New research suggests we may need to rethink the way we coordinate our problem solving with other people.
When we work with others to solve problems, we draw on (at least) two kinds of coordination. The first works with others to discover information that might be relevant to the problem. The second uses that information to generate a diverse set of potential solutions to the problem. What the new research from Harvard Business School shows is that these two steps actually require different coordination strategies.
Much of the focus of the research relates to how tightly interconnected people are in a group. In network terminology, the term for this dense interconnection is “clustering,” and it’s very typical in the workplace.
What the researchers found was that highly clustered groups of people, with lots of communication between them, are great for discovering new information, but not so great for generating new solutions. When people are able to easily see what their fellow collaborators are searching for, it’s easier for them to avoid duplicating searches, and concentrate instead on searching for new information. When groups coordinate their searches this way, they become very effective at uncovering a diversity of information. Much of this ability comes from their superior ability to find – and filter out – duplicate information.
When it comes to generating solutions though, highly clustered groups have a harder time. That’s because in these highly connected groups, where everyone is aware of what others are doing, people are much more likely to copy the solutions of their peers. So unlike with information discovery where clustering promotes increased diversity, it leads to convergence and less diversity in solutions. You might say that clustering contributes to groupthink.
“Our results provide evidence for the proposition we outline above: clustering promotes exploration of information space and inhibits exploration of solution space.”
What these findings tell us is that tight clusters of collaboration make sense for the information gathering phase of problem solving, but that these same clusters then need to be deliberately disrupted if we’re to develop a diverse range of potential solutions to a problem.
In other words, more connectivity isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, we need some space for the creative juices to flow. That conclusion may seem counterintuitive at first, but on further reflection, it just might reflect your own experience.
For me personally, I love the chemistry I get from a tight group of collaborators. And yet, when I need deeper insight or creativity, I almost always find I need a little peace and quiet – and separation. I always bring whatever insights I come up with on my own back to the group for feedback and further iteration, but honestly, when I think back on my most creative solutions, the vast majority sprang out of that quiet, peaceful place, deep inside me.
Looks like I may not be alone in that.