The perils of incessant teamwork

14 May 2019    2 mins read.

During a casual evening conversation, a startup CEO asked me, “What are the qualities we should be looking for in a good remote [any] employee?”

My instinctive answer was, “Someone who feels comfortable working and being productive alone.”

I didn’t think much about this answer until after I walked out, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he perceived it. “Alone? We’re a team. We hire team players.”

“Team player” has become the cliche for the most sought-after employee. Of course, a company is a complex combination of its parts, the most important of which are people, and they have to come together to achieve a common goal. More people can accomplish larger goals.

But most companies don’t do teamwork right. The paradox is, good teamwork is actually spending most of your time working alone doing deep work, self-sufficiently, towards a common goal.

In sports and business

The idea applies to many contexts, even the ones where it’s impossible to win without full team support. Take a professional basketball team for example. What most people see is the finished product. The game. The game is the integration of individual parts. It’s 1% of what happens on the road to a championship. What most don’t see is how much time great players spend alone in the gym. They are craftsmen perfecting their individual craft: their shot, their pass, their defense, their mind. Then they integrate their piece into the world-class whole.

In business, a common mistake is thinking you can scale by adding more people to the team. But 2 + 2 ≈ 4 is only true if the people can contribute individually before the integration happens. You can quickly go from 2 people moving fast to 10 people getting nothing done. This is because every addition to the team creates new interdependencies, which, if unmanaged, grow exponentially. Managing interdependencies is what teamwork is about. Interdependencies are reduced by hiring people who thrive independently.

The best team player is the one who is great at working alone

Great progress can be made by people who are self-sufficient in environments that foster deep work rather than incessant team collaboration. They thrive in environments that encourage fewer interdependencies. They have respect for others’ time. They move fast, because they are able to choose the proper tradeoffs. They have space to think, alone and clearly. They come together often to integrate their work. Integration is the easy part. Effectively working alone is hard.

Resources for effectively working better alone, but as a part of a team