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OM in the News: Collaboration as an Operations Tool

May 22, 2015

collaboration2We discuss the importance of collaboration in Chapters 3 (Project Management), 5 (Product Design), 10 (Human Resources), and 11 (Supply Chain Management). Is collaboration at work all it’s cracked up to be? Recent research by profs at BU, Harvard, and Northeastern concludes that collaboration sometimes hinders problem solving because individuals in big groups tend to parrot one another, resulting in a narrow set of solutions. “We just get caught up in our own gospel around collaboration,” says one author in The Wall Street Journal (May 20, 2015).

The researchers broke down problem solving into 2 parts—gathering facts about a situation and devising solutions—and divided study participants into groups of 16. Some of those groups were connected to each other in a clear team structure. Other groups were less connected, and information wasn’t shared among the entire group. The highly clustered groups were better than the loosely connected ones at gathering facts about a problem. Yet those collaborative groups came up with fewer solutions than the more isolated groups did. People tend to copy each other and agree more when they are trying to come up with solutions together. The phenomenon is similar to “group think,” although the authors said it could also be described as “cognitive laziness,” since members seem to lack the will to argue with the group.

The trick for companies is to figure out how to divide problem solving into two parts: fact gathering and generating solutions.That isn’t always intuitive or easy to do, especially under tight time constraints. Consulting firms such as McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group tend to remix team structures at various points in a project. Larger teams are good at the start of brainstorming sessions, where workers can share widely what they know. When it comes time to refine those ideas employees could do well to break into smaller groups.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why do the consulting firms reconfigure their teams during a project?

2. Make the case for more collaboration. Against it.


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