GroupThink, Collaboration, and the Value of Solitude

Reflecting on my previous post, "The Social Brain and its Superpowers," I was reminded of a few articles I read last year that had a profound impact on the way I think about the way I think. That might sound a little overly "meta" but I believe taking time to analyze how your own mind works (and specifically trying to identify the situations in which it works best) are a critical part of your personal growth and development as a thinker. 

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The first article was one written by Jonah Lehrer for the New Yorker early last year called GROUPTHINK: The Brainstorming Myth. In it Lehrer describes the history of brainstorming, reviews a number of experiments that study brainstorming and collaborative thinking and talks about why and how certain legendary buildings and spaces became breeding grounds for wildly innovative ideas. The article is quite lengthy but well worth the read. 


The second article was written by Susan Cain for the New York Times, published just two weeks before Lehrer's, titled The Rise of The New Groupthink. In it Cain presents a different perspective on 'groupthink,' one that calls to question the de-valuing of solitude in our current collaboration-addicted business culture. Cain cites research and real world examples that demonstrate that, counter to current trends, it's solitude, not groupthink, that allows people to produce great work.

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While each of these articles takes a slightly different approach to examining and analyzing Groupthink, what's interesting is that they essentially reach the same two conclusions:


First: While collaboration is key to sparking new ideas and mental connections, it can not be forced, it needs to happen naturally, through casual encounters, like around the water cooler or at a cafe. Thankfully, we are getting better at designing spaces that help foster and cultivate those type of interactions. We can not force collaborative thinking, but we CAN create the conditions that allow for it. 

Second: Dedicated time and space for solitary thinking are the crucial ingredients for individuals to reach their Eurika! moment. In a review of both articles on FastCo, editor Cliff Kuang explained it well, "You're more creative working alone... numerous studies have verified that finding... we know that breakthrough insight requires intense individual reflection." 


Both Cain and Lehrer seem to uncover similar findings that while collaboration is key, it needs to happen at the right time, in the right place, under the right conditions.

Maybe more importantly, we must resist the urge to make all our schools and workplaces open-plan collaborative environments because people will always need dedicated quiet space to do their best work. 

So what does this mean for the future of learning? How can we build upon the research that both Lehrer and Cain have laid out to better understand the design of classrooms and schools? Maybe more importantly, how can we design learning experiences for students that foster the casual interactions that spark creative collaboration, while also allowing for quiet reflection and individual work? How can we translate the need for this balance into both physical design and pedagogy?