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Give me a break

Giving individuals a little alone time can improve teamwork

Countless cheesy motivational posters would have you believe that teamwork makes the dream work. But when it comes to particularly tough problems, research has shown that while teams can have a strong average performance, churning out viable idea after idea, individuals are more likely to land on a killer solution—even if they have to slog through more mediocre ones to get there.

According to new research by Jesse Shore, an assistant professor of information systems, and colleagues from Harvard University, there’s a way to get the best of both worlds: the interplay of a team and the latitude for individual inspiration.

The researchers, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, studied participants attempting to solve a complicated mathematical puzzle known as the traveling salesperson problem. Individuals were placed into one of three conditions to figure out the shortest route for a salesperson with 25 different locations to visit. They could either see the attempted solutions of their neighbors all of the time, none of the time, or occasionally throughout the experiment.

Those who intermittently saw the attempted solutions of others proved to have both the highest average performance and were also most likely to come up with the ideal solution. Shore speculates that people learn from others’ work and also benefit from their own exploration. “It’s not that people are necessarily doing better work when they’re exploring on their own,” says Shore. “But they may be more likely to try something new. Then, when they are able to see others’ work, the group draws from a more diverse set of answers. They can pull good ideas from everyone.”

Shore says the study has implications for the way we use always-on collaboration software, such as Slack and Google Docs. “The reality is,” says Shore, “that if you’re getting an alert every time something happens and you’re not taking the time to work separately and have your own independent thoughts, it may hurt the group’s overall ability to solve complex problems.”