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Collaboration Myth-Buster

In thinking about how to help groups think better, beware of ‘groupthink'.

February 23, 2012

Brainstorming doesn't work, the best teams are tightknit but not too tight, and geographically close collaboration is more effective than working together from a distance.

These are among the intriguing conclusions in a new New Yorker article on teamwork by Jonah Lehrer.

The story, headlined "Groupthink," is a must-read for HR pros and managers wrestling with how to get the most from their people. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell, Lehrer mines academic literature to unveil finding after surprising finding about collaboration.

For instance, studies have shown that brainstorming is overrated and fundamentally misguided. People can generate more ideas on their own, research that dates back to the 1950s has found.

Lehrer notes that many complex challenges today require multiple minds, but brainstorming isn't the best way to make good ideas rain down. It turns out the "don't criticize others' ideas" ground rule at the heart of brainstorming sessions hurts, rather than helps, innovation. "Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren't predictable," Lehrer writes.

A second fascinating point in the story is that there's an ideal level of social cohesiveness on work teams. Research on the collaborations behind Broadway musicals found that outright strangers weren't effective together. But neither were teams of ultrafamiliar colleagues.

Consider the 1920s, when Broadway had superstars like Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Nine out of 10 musicals that decade flopped—a far higher rate than the historical norm. "Broadway had some of the biggest names ever," sociologist Brian Uzzi says in the story. "But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity."

What is needed on teams, the article indicates, is a threshold of comfort and a dose of strangeness. West Side Story nailed it, when veterans Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents teamed up with newcomer Stephen Sondheim.

Lehrer also offers up a geography lesson on teamwork. A study on academic collaboration found that partnerships where researchers worked within 10 meters of each other tended to be more successful than those where co-authors were located a kilometer or more apart. The work of the geographically near teams was cited more frequently, indicating its relative influence on the field. "If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions," researcher Isaac Kohane says in the piece.

This is a disturbing finding to the many organizations setting up virtual teams these days. But could the barriers to remote work be dropping so fast—through such things as video chats, instant messaging and shared files—such that this conclusion is fast becoming obsolete?

Hard to say. Face-to-face encounters were such a priority to Steve Jobs that he obsessed over the design of film company Pixar's headquarters. Jobs went so far as to try to locate the building's only bathrooms in the atrium to spark chance conversations among employees (he later had to compromise with a second set of bathrooms). Pixar's track record of hit after hit indicates Jobs was on to something.

"I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk," one Pixar producer told Lehrer.

A major takeaway of Lehrer's story is to remain open minded about management. Some enduring tricks of the trade are really feel-good gimmicks that deserved to be mere fads. In thinking about how to help groups think better, beware of groupthink.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce Management. To comment, write to efrauenheim@workforce.com.