Collaborate on complex problems, but only intermittently

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

A new study suggests that teams should collaborate on complex problems, but only intermittently:

Bernstein, Assistant Professor Jesse Shore of the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, and Professor David Lazer of Northeastern University put together and studied 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 constantly interacted, as we do when equipped with always-on technologies; and members of the third set of groups interacted only intermittently.

From prior research, the researchers anticipated that the groups whose members never interacted would be the most creative, coming up with the largest number of unique solutions — including some of the best and some of the worst — and a high level of variation that sprang from their working alone. In short, they expected the isolated individuals to produce a few fantastic solutions but, as a group, a low average quality of solution due to the variation. That proved to be the case.

The researchers also anticipated that the groups whose members constantly interacted would produce a higher average quality of solution, but fail to find the very best solutions as often. In other words, they expected the constantly interacting groups’ solutions to be less variable but at the cost of being more mediocre. That proved to be the case as well.

But here’s where the researchers found something completely new: Groups whose members interacted only intermittently preserved the best of both worlds, rather than succumbing to the worst. These groups had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly, yet they preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.

Perhaps the most interesting result was that when their interactions were intermittent, the higher performers were able to get even better by learning from the low performers. When high and low performers interacted constantly, the low performers tended to simply copy high performers’ solutions and were in turn generally ignored by the high performers. But when their interactions were intermittent, the low performers’ ideas helped the high performers achieve even better solutions.

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. In some ways, that’s how work traditionally has been done in organizations — with individuals working alone, then coming together in a meeting, then returning to work alone. But advancing technology has changed those cycles.


  1. Kirk says:

    This sort of thing is actually one of the least studied and understood human phenomenon out there. We simply don’t know all that much about how things “really work”, when it comes to small group dynamics and “working together” as a small group.

    No idea why this is so–The military has a tremendous problem with this, in that “they”, the powers-that-be at the top of the hierarchy, do big-picture crap really, really well. Small-units…? LOL… We’ll just make changes willy-nilly, and expect that people will adapt. Only… They don’t. Not in the way they project they will, that is.

    Too much of this stuff is experimented on or messed with because the upper levels of the hierarchy fail to credit the bottom-end, rubber-meets-road level with any real importance to the future or success of the organization. Very few “leaders” or “managers” follow the dictum I first heard from a very astute and successful senior leader in the Army, namely that “…good squads will pull the most ‘effed-up OPORD (OPerations ORDer, the basic planning document for conducting business in the military) out of the shit and make it work; the finest, most well-written OPORD in the world will not get you a damn thing, when you’ve got shitty squads to execute it…”.

    Basic crap, like even identifying key personnel in organizations, is lost on a lot of the people we have running things. The org chart is not the organization–Nine times out of ten, there’s an entirely different structure to how “things are really done”, and that secretary we don’t compensate very well may actually be the nexus of why our organization can really function well–Usually, because she knows who actually does what, and how to get things done. Fire her, or lay her off…? You may be bankrupt in very short order.

    Hierarchy can serve a purpose, but after you hit about three levels in the org chart, you might want to stop and re-think what you’re doing. When the guys out in the shipping department are suddenly having to economize on tape to seal boxes with, because someone in procurement decided they were using too much, and now you’re getting tons of returns because your shipping boxes opened up and allowed damage during transshipment and storage… You might have a problem. And, if the guys handling returns aren’t talking to the guys doing shipping, who aren’t talking to the guys in procurement who started the whole mess with their false economies…? Yeah; you’re gonna be outsourcing manufacture and shipping of your product to Malaysia, or somewhere else, very shortly.

    Understanding what the hell is actually going on in your organization is critical to success, but all too many managers and leaders just “let things happen”, and never really try to even go through the motions. Then, when things blow up, it’s all about assigning the blame, usually on innocent third parties like “the economy”…

  2. David Foster says:

    “Basic crap, like even identifying key personnel in organizations, is lost on a lot of the people we have running things. The org chart is not the organization–Nine times out of ten, there’s an entirely different structure to how “things are really done”, and that secretary we don’t compensate very well may actually be the nexus of why our organization can really function well–Usually, because she knows who actually does what, and how to get things done. Fire her, or lay her off…? You may be bankrupt in very short order.”

    Yes. I’ve found it very important, when restructuring organizations, to try & understand what the actual flows of communication and influence are…otherwise, you are likely to cut a nerve you didn’t even know was there.

    And, re secretaries: I think the elimination of secretaries driven by word processing and other ‘productivity tools’ had had some serious negative productivity effects. A lot of secretaries were actually acting as intelligent communication switches.

  3. Kirk says:

    It is odd, is it not, that a lot of the basic stuff that we are forced to live with day-to-day and which is the actual underpinning of our complex technological society…? It isn’t seen as anything worthy of study or even paying attention to. We are like fish in the water, unaware that we’re swimming in it, paying no attention at all to it, until something goes wrong. And, then…? We just abandon the failed enterprise, and move onto another body of water to swim in, never really reflecting on what we just experienced.

    I would wager that most people can’t even identify when they are participating in a well-run and successful enterprise, during the moment they are there. But, I guarantee you, they’ll be able to identify the hell out of it in retrospect, years later, while living in a far less successful milieu. I know that was my case–Probably the best unit I served in while I was in the Army did not appear as such to me, at the time. Afterwards? Oh, how my perspective changed on that!

    There are secrets here, to be teased out and organized into a recipe book for success, but nobody is really looking for them. Academia and the hubristic management hierarchy conspire to ignore the vast question of how best to organize the base, and as a result, it’s an ignored subject of study and scholarship.

    We probably know more about the marital customs of the Trobriand Islands than we do about the actual internal dynamics of an infantry squad or factory-floor operation. Which is a pity, because it is these minute molecular structures from which our national and industrial successes flow. Good teams, good squads, good platoons… And you don’t even need to worry about the companies, battalions, brigades, and divisions. Likewise in private industry–Your “act” is together at the lower levels, and the customers will find little to complain about at the higher ones. Be screwed up at the low levels, and you’re talking about Comcast levels of customer satisfaction. Which is why Comcast ought to be profoundly grateful that they are in an industry where “natural monopolies” are still possible. They’re gonna die like dinosaurs, when we get alternatives.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    What we do every day we take for granted.

    What we take for granted we don’t bother to examine.

    What we don’t bother to examine gradually succumbs to entropy and becomes silly.

    This too is vanity, a vexation of spirit. But it’s a gold mine for comedy. Ordinary people are silly. The trick is to tell them so without offending them too much.

  5. Kirk says:

    Things that we take for granted are most often the things that would bear the most fruit, when thoroughly examined.

    Humans need social interaction, indeed… We crave it. Social interaction should be constructive, and serve a utilitarian purpose, as well as a purely social one. Work should be something that we enjoy taking part in, as a positive part of our lives. And… Yet… We don’t examine what it is that makes working with others effective and enjoyable.

    Think of how many toxic bosses there are out there, and how many toxic employees that they’ve either created or allowed to exist within enterprises. How do these people happen, and what allows them to rise to the top like so much sewage foam? How do you prevent them, once you know what creates them? Are they curable?

    The dynamics of how we create teams and effective working groups is an unstudied art. You go to look at the books, and all you will find there is platitude after ineffective platitude–When what you really want is a damn recipe book for how to make it happen.

    Nearly forty years ago, I joined the US Army. Having read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, I expected that the experience of basic training and advanced individual training would be run scientifically by men who were following a set program of “how to build teams”. Yeah, I was that naive…

    Imagine my surprise when, upon meeting one of my drill sergeants in later years, as a young NCO myself, and discussing the initial entry training I experienced. I had gone through it, mentally checking a block every time “they” did something, like take us out on an interminable night road march that was supposed to be ten miles, but turned into fifteen miles of hell in snow and mud… That experience of shared suffering did a lot to bond all of us together, and build teamwork in our company and platoons. Now, I’d always thought that the whole thing was intentional, and was a canny way of solving a bunch of issues that had been causing dissension in the ranks… I complimented my old drill sergeant on that whole thing, and the look of “WTF are you talking about, dumbass… We got lost that night, pure and simple…” on his face was just a tad disillusioning. Turns out, virtually none of the stuff I’d taken as planned and calculated events on a roadmap of soldierization was actually intended–It was all sheer accident and happenstance. It was like “Hey, you guys arranged for us to catch someone stealing our guidon, right…?” “Nope; that was just the drills over in Delta being dumbasses–They got their asses chewed for that by the post CSM…”.

    Most of what the Army does along these lines is purely accidental, and what does get “planned” is actually the result of informal and highly suspicious “word-of-mouth” technique handed down from drill to drill. There is no “recipe book” for building a squad, just like there is usually limited or no such thing for most civilian jobs.

    Hell, go ask a high school football coach: “How do you build a winning team…?”. Most of them will look at you like you’re crazy, and maybe start listing off things they’ve done or tried, but there is no formal roadmap to what experiences you need to create for your players to build them into an effective team. A lot of folks won’t even think about this stuff in these terms, and will stare at you in utter bafflement when you try to get them to tell you their “trade secrets”.

    In a lot of ways, very little of this aspect of life and social conduct is actually studied, let alone codified. Which is a bit of a problem, because when the social engineers and do-gooders come along, it’s hard to argue against their “good ideas” and protestations about the “harsh training” you’re “inflicting” on the troops. You may know, as an NCO, that you need to make them suffer, and share that with them, but without that recipe book and roadmap explaining why, and just how much suffering you need to inflict, it’s damn hard to argue for doing the harsh and demanding training that you know you need to, in order to prepare for war.

  6. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Intermittent interaction limits the influence of stupid people on a group. Every now and then a stupid person has a good idea that can be leveraged by smarter members. Want to watch a group take a nosedive insert a stupid person with no self awareness. Unless someone kicks his ass the group will settle to a lower level of performance.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    I have never known a stupid person to have a good idea. However, they often have useful information. But it’s hard to get that information out of them because they mistake their own opinions for facts. You have to chunk down with them constantly. “When was this? Where did this happen? Did you see this?”

    Some are such meatheads that they won’t respond to questions about specifics at all. They just ramble vaguely and angrily. They won’t say anything concrete and they won’t shut up either. The only information I can get is that something ticked the guy off. How do I deal with this? I turn away and ask someone else. Or I just walk away.

    Social interaction is only as good as the people you choose to interact with. First figure out whom to hang out with, then figure out how to get along with them. The world is full of people who just aren’t worth it.

  8. Kirk says:

    Harry Jones,

    I think that we have here another example of life experience shaping the use of language. I dare say that we would probably do well to use a translator between the two of us, because I am pretty sure we use the same words to say entirely different things describing dissimilar behaviors and actions.

    I’ve known quite a few “stupid” people that have produced good ideas. Trick is, though, the implications of implementing those ideas usually means not actually putting them to use. I think I’ve said it before, but consider “stupid” to be a word more relating to judgment and wisdom than to “smart” and “dumb”. Smart people can exhibit just as much stupidity as the dumb, but, boy… Can they do more damage.

    Problem-solving can rely on raw intelligence; it requires wisdom to discern whether the solution is going to work, or create more problems. The stupid but smart man will determine a course of action that addresses the first layer of the situation, implement it, and then watch as second- and third-order effects create a bigger mess than existed in the first place.

    A dumb but wise man will see the same situation, and opt to do nothing because he know it is beyond his powers to fix. He will also be more likely to refer the issue to someone else that might be better equipped to deal with things.

  9. Lucklucky says:

    Isegoria, maybe this would be interesting to link to:

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