Sunday, 15 January 2012

Research, Productivity and Individualism

Brilliant article from the New York Times:

The Rise of the New Groupthink

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in

A few years ago at Nokia Research I took part in research to understand from where we researchers/scientists/engineers found inspiration and the environments in which we did the best work. Partly it was research to justify the move to a "collaborative working environment" or removal of the offices and stuck us all in an open area depending upon your point of view.

After many interviews and an outbreak of common sense the allocation of offices remained and productivity continued.

At least in the areas I have worked, individualism and office privacy are critical to the thinking process. There are times when you must "socialise" and present ideas but this is done in a number of forums: the small (2-3 persons) group, the larger (3+) group - the latter useful for semi-formal presentations and then the formal lecture (7+) persons where interaction is more strictly controlled. After, certainly the small group sessions, retreat to a quiet, private and personal space is critical for the whole thinking, development and inspiration process; from the above article talking about the emphasis (at least in the press) on the collaborative working environment at Apple:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs. 
But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.
NB: emphasis mine in the above

I remember one of the outcomes of the working environments research was that the ideas came in those solitary moments - occasionally 3 o'clock on a rainy, cold Sunday morning. To me the brain requires more of these solitary times without interruption in order to process the accumulated information and churn that into "knowledge".

The article also raised, amongst others, two other points:

Brainstorming is usually a bad idea, and this I fully agree for all the reasons stated in the article.

The second point is the emphasis - as seen in many job descriptions - for an "outgoing, charismatic, team-player"...admit that you like reading books, walking alone or being individualistic and you can forget the job. The sorts of people attracted by these (and I've been requested on more than one occasion to add that as part of a job description) do not work well, nor have good productivity and research skills in the environments and for the works I (as a computer scientist/mathematician) participate in.

Fortunately the team I work with now is a collection of highly skilled individuals who understand how to work together and how each of us needs that freedom, privacy and isolation to do out best work.

No comments: