Teamwork Might Function Best as a Sometimes Food

If you grew up loving group projects, the workplace of today is likely really fun for you. If, however, your cautious optimism quickly turned to frustration more often than not, you may find yourself cheering the conclusion reached by Harvard Business School researchers: Constant collaboration doesn't actually yield the best results.

It's the impetus behind everything from the open office to workplace messaging software like Slack, that by combining more insights and perspectives, a workplace can generate the best possible outcomes. But a forthcoming HBS paper challenges that prospect with data. Researchers divided study participants into three groups. One solved a complex problem with all members working independently, another collaboratively, and another with a mix of the two, breaking off for individual brainstorming and coming together after.

The first group came up with fewer but higher-quality solutions; the second group came up with more solutions but of an average quality. The third group, however, produced "best of both worlds" solutions, which were both more numerous and more creative. The highest performers in the "intermittent collaboration" group were also the only ones to actually learn from their lower-performing peers — meaning the group as a whole was more effective than the fully collaborative group.

Collaboration, like leadership, is a skill that can and should be learned; conversely, not everyone is good at it, but they can improve. What people can't change, however, is how we recover from interruptions, which may explain why giving ourselves the structure of intermittent alone-time bookended with discussions offers a more effective compromise. Group projects can make or break a work experience for some. See if the HBS intermittent model can lean your office toward the former.