Everyone knows cross-group collaboration doesn’t happen nearly enough in most organizations. Though for many companies, it has been the holy grail. It’s been understood as a vital approach to problem-solving as companies grow larger and more become global. Collaborative problem-solving is essential to avoid critical mistakes in decision making and to facilitate greater engagement. Yet there are plenty of reasons why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.
For one thing, group leaders and their teams may not admit to the limits of their knowledge. They imagine that their problem-solving and planning don’t require input from other groups.
For some, it’s arrogance. Others may feel threatened by having to partner with another function.
And for others, it’s a blind spot. Whatever the reason, unlike those who are attuned to reading the wider field to acquire greater understanding, they may be overconfident about what they know and presume they can solve a challenge or complete a task on their own. Unfortunately, their decision making isn’t likely to lead to innovative solutions without input from others who have different knowledge and perspectives and may fail in the execution phase down the road, especially for those the change affects who weren’t included.
Yet inviting others to collaborate is often the cause of another problem. It’s been said that the first casualty of collaboration is the loss of divergent thinking. It’s ironic but true.
More and different views may not be voiced or heard. When you’ve collaborated with others, you’ve likely experienced many instances where everyone in the group follows the views of the person who spoke first. Or they may follow the longest-serving employee, the most senior or the rock star with a stellar track record for getting it right. Although people across groups may think differently, the group may not be receiving the full advantage of diverse group membership. A group can acquire the bad habit of encouraging different viewpoints and discussion to focus on what everybody knows already, overlooking the critical information that one or more may have.
This is why affinity among group members over time is a double-edged sword. It enables trust, but it also establishes routine, and with that, the comfort that’s been created often leads to the avoidance of risk-taking and the disruption of established group norms.
Intermittent Collaboration Wins
I was happy to see that social science research has discovered what some of us have observed in our work – that intermittent collaboration can be the ideal condition to work through complex problem-solving and produce higher-than-expected quality solutions. It offers the best of both worlds by offering the best solutions while avoiding groupthink.
In the study “How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” researchers compared the solutions of group members working on their own to those who were in constant contact and also those groups that collaborated intermittently. The intermittent, collaborative group whose members also worked on their own generated the best solutions individually and as a group.
Perhaps that surprises you. These groups did as well as the constantly interacting groups to produce high-quality solutions on average without the benefit of more time together. The constant collaborators did not find the very best solutions as often. Just as interesting is the finding that there was greater learning among people of different performance levels when the group interacted intermittently than when they worked constantly because they weren’t as constrained by the group’s influence.
The implications can offer us a positive way forward. Whereas it’s a commonly held view that groups that work together closely are more likely to be high-performing groups, these findings urge us to take another look at our presumption and challenge it.
The findings are also encouraging. Whenever we bring leaders across the organization or a sector who aren’t part of each other’s operational networks and don’t work together, we can have more confidence in the quality of their solutions.
As the creator of a cross-group problem-solving program for leaders that produces greater organizational coherence, I often hear participating leaders remark that the solutions provided are at a surprisingly high level.
It also means that we have discovered a useful strategy that could make a meaningful contribution to solving for collaborative overload. Instead of burdening people and taking up their time by asking them to join your committee, it could be more productive for everyone involved to engage select individuals in intermittent exchanges.
This article was first published on Forbes.com here. Credit for the image goes to Paul Talbot.