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New Study: Too Much Collaboration May Be Bad

New Study: Too Much Collaboration May Be Bad

Collaboration may not be all that great for complex problem solving.

At least that’s what new research by Harvard Business School associate professor Ethan Bernstein and colleagues finds.

The study, by Berstein of Harvard Business School, Professor Jesse Shore of the Questrom School of Business at Boston University and Professor David Lazer of Northeastern University, finds that intermittent collaboration may be better for complex problem solving than “always on” collaboration.

The Study And Assumptions

In the study, the researchers examined three-person groups performing a complex problem-solving task. There were three types of variables studied: one set of groups that never interacted with each other and solved the problem in complete isolation. Another set of groups featured members who interacted constantly. A third set of groups that interacted intermittently.

The researchers assumed, based on prior research, that the isolated groups would yield the most creative thinking yet the lowest average quality of solution. They also assumed that groups that had constant collaboration would produce an opposite effect: higher average quality solution, yet less creative solutions.


Both assumptions proved to be correct. Yet, perhaps the most striking finding of the study was the third set of groups that interacted intermittently. The researchers found that this group produced the “best of both worlds” results.

Despite having interacted only intermittently, the group had just as high quality of a solution as the group that interacted constantly. They also had performed just as creatively as the isolated groups to produce the “best” solutions.


The researchers highlight a number of real world associations that relate to the study’s findings.

In many ways, the findings already mirror how organizations deal with collaboration: individuals work alone, come together to collaborate, then break off again to work alone. Yet, the researchers highlight how technology has influenced that process.

“As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well,” Bernstein says.

Additionally, the researchers highlight how some teamwork approaches mirror this idea of “intermittent collaboration.” For instance, hackathons often follow a similar approach, where people gather and focus on a problem for a very short amount of time.

The concept of “intermittent collaboration” also is seen in how modern offices are designed. Open offices often include group spaces in addition to individual spaces, where workers can control how much interaction time they get.

Knowing the importance of “intermittent collaboration,” the researchers argue that always-on technology and digital collaboration can be detrimental to creative problem solving. It seems, after all, you may want to put down that phone if even just for a second.

Sources: Harvard Business School, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America