Collaboration in the Workplace is Good. Right?

When you’ve got a problem that needs solving, getting a fast, creative and efficient solution is key. Managers often think that the best way to do that is to create a team and collaborate together, but that turns out not to be true.

Recent research done at Harvard, Boston University and Northeastern University has shown that inducing more group collaboration may actually hinder problem solving, according to this Forbes article. It turns out that collaboration is effective in gathering information, but not actually solving the problem.  In fact, the less-collaborative teams in the study came up with 17.5% more solutions than the more-connected ones. Apparently, close-knit teams are more likely to copy an incorrect theory from a neighbor or come to a premature consensus. So the “facts” and the “figuring” need to be separated, which is what many of the big consulting companies do, using different teams for different parts of a project.

This makes me wonder about the collaboration products I see companies using.  Are they really worthwhile?  I think the part that helps get information to the employees is essential – people need basic information – but causing them to work too closely together can slow down creative problem solving.

This is particularly relevant for companies that work in fast-changing industries with rapidly evolving products.  Their employees need to understand their customers’ pain points and come up with solutions and the associated products.  Anything that slows down the solution part by 17.5% creates a big competitive disadvantage.

A solid approach to solving problems is to get the team together, define the problem, conduct the research – and then create enough looseness between the members so that they have the space to problem solve individually. Those solutions can then be brought back to the team for final consideration.

Frank Kenna III
July 9, 2015

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