Who is more effective at problem-solving and finding solutions to difficult challenges?

Is it groups of people collaborating on the challenge together, or individuals working alone?

I came across the answer in a new research paper, and the result surprised me.

Most innovation experts would advise that full-time collaboration is a basic requirement for building innovative new solutions. They will cite the differences between the bureaucracy of large corporations which create people working in silos, compared to the dynamic, small team based interactions in startups.

The challenge is a lack of evidence as to how effective this advice actually is.

However, the new study, entitled How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence (Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer) aimed to research what was actually the most effective way to come up with new solutions to the classic “Travelling Salesman Problem” challenge:

  • Where a group always sees the solutions to everyone’s solutions (constant collaboration, labelled Constant Ties – CT)
  • Where the group works alone and never sees the anyone else’s solutions (no collaboration, labelled No Ties – NT)
  • Where the group only sees other member’s solutions intermittently, otherwise working on the challenges individually (intermittent collaboration, labelled Intermittent Ties – IT)

One of the reasons Bernstein et al. wanted to study this behaviour is that innovation is usually associated with groups solving challenges together:

Working together in clusters or groups does offer other benefits for handling large problems, despite the tendency for connected individuals to underexplore solution spaces. In particular, groups are capable of handling complex problems that individuals themselves cannot. Innovation and invention are also widely thought to be social processes, in which ideas or partial ideas from multiple individuals are recombined.

A major unresolved question in collective intelligence in complex tasks is thus whether it is possible to get the benefits of social influence and network clustering (collective learning) without the associated costs (premature convergence on a suboptimal solution). Here, we report on an experimental study that provides evidence that it is indeed possible, and moreover that conditions typical of real (as opposed to laboratory) face-to-face social networks result in both benefits.

Based on prior research, the hypothesis is that constant collaboration (CT) leads to a high average quality of ideas and solutions, but holds back certain individuals from finding the highest-value solutions which they would come up with if they were not disturbed (NT).

Social influence and in particular network clustering can result in too much local copying behavior, driving out beneficial diversity and resulting in a collective convergence on a suboptimal solution. For example, sharing ideas in the early stages of a brainstorming task has been shown to reduce the number and quality of ideas produced.

Social influence can result in a premature consensus on a good solution before the optimum is found.


The Study found that the most effective groups were those where there were intermittent collaboration:

% Optimal solutions found by group:

  • CT – Constant Collaboration: 33.3%
  • IT – Intermittent Collaboration: 48.3%
  • NT – No Collaboration: 44.1%

% of participants who found the optimal solution

Interestingly, the study found that not only did the groups which intermittently collaborated find the optimal solutions most frequently, they still retained the high average score that you would expect from constant collaboration:

Strikingly, we found that IT triads showed the positive features of both CT and NT triads: They found the optimum solution as frequently as NT triads, but with a higher quality mean solution like CT triads. … IT triads displayed a balance between learning from peers (through social influence) and trying diverse new solutions (through independent exploration).

Intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence. Being exposed to diverse answers boosts performance, even if the answers one sees are worse than one’s own. To achieve this performance boost within a triad, there is a requirement for both independent exploration (to generate diversity) and interaction (to allow social influence).

Perhaps the most interesting result was that when their interactions were intermittent, the higher performers were able to get even better by learning from the low performers.

When high and low performers interacted constantly, the low performers tended to simply copy high performers’ solutions and were in turn generally ignored by the high performers. But when their interactions were intermittent, the low performers’ ideas helped the high performers achieve even better solutions.

Implications for innovation teams

While it might be tempting to think that open-plan offices full of bean bags and ping-pong tables will help productivity and collaboration, companies need to find a balance between facilitating teams working collaboratively, and enabling their people to focus on working individually as well.

After all, creativity requires the alternation between divergent thinking (which required a more unfocused, not distracted brain state), convergent thinking (to refine ideas, also without distractions) and collaborating with other people to execute those ideas into innovations.

If your office environment is forcing your people to constantly collaborate, then they will end up converging on solutions to challenges which aren’t the best possible options.

Even worse, they may stick close to the status quo in order to keep the group happy.

At the other extreme, if everyone were to only work as individuals, you may end up with a large number of excellent ideas, but struggle to actually execute on them.

So there should be a balance, where people can work in the way which is most effective for their task at hand. Some spaces to collaborate, some to get away from distractions and work individually, and some to facilitate new divergent ideas.

That’s how you make a team more than the sum of its parts.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.