Excellent NYT Article on Open Office, Groupthink, Concentration and Productivity

I read a very interesting article over here: NYT: The Rise of the New Groupthink

Which covers a number of distinct, yet interrelated subjects, such as: concentration and reduction in bugs, open office spaces, and groupthink.

Ultimately the author demonstrates that open plan offices can be detrimental to good software development — like many things, collaboration has it’s benefits, but that can change when it is done in too large an amount.

I’m going to start with a couple of photos of Pixar’s ofice, which has spaces for both solitary and communal work. Then I will be quoting from Ms Cain’s Article.

Creativity Silos at Pixar Studios, Emeryville, California

Communal Area, Pixar Studios, Emeryville, California

In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.

….

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.

Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

What do you think?

PostAgilist

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About postagilist

Architect, Manager, Developer, Musician, Post-Agile thought leader
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One Response to Excellent NYT Article on Open Office, Groupthink, Concentration and Productivity

  1. PostAgilist says:

    On a related note AgileScout has a posting related to research done on noise in the workplace.
    PostAgilist
    http://agilescout.com/do-not-have-agile-open-offices

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