Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can Isolation Be The New Way To Empower Collaboration?

Intermittent team disruptions can actually improve collective intelligence.

Source: Pixabay

Look around, it's everywhere: the open office. It all started with that wide-open office format with the beanbag chairs and coffee bar. Ending the traditional offices, (or should I say silos), seems to be a way to build the "collaboratory" and drive both productivity and innovation. Well, it seems that working from home, fixed office hours, and eliminating that office door might be a very bad idea. In a recent perspective on this of this contemporary work dilemma, we see how science confirms that open-plan offices may be the killer idea that actually kills innovation. These data show that people like to "close their door" and work. And the hustle bustle of engagement doesn't always manifest in that robust, collaborative environment to change the world. Sometimes, people just need a little space.

And now, there's reason to throw fuel on the fire.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the Nation Academy of Sciences takes a look at what happens when people interact and influence each other while solving complex problems. In essence, the study took a closer look at today collaborative mandate that lives in mission statements, factories and boardrooms around the world.

Many human endeavors—from teams and organizations to crowds and democracies—rely on solving problems collectively. Prior research has shown that when people interact and influence each other while solving complex problems, the average problem-solving performance of the group increases, but the best solution of the group actually decreases in quality.

Quantity increases, but quality does down.

The authors found that when social influence is intermittent, it improves the average, while maintaining a high maximum performance. In other words, the relentless drive in the office environment or even the high-pressure hackathon may be part of the solution and problem in today's drive for innovation. Perhaps the "comfort" of the group facilitates a more passive intellectual dynamic where the "group think" fails to provide a more in-depth and focused analysis. Disruption of the process itself, and the associated "introspection" and "percolation" may help structure and form thinking into actionable ideas.

Technology, as a tool for collaboration, didn't help.

Interesting, the authors also looked at storing subjects’ best solutions using commonly available productivity software to see if electronic continuity of an idea—recalled or modified—would be advantageous. The result is similar to constant social influence: it increases mean performance but decreases exploration.

Give yourself a break.

The reality seems to be that the search for a smarter, bigger and more powerful collective intelligence might be, in part, a function of intermittent breaks in the process. Planned disruptions in the "group think" may empower the individual and drive a deeper level of exploration. The collaborative dynamic is here to stay—from manufacturing to medicine. Now it's time to take a closer look at the very nature of these popular tactics to not just implement but optimize as a key tool to foster innovation.

More from John Nosta
More from Psychology Today
More from John Nosta
More from Psychology Today