Are Teams Better than Individuals at Getting Work Done?

When it comes to getting work done, two heads are better than one. Except when they aren’t.

Duncan Watts
Duncan Watts is Stevens University Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Computer and Information Science and the Wharton’s School’s Departments of Operations, Information and Decisions

A new study from Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Duncan Watts digs into the question of whether it’s better for employees to work in teams or alone—and the answer may be surprising for managers trying to figure out the best way to assign tasks.

In their research, Watts and his co-authors found that the answer depends on the complexity: Simple tasks are best accomplished by individuals, while difficult ones are more efficiently completed by a group.

“Groups are as fast as the fastest individual and more efficient than the most efficient individual when the task is complex but not when the task is simple,” the researchers write in their paper titled, “Task Complexity Moderates Group Synergy,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Watts, director of the Computational Social Science Lab at Penn, says the study is unique because it’s the first to make an “apples to apples” comparison in a lab setting. The scholars created an experiment that allowed them to manipulate the complexity of the same task, rather than simply giving the participants different kinds of tasks, as most previous studies have done.

“A manager is kind of stuck a little bit because they don’t really know how to evaluate the complexity of the task that they’re looking at,” says Watts. “In this research, we got around that by identifying a class of tasks where we could vary complexity in a nice, systematic, principled way without changing anything else.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.