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How to Find a Breakthrough for a Tough Problem

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Our “always-on” culture of digital connection and sharing can take a toll on our ability to relax and recharge.

But it’s not just our personal lives that suffer—it’s a pretty unproductive way to work, too. We’re not talking about watching funny cat videos in the office, either. The problem is using our devices and apps to constantly brainstorm ideas in real time…all the time.

A new study finds that this isn’t the best way to solve complex problems. In a surprising twist, the researchers point to a somewhat old-fashioned alternative to produce better results.

“Always On” Turns Off Creativity

All kinds of groups, from teams to organizations to towns, rely on what’s known as collective intelligence—the ability of individuals to collectively arrive at solutions to problems. Groups can handle complex problems and come up with innovations that are beyond the scope of a single individual.

But it doesn’t always work out. In a group, it’s easy to be swayed and quickly adopt others’ ideas. That’s one of the downsides of working together closely—you can be too influenced by others in the group, which leads to premature consensus and stifles the fresh thinking that could lead to the best solutions. In fact, research has shown that when ideas are shared too early in a brainstorming session, the outcome tends to be fewer and lower-quality ideas.

Researchers at Harvard, Northeastern and Boston universities wondered how technologies that allow for nonstop communication and transparency affect collective intelligence. They asked three groups, each with three individuals, to solve a complicated task—finding the shortest route for a traveling salesman among cities on a two-dimensional map. The groups solved the problem for 17 different routes, which allowed them to refine their solutions.

One group was “always on,” sharing solutions at every stage. The second group saw their partners’ ideas intermittently. And the last group had no contact—they solved the problem as individuals in isolation.

Results…

  • The “always on” group came up with more good-quality ideas than the other groups—but they failed to produce the best solutions.
  • The “no contact” group came up with a few brilliant ideas but poor overall solutions.
  • The “intermittent” group had almost as many top-notch ideas as the always-on group but their independent time contributed to the more diverse ideas…which led to the best solutions overall. Connecting with people after spending independent time working on a problem produced the greatest improvements in the quality of solutions.

How did the intermittent group get the best ideas? One reason was surprising: High performers were able to improve on their ideas thanks to interaction with lower performers. In the always-on group, the lower performers were more likely to simply copy those who had better ideas. But when there was a little time and space between meetings, the top performers were able to use and learn from the lower performers’ ideas to better their results.

To Work Together Better, Spend Some Time Alone

Modern work environments often require people to work in groups to solve tough problems, and we have amazing new technologies that allow us to collaborate in real time wherever we are. But instead of constantly collaborating, a better approach may be to take a lead from traditional work environments in which people work independently on a problem and then meet together to hammer out solutions. People need time to explore problems on their own and time to hash out the answers with others—in some cases, repeatedly, depending on the problem.

That approach, the researchers conclude, will likely lead to the best solutions. So whether you are struggling with an issue in your town, at work or in a volunteer organization, go ahead and brainstorm. But also build in time for each person to work out the problem on his or her own before you get back together.

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Source: Study titled, “How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” by researchers at Harvard Business School and elsewhere, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Date: September 12, 2018 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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