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Trend 21 February Feb 2020 0732 21 February 2020

Group work? That’s great, but sometimes it’s better to work alone

A Harvard Business School study reveals that for products with a holistic vision, like the Coca-Cola bottle or the iPhone, individual work is better than team work.

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Together is better, at least when it comes to the sciences. According to various studies, the performance that can be achieved by a group are superior to those that are managed by a single individual. To prove this, an article published on Science examined 9,9 million publications and 2,1 million patents registered in the last five years: research teams are majorly cited and are more often cited among themselves making an impact on the entire sector they deal with. It’s fair to ask what happened to the solitary researcher. An analysis by the Harvard Business School entitled Revisiting the Role of Collaboration in Creating Breakthrough Inventions changed this approach.

According to the two authors of the research, Manuel Sosa and Jurgen Mihm, what determines if the result that can be achieved by a team is better than the individual is the structure of the invention, in other words: the ability of the project itself to be broken down into separable modules. To corroborate this theory, two researchers have analysed 1,630,970 utility patents (submitted for substantial innovations, such as products, processes and machinery) and 198,265 design patents (that certify an innovation of form, such as the visual configuration or decoration of a product) deposited between 1985 and 2009 in the US patent office. From these numbers, the quota of most significative inventions, those that are cited amongst the 5% of best researches in their class, and divided between group or individual contributions, was extrapolated. In the end, similarly to other previous research, what emerged was that utility patents are more significative if they are created by a team of developers. An advantage that totally disappears when we consider design patents, a sector where groups or individuals equal each other.

Imagine a team that is working on a new painting. It’s possible, but the effort required to coordinate and communicate ideas to all the team members would still be more intensive from a point of view of resources and time rather than a single inventor’s approach.

Where does this loss of effectiveness in teams come from? Basically from the divide et impera “method” with which a group work is approached. Iconic goods such as the Coca-Cola bottle or the iPhone, or the latest pair of glasses impress the public and their users due to their holistic nature: though made up of single elements, these are tied together by a interdependence relationship where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A detail that doesn’t lend itself to a shared vision, a broad vision. “Imagine a team that is working on a new painting. It’s possible, but the effort required to coordinate and communicate ideas to the team members would still be more intensive from a point of view of resources and time rather than a single inventor’s approach. The latter can create their own frame of mind, examine and discard potentials with more agility as they don’t require support from other people”, the authors of the study state.

The best example, in this sense, is Karl Benz’s internal combustion motor. Single pieces were definitely needed to put it together, but they were so interdependent with each other that they only made sense in the complex structure that was imagined by its creator and couldn’t be changed or used on their own.

All of this, however, doesn’t mean that group work is not a proponent of progress even in front of holistic projects: It rather means that collaboration is an accelerator of the development of knowledge and abilities that the individual can deploy to solve a problem. In other words, rather than being part of a group, what matters for a discovery or an invention is the circulation of information that increase (and make the operating costs skyrocket) as the complexity of the problem grows.

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