The illogical way of getting the job done

The complex working of our minds, both in ourselves and in others, can lead us to assume the logical path, which subsequently turns out not to be as logical as we might hope. Take the interview process. We are taught to present ourselves well, to be personable and build a rapport with the interviewer. Why? Because this creates a good impression and influences the selection decision. But there are some roles, particularly where individuals will need to spend long periods of time in their own company, where the personal characteristics of a good interviewee run contrary to those demanded by the role.

A previous newspaper article highlighted a similar workplace anachronism. Presumably based on the finding that the output of teams can sometimes be greater than the sum of the parts, the modern workplace as the article states, 'is all about teams, open-plan offices and collective brainstorming'. Yet we all know that sometimes when we need to get something done, we go off on our own, find a quiet place and just get on with it.

The newspaper article provides two justifications to support this. The first is a quote from Picasso: “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible”. The second is research that shows that, when compared to workers who are not interrupted, 50% more mistakes are made by workers who are regularly interrupted and they also take twice as long, typically, to complete the work.

When it comes to brainstorming, I have to admit that I have fallen into the 'logical' trap. The basic principle is sound: putting down all and any ideas whilst suspending any criticism or evaluation. When done in a group, individuals can feed off the ideas of others leading to the generation of new ideas. However, yet again, research shows that group brainstorming sessions don't actually work that well. Experiment after experiment has shown that people in brainstorming sessions provide fewer and lower quality ideas than those working alone (Furnham, 2000).

When working in groups, like brainstorming sessions, people engage in 'social loafing', slacking off and leaving the work to others. Although in a traditional brainstorming session, criticism is suspended, everyone knows that the others around the table will be assessing their input and this can put people off from making suggestions. In addition, whilst one person is talking, the others may forget or dismiss their own ideas. Other researchers from Texas A&M University concluded that group brainstorming exercises can lead to a fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, leading eventually to a conformity of ideas.

The Texas research and other studies have also shown that taking a break in a brainstorming session, hence allowing for a mental incubation period, can stem the natural decline in the quantity and variety of ideas, and encourage problem solving.

The way forward is to make arrangements to allow the individual to do what an individual does best, and allow the group to do what a group does best, as a group. In this case, technology can come to the aid of brainstorming. Research has found that electronically mediated brainstorming participants generated more high-quality ideas than face-to-face participants. So, by having individuals generate and send in their ideas individually and then gathering the group to evaluate them provides the best of both the individual and team worlds.

In the course of the PANI projects, it was logical that operators could benefit from training on the component geometries that they were going to inspect. Unfortunately, the logical implementation of the training for one geometry led to the operators being trained to look for a particular defect, increasing the chance of them missing a different defect in the actual test specimen. In NDT, we logically rely a lot on the individual operator. But do we rely on them too much? Could we extract more benefit if an increased portion of teamwork was introduced?

The logical approach is based on the assumption that we know all the facts. When we are dealing with complex situations, especially where humans are involved, knowledge is often missing. The answer is to take refuge from the open plan, the brainstorming and the emails and consider how the obviously logical approach could be enhanced, especially by seeking and addressing any 'non-logical' implications.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author's own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within this newsletter. They do not represent the views of SAINT.

Bernard McGrath

Bernard McGrath