Collaboration Is Not the Best Method for Problem Solving

Why Collaboration Is Useless for Problem Solving

Or why you might be wasting your time on Slack and Google Docs.



Collaboration is basically the grownup word for “playing nice together.” That makes it easy to assume that more collaboration has got to be better than less.

Unfortunately, collaboration doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it actually shackles your ability to solve a problem. A new study shows that when you really need to solve a tough problem, collaboration is not the answer. You–and your employees–will have better luck closing the door and duking it out on your own.

The researchers, from Harvard Business School, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and Northeastern University, assigned 70 teams of 16 students each to solve various problems. The students used a customized collaboration software to facilitate their progress. Some teams were more interconnected than others, in that certain team members could share information with a wider variety of players.

Teams that were the most interconnected did the best job of digging up information that could, theoretically, help them in finding a solution. But when it came time to actually decide on an answer, the most-interconnected teams did the worst.

“We realized that the network structure seemed to have opposite effects for searching for information and searching for solutions,” says Jesse Shore, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at Boston University, quoted in Harvard’s Working Knowledge newsletter. “That was sort of the aha! moment.”

The more-connected teams didn’t dig up that much more information than the less-connected ones. They tended to gather about five percent more data, mostly because the better-connected team members were less likely to unwittingly conduct duplicative searches.

But those more-connected teams also came up with dramatically fewer possible solutions than the less-connected teams. The less-connected teams came up with 17.5 percent more ideas, and, more important, they were more likely to come up with the correct idea. Shore says that’s because the less-connected teams were less likely to end up duplicating a bad idea from a neighbor.

It’s worth noting that the study had teams of students using exactly one collaboration tool, expressly designed for studies of this nature. My guess is that made the tool more helpful than it would have been in real life. After all, it’s hard to be optimally aware of what’s going on in Basecamp, Slack, and Google Docs–to name a just a few popular collaboration tools–all at once.

Researcher Ethan Bernstein, of Harvard, says that the study results show the need for companies to be flexible–in the way they define teamwork, in their use of software, and even in their architecture. You don’t want to be encouraging your employees to be doing everything as a team when the best problem-solving tactic might be to close an office door and unplug. It means that collaboration tools need to be more flexible, and that everyone must understand that sometimes those tools are not appropriate.

Shore connects his work to the current craze for open-plan offices, which are supposed to encourage collaboration. Those offices are well known to be challenging for introverts. But Shore says other employees will also need spaces where they can disconnect and concentrate on knotty problems–and leave collaboration behind.


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