Is collaboration always the best way of working?

I’ve long thought that if the guiding principle for any initiative is the fact that it’s alliterative or that it’s a ‘handy acronym’, then there’s probably good reason to be suspicious of it. One of the most pervasive of these is the three Cs – collaboration, creativity and communication or a variant thereof, with the emphasis firmly on collaboration.

Collaboration is now the sine qua non in any learning or professional development scenario. We live in an age where to work alone is somehow seen as a seditious act. There is now a near constant injunction to collaborate, to ‘connect’ socially and to be a “team player.” We now have open-plan offices, “break-out spaces” and increasingly classrooms that look more like Times Square than somewhere where you might be able to reflect and think hard about something.

I worry that for many of us, there is now no refuge from this kind of stuff:

The classic collaborative activity is of course ‘brainstorming’ devised by Alex Osborn in 1939. The commonly held wisdom here is that if you withhold criticism, reserve judgement and allow a critical mass of ideas to form then you will arrive at the most creative solution to any given problem. However this approach is not supported by evidence.

in 2003 Charlan Nemeth from the University of California divided 254 students into different groups with the same problem to solve ‘How can we limit the impact of the traffic problem in the San Francisco Bay area?’

The first group were instructed to solve the problem in the classic collaborative, brainstorming method where they did not criticise ideas but simply collated as many ideas as possible. The second group were instructed to work differently and to debate and criticise ideas and preconceptions and the third group could do as they pleased.

The results were overwhelmingly definitive – the debate team were by far the most creative. Not only that, but when the teams were broken up and individuals were asked to think about the problem further on their own, the brainstorm team came up with an average of three extra ideas but the debate team came up with an average of seven ideas.

What I think is so interesting about this study is firstly the clear evidence that critical dissent is a powerful driver of not just creativity but also of the volume of ideas, but perhaps more interestingly, deliberate and solitary reflection (combined with debate and rational argument) would seem to be far more productive than traditional collaborative brainstorming or uni-directional ‘teamwork’ activities. (This chimes with Nick Rose’s clarion call for professional scepticism.) 

Nemeth writes:

This line of research maintains that the benefits of dissent stem from the cognitive conflict it generates; the dissent compels those in the majority to search for possible explanations as to why the dissenter is willing to openly disagree and suffer the rejection that often accompanies such disagreement. This search for explanations then fosters thinking on all sides of the issue (Nemeth, 2003).

As someone who valued the fact that I could sit, read and think for hours as a child undisturbed by the injunction to agree with everyone and then march around the room and stick post-it notes onto sugar paper posted on walls, I worry that we are not affording the same opportunities to kids today in an age where collaboration is not only valorised but mandated.

Add to this the constant distraction of technology and there is a reasonable argument to be made that the most progressive and indeed liberating thing you can do in education today is make kids read in silence for an hour.

There are lots of other reasons why we might want to work collaboratively such as social and relational benefits which are certainly important, but we should perhaps think twice in doing so in the name of being more creative or productive.


DW Taylor, PC Berry and CH Block, “Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?”Administrative Science Quarterly 3, no 1 (1958): 23-47

Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08; http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg

7 comments

  1. Anthony Radice

    Critical comment makes us engage with reality, whereas ‘non-judgemental’ idea generation traps us in the solipsistic bubble of our own egotistical self-satisfaction. Discuss . . .

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  2. Howard Scott

    Not sure about this. Isn’t debating a collaborative and constructive process? brainstorming shouldn’t be mistaken for collaboration, but really only as a warm-up stimulation for further collaborative activity. It’s how you follow up the brainstorm where you can make collaborative learning more dynamic. There are plenty of options. I suggest having a look at the ‘learning and teaching as communicative actions’ theory (Wakefield and Warren), which can help to build critical thinking and discourse into group processes.

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  3. Pingback: The PE Playbook – June 15 Edition | drowningintheshallow

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