NROW 01: How team work can work better

When passers by kept snapping pictures of the witty quotes posted outside Division of Labor’s office, things like “No Good Comes from Hitting Reply All”, they realized they were on to something. And when they decided to shore up the resulting book-length collection of similarly clever posters with some research, they came to us. We surveyed 800 office workers across the country, asking questions on subjects varying from coworker peeves to office-related indiscretions. Now we’ve gone back and taken some of our favorite bon mots and done a little more research, and explored them a little further. Enjoy!

Imagine you’re working with a group of people to solve a problem. It probably happens most work days in some fashion, but let’s say you don’t know the people. Say you’re on your way to the mountains and a herd of cows is blocking the two-lane road to your Airbnb chalet. You’re so close, but so far. There’s three people stuck there with you, and you debate the best course of action. One guy declares confidently that if he honks the horn a lot, they’ll run. Another guy quietly says that might not work. But Over-Confident Guy insists, so you all get into your cars while he tries it. After the stampede subsides, you all get out to survey your cars for damage, of which there is plenty.

Also, it turns out that the quiet guy lived in Wyoming for 10 years and knew a lot of ranchers who would have told you that would happen, but he wasn’t the one sounding off about the best way to do things.

So here’s the question: how do we choose the best course of action when working in a diverse group with multiple options on the table?

Figuring out who the experts are in a given situation is crucial: if you’re planning a ski vacation, you need to talk to the powder hound who’s been to the most mountains; if you’ve got an idea for a start-up, you need to talk to someone who’s made one work, and knows why and how it worked when it did. Obvious, right?

Sometimes these people are easy to track down, but some situations make it more difficult. For example, take group work. Most of us work or consort with someone who we tend to believe by default. It’s the person who says “sure” rather than “really?” to a new perspective in a conversation, the one who oozes confidence in every situation, even those they’ve just walked into. They seem to have a response to everything, and to know the answer already. Seem to.

Often there’s no clear expert at hand when working in a group to solve a problem, so the person who exudes the most confidence becomes the de facto leader for the simple reason that others don’t challenge him or her. It’s a common group dynamic: someone leads the way, but whether that person is qualified to do so is questionable. Bryan Bonner, a researcher from the University of Utah, wanted to understand how this dynamic plays out, and whether something can be done to make group work a more useful, profitable undertaking.

Bonner and his colleagues had people working in groups come up with 5 knowledge-based estimates (e.g., the distance from Salt Lake City to New York City). While some groups dove in without any further instruction, others were told to have each member think of and write down two things they knew that were related to the questions before continuing. This task functioned as a short hand inventory of related expertise, so the group could distinguish the people who knew more (for instance, someone who took a road trip to the east coast one time) from those who knew less (the guy from California who’d never been east of the Rockies).

What they found was that groups who considered members’ knowledge before getting to work had more accurate answers than the other groups. Groups who didn’t consider member knowledge were more likely to be influenced by the members who showed the most confidence, and researchers noted that knowledge and confidence were “only modestly related to one another” in their study.

It makes sense when you think about it: everyone works with a different set of knowledge and experiences. Why wouldn’t they be used accordingly, depending on the situation, rather than the usual falling in like with Over-Confident Guy every time? Quickly going over relevant knowledge before beginning a project seems like 3 minutes well used. And what do we have to lose? Nothing but a few hours of wasted time.

What have we here?

One thing we’ve all had friendly disagreements about is what, exactly, a cloud looks like. I say it’s a puppy crouched down to play, you say it’s a scorpion ready to strike (which says a lot about our personalities, by the way). Things in the sky are like nature’s Rorschach ink blots—a group of stars look like a crab or a bear, or at least did to someone at some point. So what do you make of this?

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Maybe you see a downward-looking Easter Island head, or a stylized outline of New England, or an unfortunate Tetris piece. But probably you didn’t see this:

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The reason Thomas Lamadieu’s work caught my attention is not because it’s a playful use of negative space. Rather, I’m intrigued by how a set of given parameters (in the physical sense), became the foundation for something so wildly different and interesting. It’s not that there’s obviously a woman sitting in that space (as with the arrow in the FedEx logo), but it does make sense how one grew into it, imaginatively.

We’ve been talking about structure around the office lately, and how to make it work for rather than confine us. Deciding that a certain amount of time will be devoted to creative endeavors is a great idea, but we’ve noticed that often our internal projects get brushed aside because they’re not “urgent,” and so get put on the backburner for a while. It turns out that a while can easily turn into forever, as we’ve all discovered at various points when we take a look back and see the detritus of unwritten stories, unplanted gardens, DIY projects that never get off the ground, blogs left to die—the list goes sadly on.

Perhaps a solution to this common quandary is to install some hemmed in space into the week and just go for it. Dig into those projects (and only those projects) during that time period, which is to be considered inviolate. We’re going to try it out and see how it goes. In the mean time, here’s once more sky drawing for the road. I don't know about you, but what I see when I look at that space now is an opportunity to expand.

Point of Inspiration: Beware the Brackets

The boxes labeled A and B are the same exact shade of gray...It’s March, and we’re all a little mad, of course, but it’s not the NCAA kind of brackets I mean here (although, that said, Harvard?!). The brackets I want to draw attention to are the ones we use, often without knowing, to confine our perception and judgment. These brackets can spell trouble for the creative and critical processes we rely on both in work and play. (In the instance above, we bracket the boxes labeled A and B within their immediate surroundings, and usually fail to see and believe that they are, in fact, the exact same shade of gray.) If you’re ever tasked with evaluating a number of things (pitches, positionings, creative concepts, and the like) you probably assume that you keep an open mind throughout the process and maintain a pretty even hand. Well, a recent study shows that’s probably not the case (sorry!). When researchers evaluated data on decisions made in over 9,000 business school interviews, they found that judgments were affected not so much by who came directly before, as we might expect, but on the overall strength of the entire day, which is, of course, completely irrelevant.

A lot of factors go into how we evaluate ideas and people, and many of them are external to the ideas and people themselves—that’s just life. But imagine someone is an absolute star in the making, but interviews last on a day full of qualified-to-good candidates. What happens? According to this study, our plucky up and comer will likely get scored low simply because of the mental brackets placed around that group of candidates. Interviewers, for a number of possible reasons, are reluctant to give high marks after giving several others high marks (or conversely, reverse all of the above, and a sub-par candidate could be recommended because of a number of preceding low marks). Now, replace “candidate” with anything you’re in charge of making a call on.

Often at fault in these situations is the gambler’s false belief in the law of small numbers, otherwise known as, “they can’t all be heads.” We tend to be suspicious of streaks in what we suppose to be a random series of events—we notice and question it when a coin lands head side up 15 times in a row. By the same token, if we read three strong proposals in a row, we might “correct” for our judgment and double down on the next one, which, when we see it for what it is, is a mistake in judgment.

Surely this is beginning to ring true, at least to some extent. If you’re not prepared to admit that you’ve probably misjudged some things in your professional life, let’s lower the stakes and say it’s just wine on the docket. Have you ever been to a tasting where you liked every single wine? Probably not. And yet, it’s entirely possible to like five wines in a row, without having low standards or a pathetic palette. We just assume a certain ordering of quality will emerge in any set of people, objects, or ideas.

Why should we care about this? Because many decisions we make are folded into arbitrary subsets created by the confines of a day, a meeting, or an attention span.  If we bring these brackets with us to new ideas or viewpoints, we can easily miss out on something good, or even revolutionary. This is not to say we can’t allow experience to inform decisions, but we should be open to the possibility that a streak of seemingly great ideas might really be great. In the end, some brackets are determined for us, but other times, we can, and should, expand them as broadly as possible.

Also, happy March Madness to you!

The Bustle and the Void

Just the other day, Durham moved up in the ranks of Forbes’ best cities for business. We jumped 17 spots, up to no. 14 this year from no. 31 in 2011 (look here and here). For those of us who have lived and worked here for some time, this news may come as no surprise. And here at PARAGRAPH, we’ve talked previously about why our fair city has become such a draw for creative, smart, forward-thinking minds. But there’s one problem with rankings of this sort: While they give our city well-deserved attention, they paint only part of the picture. Sure, these accolades cite all the on-paper, measurable reasons why you (yes, you!) should bring your life and livelihood to Durham. Lower costs of living and of doing business, higher rates of job growth, more educational resources--the stars are all aligned. But Forbes fails to capture what living and breathing and thinking and producing in a place like Durham actually means on the ground, how those shreds of context end up influencing not only the way we grow our business but also our ability to generate good ideas.

Some may wonder what North Carolina has that can compete with the always-humming atmosphere of big cities like New York. In that sort of setting, direct stimuli seem to be at your fingertips every minute of every hour of every day, and (on the face of it, anyway) there appears to be little need to worry about where your next idea will come from. It’s already out there, waiting to be encountered on an afternoon walk across the Williamsburg Bridge.

But what matters most isn’t the sheer volume of stuff going on around us or the collective effervescence that a cityscape can foster. What seems to really count is what you (yes, you!) are able to extract from a space. The bustle of urban life may promise unrelenting inspiration, but unless you’re already switched on, that raw content can go to waste. At the same time, the relative quiet of small-town life can feel absolutely stifling, but there’s a catalyst around every corner if you’re willing to keep your eyes open.

In short, there’s potential for doing good, creative work wherever you live. More than the latent potential of any one location, I'm convinced it’s a matter of how you choose to interact with your surroundings.

It took me up until three years ago, when I moved to Durham, to start believing that.  Even though muses can come in both beautiful and ugly packages, I always thought the latter worked best, and I figured the disarmingly twisted face of the big city was the only place to find things that would spur me to work. I had no doubt that momentous work and personalities did in fact emerge from perfectly pleasant settings where utter triumph and defeat seem to occur rarely if at all. But, so I thought, why put your neck on the line unless there’s something wrong with the status quo that you just can’t stomach? Said otherwise, I thought there had to be something at stake. There needed to be something in my face that left me with no choice but to do, create, act, change. Without a counterpoint, there could be no point.

That last sentiment is something I still agree with wholeheartedly. It’s just that I no longer think there’s one mecca out there where everyone who’s doing anything of importance should be.

I’d be surprised if I’m towing this line all by myself. In our attempts to live full-time in a place of urgency and creative wildfire, many of us keep so busy that we work ourselves into a state of distracted pseudo-productivity, so overstimulated and mentally fragmented that we aren’t able to cobble together anything worthy of an audience. Or, we try to carve out the down-time and white space that will help us bounce back fresh from the frantic nature of the lives we feel compelled to lead. As with anything else, there needs to be balance, but that’s easier said than done. For me personally, the pendulum will always swing back and forth between city and country. Between my three-year-old self running around shirtless in the expansive backyard of our semi-rural Florida home to the three years I spent tracing the streets of Boston, feeling intoxicated just from the buzz of the city around me. From one extreme to the other, I need to switch gears every now and then to stay sane and feel renewed.

But by some stroke of luck, Durham has also turned out to be a place where I can strike that balance without having to run haphazardly over the world. It’s not very often that I feel so anxious that I have to get away for a change of scenery. Here, I’m not crippled by a constant bombardment of tragedy. At the same time, this is not a picture-perfect place where no battles are won or lost, where nothing is at stake. This is a place where real people grapple with real issues, and those people inspire everyone who comes into contact with them.

Right now, at least, the slower-paced life I have in Durham lets me get into a rhythm of work that I can sustain.

Which locale works best for you?


Gwen McCarter, Strategist

The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value.We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.