Will Burns
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Unleash Creativity Blog

Scientific studies that help us unleash our most human attribute: creativity.

What's Better, Working In Groups Or Individually? Um, yes!

 What's better: working alone or together? Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

What's better: working alone or together? Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

A fascinating study just came out from researchers Ethan Bernstein (Harvard), Jesse Shore (Boston University), and David Lazer (North Eastern), entitled "How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence." The researchers were interested in the effects - positive and negative - of people working together on a creative problem vs. working alone. Which works better? 

Let's take a look.

Study method.

The researchers organized and observed three different groups of three people, each attempting to generate solutions to the same creative problem.

The first group worked individually, no interaction at all. The second group worked together the entire time. The third group worked together some and individually some.

What's best?

Working together and individually wins.

The researchers were concerned with two creative dynamics: one, propensity to discover the optimum creative solution; two, the average quality of the ideas the group creates as a whole.

Those in group 3 (worked together and independently) performed the best on both counts. Average quality of the ideas was higher and they were more likely to come up with the optimum creative solution for the problem presented.

What's going on here?

The researchers speculate that the group dynamic stifles idea range. Meaning, (my words) the socialization of each others' ideas introduces thought-paradigms that are easier to follow than to break. That said, the average quality of ideas for those working together the entire time was better than that of the group working individually.

Now, interestingly, the group who worked individually did find the optimum solutions more frequently than the socialized group, but their average quality of the ideas was worse.

The intermittent group - working both as a team and as individuals - experienced the benefit of the group-think, or better quality of ideas overall - AND were more likely to uncover an optimum solution to the problem. 

Implications of this finding.

One, don't depend on a single brainstorm session to get the very best solutions to a creative problem. Allow your creators to work both independently and as a team - perhaps even back and forth in a structured way over the course of a day or two - when tackling your next assignment.

Side note: my company, Ideasicle, happens to take full advantage of these findings. Our idea generation happens virtually so the team of four can post their ideas and then build and riff on the others' ideas while on the platform. But they can also think independently while "out there" living life.

Which is where creativity tends to happen anyway.


WILL BURNS IS FOUNDER & CEO OF IDEASICLE, AND A FORBES CONTRIBUTOR.