Saturday, February 25, 2012

Working as an individual or as a team member

In one of my recent posts about teams a friend of mine commented 'We are the Borg. You will be assimilated'. Though this was in jest it made me evaluate my thoughts about collaborative teams vs the individual. This post is really a brain dump of my thoughts about this issue so I apologise if it's a bit disjointed.

At one end of the team work continuum is working on your own all the time and at the other end is working as a team at all times. My view is that, like everything else, it's a balance. Being at the extreme of end or the other isn't optimal. In addition people also fall somewhere along the introversion - extroversion spectrum. Those that trend towards introversion prefer to work individually and those who trend towards extroversion, team work. Software development seems to attract more introverts than extroverts. That said, I trend towards being an extrovert and perhaps that's why I find team work better. There's also another continuum that we have to take into account and that's the spectrum of creativity. Though this spectrum doesn't correlate to the ones I've listed about there are some other connotations that we have to take into account. Though everyone has a level of creativity, there have been numerous studies showing that those who are on exceptionally creative end of the scale are also prone to downtimes due to depression. I myself go through periods of extreme creativity and extreme depression.

As I mentioned above working only as an individual or only as a team isn't optimal. At the extreme end of team work, where everyone sacrifices their individuality to the team, people are prone to group think and lack of creativity. On the extreme end of working as an individual there can be motivation, communication and transparency problems.

I've found that we need to work somewhere in the middle of the team work spectrum. We need times where we can work individually and times where we collaborate.

Our work environments need to reflect this too. We need individual and collaborative areas. The trend has been away from individual cubes or offices to working in open spaces. If you are in an open workspace all of the time one option is to use headphones for certain periods of the day, though not all day, to get the solitude needed. 

As much as working as a team is important, it's equally important to embrace individuality while doing so as everyone have different backgrounds and experiences. If you don't have diverse backgrounds/experiences, your team is very prone to group think and lack of creativity. Diversity in this case can stimulate creative conflict which is one of the key features of a good team. Part of that though is to make sure that everyone's voice is heard. If someone feels that they aren't being heard they will withdraw and not contribute. It's also important to make sure that any personal conflicts that happen within the team are discussed openly. If communication goes on behind other people's back it can affect the overall performance of the team.

People working by themselves can be extremely creative but can also miss out on the diversity of ideas from others. We can have a lack of transparency as a lot of things are just in their heads. This also becomes an issue if we need to transfer knowledge between people.

Finally for people on the high end of the creativity spectrum, during times of depression working as a team is essential especially using techniques such as pair programming. This is because they can feed off of the energy of the person or people they are working with to help them through it. Otherwise they run the risk of going dark for days at a time.

Anyway this post is just skirting the edges of a number of complex topics, but I wanted to get them down to help solidify my own thoughts.

I'd love to know what you think about this. Am I missing something big or misunderstanding something?

Thanks to +Steve Streeting for inspiring this post.

There's been an interesting discussion about this post here: