We all want more collaboration in our organizations, right? Of course, we do! Well, you might want to rethink your answer in light of new research by Jesse Shore, Ethan Bernstein, and David Lazer. They conducted a fascinating experiment using a game created by the Defense Department. This game asks people to try to determine the location and timing of a potential terrorist attack, as well as to determine the perpetrators. HBS Working Knowledge describes the set-up of the experiment:
For the study, the researchers hired 417 participants to play the game. Players received two clues at the start of each round and were allowed to search for more clues once per minute; they had 25 minutes to solve the problem. (The experiment took place at Harvard Business School's Computer Lab for Experimental Research.) Participants were randomly assigned to one of 70 16-person networks, some of which were more interconnected—or "clustered," in academic parlance—in terms of who could share information with whom during the game. "In the most-clustered conditions, people were connected in a clear team structure," Shore explains. "In the least clustered, nobody's partners were also partners with each other."
Interestingly, the most-clustered groups tended to engage in more extensive information gathering. However, the least-clustered groups developed more hypotheses regarding the potential terrorist attack (17.5% higher). The least-clustered groups also had tended to be more likely to arrive at a correct solution. What happened in the high-collaboration groups that led to inferior problem-solving? According to the scholars, "Those in very clustered positions were more likely to copy an incorrect theory from a neighbor than their less-clustered counterparts." In short, these "high collaboration" groups have a tendency to prematurely converge on a particular alternative. If you step back for a moment, you should not be surprised at all by these findings. We have known for decades that pressures for conformity arise in groups at times. Premature consensus is a classic outcome in a cohesive group where conformity pressures arise.