There are no shortage of applications available to help you stay connected with co-workersCollaboration is just a keystroke away with Slack, Asana, instant messaging and the like (to name just a few), making it more common to be “always on”.

But new research from Harvard Business School’s Ethan Bernstein is showing that always on isn’t always right, especially when it comes to collective problem-solving.

Bernstein and his colleagues studied a number of three-person teams, broken up in three groups, all tasked with solving a complex problem. 

In the first group, the team members each worked in isolation on the problem, never interacting with other teammates along the way.

In the second group, there was constant collaboration among the team members, aided by access to a number of always-on technologies to facilitate constant contact.

The third group interacted only intermittently.

Collaborate, Occasionally

As was expected, the group that worked in isolation on the problem came up with the highest number of creative solutions, featuring some of the best and worst ideas. On average though, the quality of all the possible solutions derived was the lowest.

The group that interacted constantly produced the highest quality average solution but failed to craft some of the very best solutions other groups came up with. This was also expected (based on previous research).

But what the researchers didn’t anticipate was what happened in the case of the group that only occasionally interacted. That group yielded the best of both worlds. They produced the highest quality average solution and also delivered the very best solutions of any group.

Just as interesting, the highest performing members of teams in the “occasional interaction” group got better by learning from the low performers. When low and high performers were constantly interacting, as the study reported, “the low performers tended to simply copy high performers’ solutions and were in turn generally ignored by the high performers”.

There’s real human truth to this phenomenon. I’ve witnessed “star” performers aggressively take over in problem-solution mode, ignoring valuable input from other teammates that weren’t as vocal but that still would have had big contributions to make. With constant contact, bigger personalities and more aggressive styles can take over, wear others down, and drown them out. When interaction is less frequent, each person gets more of a chance to “shine” (assuming they’re prepared to do so).

Provide Spaces for Solo Work

The research points out the advantages of switching between group work and solo work, much like the traditional cycle of coming together in meetings then dispersing for “alone-time”. All that’s changed now with always-on collaboration technology, and it isn’t for the better. As Berstein said, “As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well”.

The researcher notes that companies that excel at brainstorming, like IDEO, already have intermittency built into their problem-solving methodology. Even much maligned of late open offices have intermittency built in, with designated group and individual meeting spaces.

When it comes to tough problems, the solution for coming up with solutions lies in moderation and balance; a mixture of meeting time (virtual or otherwise) and “me” time. As it is, this is one case where too much of a good thing (technology) is too much. So build intermittency into your problem-solving methods.

Originally published on

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