Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
It’s widely known that prolonged periods of quiet time can be crucial to delivering intellectual work that requires intense focus. This isn’t supposed to be the case for more collaborative work however, with both physical and digital environments supporting constant collaboration. Except, recent Harvard research1 suggests that even with team work, you can have too much communication.
The researchers examined how various teams performed a problem solving task. Each team utilized varying states of interaction, from none at all to constant interaction. In total, some 600 teams were assessed as they attempted to complete the traveling salesman challenge, which asks participants to plot the shortest way to take in 25 different locations before returning to the start point.
The team expected those groups with constant interaction to have the highest average quality of solution, but to also have both less variety and also less success in finding the optimal solution. In contrast, they predicted that the teams with no interaction would have high levels of variety, but a low average quality overall. These predictions were largely borne out, but what was interesting was in the groups with intermittent communication. They managed to secure the benefits of both the other types, but with none of the drawbacks.
The researchers hope that their findings provide a wake up call for managers who are typically taking their organizations in the other direction, with employees now largely always on.
“People are used to thinking and believing that we want to maximize how much people learn from each other; we want to maximize transparency,” they explain. “I don’t want there to be zero communication, but I do think that transparency and communication do have downsides, especially for certain kinds of problems; problems where you need certain kinds of creativity and you want to avoid rapid convergence because that convergence reduces how much the group explores and considers alternatives.”
What’s more, by communicating intermittently, it not only seemed to improve the performance of the group as a whole, but also of individuals within the group. In most group environments, lower performers thrive because they can piggy back off of the stronger members of the group, but in intermittent environments, the stronger members also derive benefits. This is because it gives them diverse ideas to tap into, which can spark their own thinking off in new directions.
This style of group work is quite common in agile teams, who employ sprints to bring people together for short, intense bursts of collective activity, before going away to work on their own again. The team believe these practices can help teams to thrive, and should be replicated where possible.
“If you do go for always on, always connected, you’re basically asking for certain virtues at the expense of other virtues in problem solving,” the researchers explain.
Not only do the team hope their findings will influence how teams behave in the real world, but they also believe the findings will work their way into how enterprise collaboration software is developed. History suggests that this kind of behavioral change can take a long time to stick, but it will be interesting to see if teams begin to shift their habits as a result of these findings.
Article source: How Often Should Teams Communicate?
- Bernstein, E., Shore, J., & Lazer, D. (2018). How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(35), 8734-8739. ↩