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Bursting with productivity
The bursty nature of optimal collaboration
“To do two things at once is to do neither.” ― Publilius Syrus
Q: What is the common link between earthquakes, solar flares, neuron spike trains, and the communication patterns of high-performing teams?
A: All of them are complex systems that exhibit high-activity bursts interspersed between long periods of low-activity. In mathematics, this phenomenon is called burstiness1. Bursty systems have activity patterns similar to the figures below.2
In their study on remote teams, researchers Christoph Riedl and Anita Woolley, found that: ‘bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams.’3
There are two parts of bursty collaboration that are really important. One: the quiet part; two: the bursty part.
The quiet part
Knowledge work requires that we block out time for focused concentration or, what Cal Newport calls, deep work.4
Deep work can not occur in a state of what Victor Gonzalez and Gloria Mark refer to as ‘constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness’5; where one’s attention is under continuous assault from a barrage of text messages, emails, walk-ups, social media check-ins and Slack notifications.
Multitasking introduces cognitive switching costs that drain productivity.
In addition, changing focus from one task to another generates attentional ‘residue’ that erodes task performance.
We possess innate motivations to complete tasks and to achieve cognitive closure (a definite answer to a question)6. When these are unmet we carry what Sophie Leroy describes as attention residue: ‘a type of ruminative thought that is specific to the context of task transitioning and the issue of allocating attention among activities; specifically, it describes thoughts that relate to a prior task when working on a subsequent task’.7
Her research indicates that:
even when people are focused on one task and are not multi-tasking, their minds may not be completely focused on the task at hand. In other words, multi-tasking may not only be due to competing simultaneous demands, like receiving an email or a text message during a meeting, but may also be a function of how the mind operates in a context where people must manage multiple tasks, activities or responsibilities at the same time.
To be as cognitively available as possible, we need to fully disengage from one task before proceeding to the next.
Leroy found that time pressure can provide the necessary incentive for people to fully let go of a task, reach cognitive closure, and release more cognitive resources to the next task.
The bursty part
Riedl and Woolley’s research showed that teams that engage in synchronous bursts of communication perform better than teams where communication and feedback is delayed or dispersed.8
Communication begets more communication and stimulates greater continuous levels of effort expenditure. Individuals raise their work efforts in relation to the level of communication of their teammates.
Bursty communication raises the energy of teams and helps to focus attention, develop ideas, and achieve cognitive closure.
Burstiness is a signal that team members attend to and align their activities with one another. During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members keep ideas flowing and collective intelligence flourishing.
Bursty communication catalyzes collaboration.
It seems that optimal team collaboration emerges from the following pattern of interaction:
sufficient distraction-free time is scheduled to enable deep work (no emails, no texting, no phone calls, no Slack, no social media, no interruptions what so ever)9
adequate time-pressure is generated to force cognitive closure on one task before moving to the next
frequent bursts of synchronous rapid-fire communication are maintained to keep collaborative dynamics in motion
According to the science, the closer a team gets to that optimum, the more productive it will be.
If you have ever witnessed a high-performing Agile team in action, you will recognise the pattern.
In addition to the references in the footnotes, for a comprehensive guide to bursty phenomena see:
Bursty Human Dynamics by Márton Karsai, Hang-Hyun Jo, and Kimmo Kaski. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-68540-3
Figure 1: Márton Karsai et al., ‘Universal Features of Correlated Bursty Behaviour’, Scientific Reports 2 (4 May 2012): 397, doi:10.1038/srep00397.
Solar Flare: NASA-Imagery via Pixabay
Kwang-Il Goh and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, ‘Burstiness and Memory in Complex Systems’, ArXiv:Physics/0610233, 25 October 2006, http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0610233.
Márton Karsai et al., ‘Universal Features of Correlated Bursty Behaviour’, Scientific Reports 2 (4 May 2012): 397, doi:10.1038/srep00397.
Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley, ‘Successful Remote Teams Communicate in Bursts’, Harvard Business Review, 28 October 2020, accessed 18 March 2021 https://hbr.org/2020/10/successful-remote-teams-communicate-in-bursts.
Cal Newport defines Deep Work as ‘Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit’. Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world.
Victor Gonzalez and Gloria Mark, ‘Constant, Constant, Multi-Tasking Craziness: Managing Multiple Working Spheres’, vol. 6, 2004, 113–20, doi:10.1145/985692.985707.
Kruglanski, A. W., & Fishman, S. (2009). The need for cognitive closure. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (p. 343–353). The Guilford Press.
Sophie Leroy, ‘Why Is It so Hard to Do My Work? The Challenge of Attention Residue When Switching between Work Tasks’, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 109, no. 2 (1 July 2009): 168–81, doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002.
Riedl, C., & Woolley, A. W. (2017). Teams vs. Crowds: A Field Test of the Relative Contribution of Incentives, Member Ability, and Emergent Collaboration to Crowd-Based Problem Solving Performance. Academy of Management Discoveries, 3 (4), 382-403. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2384068.
Note: Deep Work includes concentrated teamwork such as pair programming and script writing partnerships