The Return of the Individual
Have you noticed a growing focus on the advantages of working individually over working in groups? Researchers are suggesting that the interactive, team-based culture so many of us have striven to achieve may have gone too far. The value of teams is under fresh questioning while the benefits of working independently are being promoted.
The article that attracted my attention to this shift was Susan Cain's The Rise of the New Groupthink in a January 2012 edition of the New York Times. She states familiar facts of today's workplace: "Collaboration is in.... Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has 'a room of one's own.'" The bulk of her essay is devoted to warning us about the price that working collectively extracts on individual creativity and productivity. Cain cites research that ties creativity and innovation to uninterrupted time for people to think and work alone. "Privacy...makes us productive," she says, and, "Solitude can...help us learn." More specifically, she quotes organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. "Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."
Cain is not suggesting we abolish collaboration or working in teams. Highly interactive groups promote diversity of thinking and camaraderie that contribute to innovation, productivity, and organizational excellence. Sometimes we need to work directly with our peers. She posits, however, that we need more opportunities to make independent contributions to the whole. We will be more creative and productive if we have time to reflect and focus our thoughts, process what we learn, and tackle the tasks necessary to deliver what we promised in our business plans.
If both group-based and individual behavior are important to success, how do we achieve an optimal balance within the active demands of the workplace? Drawing attention to the advantages of dedicated periods to apply our minds will resonate for many of us. But what if, as many of my coaching clients say, "I'm already over-committed, and I should be doing more." How do we squeeze a reasonable amount of solo time into our ambitious schedules?
Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, and a frequent contributor to the HBR Daily Alert. has been urging us for months to take control of our lives by being more mindful about how we use our time. His key points are: make concentrated thinking a priority; notice where your attention goes; and train yourself to use it more effectively. These dovetail nicely with another recent publication, Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, which extolls the benefits of creating positive habits we can use to free our minds from some of life's clutter. Both of these writers argue that through self-awareness, intention, and practice we can train ourselves to use our time more efficiently, thereby making more of it available.
If shaping the way we manage our attention has potential to help individuals, what can organizations do to provide opportunities for people to work on their own more frequently? Taking group/solo balance into consideration when designing activities is an important first step. If we accept the idea that individual work supports the whole, we may do well to reconsider how we use our time and each other's. Let's look at some simple examples.
¤ Reducing hour-long meetings to 45-minute agendas can improve a group's focus on the task at hand. Four of those shorter meetings gain an hour of solo time for everyone.
¤ Examining the structure of teams may uncover ways to achieve goals with fewer meetings or fewer people. Rethink what needs to be done by the team versus what can be done by each member and integrated at the team level.
¤ Considering how we communicate (Would this be better as a phone call? Have I put enough information in the first message to prevent the need for a second?), and with whom (Do I need to be copied on this?), has potential to significantly reduce email volume.
¤ Insisting that people use their vacation time will require them to separate from the group, which is an occasion for them to find fresh perspectives and renewed energy.
I believe we're going to see an increase in the trend toward valuing time for people to work more autonomously within groups. Consider the degree to which communications technology supports humans' disparate desires to connect with each other while maintaining privacy and independence. While we are more connected, more frequently, with more people and more information, we are often alone with our devices. It's not solitude, but it's a step from personal social interaction toward privacy. Meeting electronically is an example of the new bridge between solo and group activity. Research shows that electronic brainstorming outperforms in-person groups, partly because the relative isolation of participants mitigates some of the pitfalls of working together in person. Collaborating remotely is also said to be more effective in many circumstances than face-to-face.
According to researchers, most people find that periods of uninterrupted solo time improve their professional performance as well as their general wellbeing. Organizations are likely to experience more innovation and higher productivity. If organizations can shift the balance to provide more independent work time, and each of us can discipline ourselves to use that time well, we may find new benefits in one of our most valuable assets-at no expense.