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I spent three hours today working on a single problem. I can't describe the issue on my blog but take my word for it that it's wicked hard and deserved the time spent on it. It wasn't just me working on this — it actually consumed eight man-hours today (plus another three last week). We solved it. At least we think we solved it, but the plan will need to gestate for a while because we still might think of holes in it.
It's a curious thing that problem-solving can be a group activity even though there is no such thing as a collective consciousness. (You Borg in the back of the room keep quiet. Resistance is futile.) Every idea is the product of an individual person's mind, but a proper group environment enhances our ability to generate and evaluate ideas. How?
When I read about psychology I've frequently noticed that, unlike other fields, true ideas are easy to recognize once they're explained. Many times I've read about something and thought to myself, "of course — that's clear, intuitive, and very likely true." Not obvious, but compelling once explained. After today's problem-solving session I think I've identified one of these clear and compelling psychological truths, so I want to share it.
The greatest value in a group problem solving scenario is the questions. When you're problem-solving alone, it's easy to follow a train of thought for a long and perhaps fruitless distance. In a group setting, you need to outline where your idea is leading so that your co-workers can follow along. They'll ask questions in order to better understand the basis of your idea. These questions will very often cause you to restate the fundamental connections between your idea and the problem being worked on. The repeated building up and tearing down of ideas from this fundamental level reduces the amount of time spent on ideas that are unlikely to work because it encourages bad ideas to be identified as bad and discarded sooner. In other words, a group setting can increase focus on the actual problem being solved by interrupting chains of thought that get too far away from the problem.
I believe this explains why group problem solving can be so useful. It explains why group problem solving can be more effective than each member of the group independently working on the problem. (This is the proper comparison to make. It's not about having "more people" working on a problem, which can be done on an individual basis — it's about having those people working together on the problem.)
From an overall efficiency standpoint, it's important to note that a group problem solving session is not always best. My example problem was solved in approximately four wall-clock hours, but there were eleven man-hours of total work. A single person may have been able to solve it in (say) seven wall-clock hours. The tradeoff is between the timeliness of the result and the total amount of effort. Depending on the circumstances, either might be preferred.
I can't finish this post without a disclaimer. The people in the group have to work well together! If they don't get along, they'll waste time bickering and won't be productive.