming sessions might have the right idea. But setups where people work together much more than they work apart, especially digitally, may have major drawbacks.
“In general this is a reassuring finding about collective intelligence in the wild,” write the authors, “but [it] raises many questions about the design of always-on technologies that support collaborative and crowd work.”
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.