Want to Improve Team Performance? Take a Break

Teams that take occasional breaks to learn about the potential solutions of others produce better solutions to problems.

Want to Improve Team Performance Take a Break

MOST MANAGERS WANT members of their teams to come up with smarter ideas— but can they do anything to help this process along? There is a simple way to increase a team’s collective intelligence, say three professors based in Boston, Massachusetts: Make sure teams take intermittent breaks to learn how others are approaching the problem.

This advice comes from Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School; Jesse Shore, an assistant professor of information systems at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business; and David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer and information science at Northeastern University’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Together, they examined the performance of teams trying to solve a puzzle known as the “traveling salesperson problem” by calculating the shortest route that a salesperson can take to visit 25 different locations. In this experiment, some teams worked without any break, others were allowed to take breaks to see other teams’ attempted solutions at any time, and others were allowed take breaks to see other teams’ attempted solutions only occasionally.

Teams that took intermittent breaks to see others’ solutions performed better and produced more ideal solutions than teams in the other two conditions. “Intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” write the co-authors. “Being exposed to diverse answers boosts performance, even if the answers one sees are worse than one’s own.”

How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence” was published online in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.