How Many Heads Do We Need…and When Do We Need Them?

How many artists do you know who rely on committees, consumer research, and group brainstorming to stoke the flames of their creativity?

I come from the Presbyterian tradition, and for some reason we believe that committees are the answer to everything. Now don’t get me wrong, here, because meetings can be very productive and separation of powers can save you from many evils. But a hammer is only useful in the right situations; sometimes you need a screwdriver or a drill.

I recently read a New York Times article by Susan Cain that challenges the notion that two heads are always better than one.

For example, one study found that productivity at different organizations was primarily driven by how much privacy their employees had. The least productive organizations, by contrast, listed constant interruptions as a staple of their day. Even the physical space had an impact:

Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it

We even learn better when we’re alone. I never participated in study groups in school because I could make the same grade in 20% of the time it took to study in a group. According to the NYT article:

Solitude can even help us learn. According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. Only then, Mr. Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class — you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.

Leadership Lesson: use group discussion to progress incrementally; let individuals think on their own before coordinating to progress creatively

Now there is one huge exception to this rule of creative solitude. When people are coordinating their ideas through the Internet, productivity and creativity usually increase with bigger groups, and the bigger the group the bigger the increase. The physical distance and non-verbal communication mean each individual must work on their own before trying to coordinate with the group. It allows us to be “alone together.”

Jesus was a very relational guy, but he made a habit of spending alone time with God. For example, Luke 5:15-16 (NRSV) says “15But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

There are times when we need to be together, and there are times when we need to be alone. It takes wisdom to know what is needed when.

Putting it into Practice

  • Do I need to coordinate, tweak, or improve incrementally? I should use a team.
  • Do I need to be creative, think outside the box, or move quickly? I should let individuals think on their own before coordinating.
  • Can I use the “alone together” idea by having everyone submit individual written thoughts/proposals before we meet together?