Intermittent Collaboration

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The best solutions come from “intermittent collaboration” — group work punctuated by breaks to think & work by ourselves.

Daniel Pink

Our cave, campfire, and watering hole moods map to the red, yellow, and green of interaction badges (aka color communication badges). The three-level and three-speed communication flow used at Automattic and other distributed companies reflects the progressive sociality of cave, campfire, and watering hole contexts and red, yellow, green interaction moods. All of these facilitate intermittent collaboration.

Groups whose members interacted only intermittently preserved the best of both worlds, rather than succumbing to the worst. These groups had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly, yet they preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.

Problem-solving techniques take on new twist: For best solutions, intermittent collaboration provides the right formula

Perhaps the most interesting result was that when their interactions were intermittent, the higher performers were able to get even better by learning from the low performers. When high and low performers interacted constantly, the low performers tended to simply copy high performers’ solutions and were in turn generally ignored by the high performers. But when their interactions were intermittent, the low performers’ ideas helped the high performers achieve even better solutions.

Problem-solving techniques take on new twist: For best solutions, intermittent collaboration provides the right formula

Significance

Many human endeavors—from teams and organizations to crowds and democracies—rely on solving problems collectively. Prior research has shown that when people interact and influence each other while solving complex problems, the average problem-solving performance of the group increases, but the best solution of the group actually decreases in quality. We find that when such influence is intermittent it improves the average while maintaining a high maximum performance. We also show that storing solutions for quick recall is similar to constant social influence. Instead of supporting more transparency, the results imply that technologies and organizations should be redesigned to intermittently isolate people from each other’s work for best collective performance in solving complex problems.

Abstract

People influence each other when they interact to solve problems. Such social influence introduces both benefits (higher average solution quality due to exploitation of existing answers through social learning) and costs (lower maximum solution quality due to a reduction in individual exploration for novel answers) relative to independent problem solving. In contrast to prior work, which has focused on how the presence and network structure of social influence affect performance, here we investigate the effects of time. We show that when social influence is intermittent it provides the benefits of constant social influence without the costs. Human subjects solved the canonical traveling salesperson problem in groups of three, randomized into treatments with constant social influence, intermittent social influence, or no social influence. Groups in the intermittent social-influence treatment found the optimum solution frequently (like groups without influence) but had a high mean performance (like groups with constant influence); they learned from each other, while maintaining a high level of exploration. Solutions improved most on rounds with social influence after a period of separation. We also show that storing subjects’ best solutions so that they could be reloaded and possibly modified in subsequent rounds—a ubiquitous feature of personal productivity software—is similar to constant social influence: It increases mean performance but decreases exploration.

How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence | PNAS

People influence each other when they interact to solve problems. Such social influence introduces both benefits (higher average solution quality due to exploitation of existing answers through social learning) and costs (lower maximum solution quality due to a reduction in individual exploration for novel answers) relative to independent problem solving. In contrast to prior work, which has focused on how the presence and network structure of social influence affect performance, here we investigate the effects of time. We show that when social influence is intermittent it provides the benefits of constant social influence without the costs. 

Solutions improved most on rounds with social influence after a period of separation. We also show that storing subjects’ best solutions so that they could be reloaded and possibly modified in subsequent rounds— a ubiquitous feature of personal productivity software—is similar to constant social influence: It increases mean performance but decreases exploration. 

How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence | PNAS

A major unresolved question in collective intelligence in complex tasks is thus whether it is possible to get the benefits of social influence and network clustering (collective learning) with- out the associated costs (premature convergence on a suboptimal solution). Here, we report on an experimental study that provides evidence that it is indeed possible, and moreover that conditions typical of real (as opposed to laboratory) face-to-face social networks result in both benefits. 

Intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence. Being exposed to diverse answers boosts performance, even if the answers one sees are worse than one’s own. To achieve this performance boost within a triad, there is a require- ment for both independent exploration (to generate diversity) and interaction (to allow social influence).

How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence | PNAS

For the interplay between independent exploration and social ties to be beneficial, there must be sufficient exploration during the independent phases of the problem-solving task to generate diverse solutions that lead to learning. Storage works directly against this requirement by suppressing exploration and instead encouraging relative stasis at known solutions. 

By shaping subjects’ behavior to take advantage of both independent exploration and social learning, intermittent interaction caused subjects to perform better on our complex problem-solving task.

Our main manipulation (NT, IT, or CT with storage off) reveals that intermittently present social influence achieves the beneficial aspects of both constant social influence and independence when searching complex solution spaces. Prior results showing the benefits of social influence in “wisdom of the crowd” tasks (15, 16) are due to less-confident low performers revising their solutions toward the mean after peer influence. Our results show something more: Triads find the optimum more and high performers do even better with intermittent ties, suggesting the presence of beneficial social learning for all participants, not just low performers. Indeed, intermittent social influence may mitigate the dangers inherent in both independent exploration (spending time on poor solutions) and social influence (premature consensus). 

How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence | PNAS

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic parent and retired tech worker. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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