“When Collaboration Kills Creativity”

I’m finally getting around to blogging about chapter 3 of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.  This chapter, entitled “When Collaboration Kills Creativity,” talks about the phenomenon that Cain calls “the New Groupthink.” This phenomenon, Cain explains, “elevates teamwork above all else” (75). It is responsible for the fact that, according to a recent survey, 91% of high-level managers think teamwork is the key to success. It is responsible for the transformation of workplaces to open floor plans, in which 70% of today’s employees toil. It is responsible for the “pod” model in elementary schools, consisting of pushing desks together to form little groups. It is, in short, responsible for many of the things that make an introvert’s school days and professional lives miserable.

Cain theorizes that although the ideals New Groupthink had been on the rise for quite some time, the catalyst that led to its crystallization was, ironically, that introvert refuge, the Internet. The Internet produced the likes of Linux, Wikipedia, MoveOn.org, and other such collectives endeavors that were “exponentially greater than the sum of their parts [and] were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind” (78). But, Cain points out, “if you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it’s doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred” (80). In short, many of the things that make online collaboration so fruitful—asynchronicity, anonymity, isolation, flexibility—are lost when the same type of collaboration is attempted on a face-to-face basis.

Indeed, working in solitude is an important skill, and often more effective than working in a group. A well-known study by research psychologist Anders Ericsson found that musicians who spend time practicing alone, rather than in a group, are more likely to become elite musical performers. This principle carries over into other fields, from chess players to elite athletes. Ericsson theorizes that practice time alone is so powerful because it is the only time one can engage in “Deliberate Practice,” which, according to his research, is the key to exceptional achievement. In Deliberate Practice, Ericsson contends, “you identify tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly” (81). Since these things are largely individual, it makes sense that Deliberate Practice is best done as a solitary activity.

Cain points out, however, that “exceptional performance depends not only on the groundwork we lay through Deliberate Practice; it also requires the right working conditions” (83). And these working conditions may not be those favored by the New Groupthink. In fact, there is significant evidence suggesting that independent work is more fruitful than teamwork. A study called the Coding War Games sought to determine the effect that social interaction, such as in a workplace with an open floor plan, affected productivity. In this study, designed to discover what differentiates the best computer programmers from the worst, over 600 developers from 92 companies were assigned to develop a program working in his or her normal office space. Each developer was to work independently.

The study revealed that the best developers were 10 times better than the worst developers. Factors that one might assume would account for this huge performance gap, such as years of experience, salary, time spent working, did not explain the outcome. It turns out that the majority of the top performers worked for companies that “gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the top performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38% of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly” (84).

Allow me to repeat those statistics, as I find them amazing:

62% of the top performers said they had adequate privacy at work, compared to only 19% of the worst performers.

76% of the worst performers said people often interrupt them needlessly at work, compared to only 38% of the top performers.

These statistics make it hard to see what’s attractive about an open-plan office—especially given that another study identified interruption as one of the biggest barriers to productivity! And there are even more reasons that open floor plans are a bad idea. People working in open-plan offices are exposed to more germs, which leads to more sick days and the more frequent misery of not feeling well. They are exposed to more noise, which raises cortisol and activates the body’s fight-or-flight mode. Not only do open-plan offices reduce productivity, but they also “make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure” (84). No wonder they are also associated with high staff turnover!

The chapter goes on to discuss other ways in which collaboration decreases productivity, such as group brainstorming, which, evidence suggests, doesn’t actually work. But the section on privacy and quiet in the workplace was of most interest to me, since this is something I struggle with a lot at work. I wrote before about Working From Home, so I won’t rehash that here, but suffice it to say that conditions at home make me much more likely to be among the “top performers” than conditions in my office.

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