The Creative Solitude of Online Collaboration

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

In her best-selling book „Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can´t Stop Talking„, the author, Susan Cain, challenges the suitability of collaboration as a means to produce great creativity outcomes or good decision making.

Opposing mainstream believes about the collaborative powers and benefits of groups, she refers to a number of research, which comes to the conclusion, that work in solitude frequently originates much better results, let alone the fact, that many people simply prefer to work in an uninterrupted and unobserved environment. Specifically, she warns, that working in teams, sharing of open-plan office spaces or other forms of unsheltered social exposure at work can be prone to a phenomenon called „groupthink“.

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.  Groupthink happens, when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking fall prey to the groups efforts to minimize conflict and reach consensus.

I´m sure, most of us have made unwelcome experiences with groups at work. Thinking of tired brainstorming sessions. Or phone conferences dominated only by the most vocal participants. Or the desire to flee from a noisy office.

How do these experiences relate to online collaboration? Is online collaboration equally susceptible to the socially negative cost of group work? Is online collaboration better qualified to emphasize creativity and to produce more appropriate business outcomes?

Even Susan Cain thinks this is the case: „Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true of academic research. Professors, who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research, that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.“

The online collaboration environment is both, a protective and stimulating place to work for all participants. Its separation from the immediacy of the direct conversation allows to unfold contributing behavior in an asynchronous way. This leaves more time to think and decelerates controversial discussions into a comprehensible, slow-motion pace.

As Susan Cain expressed it in her book: „Participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own.“

More about her balanced views on teamwork versus work in solitude in this New York Times article.

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