'Always on' isn't always best for team decision-making

Is it possible for teams to communicate too frequently? Research by Ethan Bernstein and colleagues suggests that groups that meet less often may be better at problem-solving

Published: Nov 27, 2018

g_111091_innovative_team_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

Always on, always connected isn’t always better when it comes to solving problems at work. In fact, teams get better results when they collaborate only intermittently, according to recent research.

Insights on work collaboration highlight the study, How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence (pdf), written by Ethan Bernstein, the Edward W. Conard Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School; Jesse Shore, assistant professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business; and David Lazer, professor at Northeastern University. Their results appear in the August 2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Many organizations have a bias toward solving sticky problems through collaboration, either in person or virtually. The more eyes on a problem, the theory goes, the better the solution. But is the persistent collaboration encouraged by today’s communication tools like Slack and Skype good or bad for finding the best answer?

To find out, the researchers studied how well people performed solving a problem with varying states of interaction with teammates: zero interaction with peers, intermittent interaction, or constant interaction.

“Once upon a time, work in real workplaces was intermittent,” Bernstein says. You would go from your office to a meeting to your office again, or go home. But technology has changed all that. “These always-on technologies mean that we’re always in constant interaction with others. We wanted to see if that is a good thing.”

They spent a year compiling data from 600 small groups, running multiple sessions of the traveling salesperson problem. Essentially, subjects are shown dots on a screen representing 25 cities and asked to make a route that hits all of the cities and returns to their starting point. The goal: find the route requiring the shortest distance.

“It’s actually a very challenging task because all the parts of the problem rely on all the other parts of the problem,” Shore says. “In that sense, it’s like a model for complex business decision-making because, usually, interesting problems are not just a matter of tweaking one variable up a little bit or down a little bit.”

Assigned to random groups of three, subjects solved the problem individually over the course of 17 rounds lasting 50 seconds each. In between rounds, conditions varied: they would have no interaction with their team and see only their own previous solution; they would see their teammates’ solutions after every round; or they would see their teammates’ solutions after every third round.

The Goldilocks Point
Past research led them to expect the group with constant interaction to have the highest average quality in their solutions, but less variety and less success finding the optimal solution. They expected the group with no interaction to have the biggest variety in solutions, ranging from very good to very bad, but with a low average quality. Those theories were borne out. Rather than falling somewhere in the middle of those results, the intermittent groups combined the benefits of both with the drawbacks of neither.

Bernstein calls it the Goldilocks point.

“It provides real instruction for [business] practice because that’s not where we’re going,” Bernstein says. “We’re not naturally going to be in a world of intermittency anymore. We’re naturally in a world of always on.”

“People are used to thinking and believing that we want to maximize how much people learn from each other; we want to maximize transparency,” adds Lazer. “I don’t want there to be zero communication, but I do think that transparency and communication do have downsides, especially for certain kinds of problems; problems where you need certain kinds of creativity and you want to avoid rapid convergence because that convergence reduces how much the group explores and considers alternatives.”

The study shows the intermittent interaction pulls not just the groups up, but the best performers as well. Typically, lower performers benefit from any collaboration because they can copy the better solution. With intermittent interaction, the high performers also benefit. Seeing diverse approaches in their lower-performing peers’ solutions can spark ideas to improve their own solutions. With constant interaction, peers’ solutions offer few new ideas to learn from and high performers draw on them less.

Next Up: New Collaboration Tools
Not all intermittency is gone, despite management trends and collaboration tools pushing the always-on ethos. Sprints used by agile teams are an example of structuring people to come together for a period of time and then separating; companies with open floor plans create nooks where workers can isolate themselves when needed. Also, there are tasks well suited to constant interaction, like coordinating people or making sure everyone gets the same information. The key is to be strategic.

“If you do go for always on, always connected, you’re basically asking for certain virtues at the expense of other virtues in problem solving,” Shore says.

That could help inform collaboration tools of the future, and the researchers have already heard from some in the collaboration software industry seeking to leverage the study’s findings. Another finding with technological implications is that storing and showing participants their best previous solution didn’t lead to better results.

“There’s that interesting question of how much we are captives of our own past selves,” Lazer says. “We come up with solutions, we’re happy with them, and sometimes it’s good to be dislodged from our solutions. Obviously, there’s a lot out there to help us not forget stuff, and it could be that for certain kinds of problems that turns out to be counterproductive.”

To HBS Executive Education participants in Bernstein’s class, the findings are welcome news.

“Most of us feel that always on is too much, and they’re looking for research that gives them license—and instruction for when and how to turn it off,” Bernstein says. “The reason why this has been so interesting to so many people is because they feel it, and they’re just waiting for somebody to show it. And we show it.”

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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