Human beings have dominated planet Earth not because of our fearsome physical prowess, but because of our remarkable ability to cooperate. Almost every complex achievement involves teams of people.
But just because cooperative effort is crucial in many situations, and working with others can help you stay accountable, it doesn’t mean that you should always default to group work. These are the situations in which working solo is definitely the way to go:
Generating novel ideas
Perhaps the most important time that you want to do a lot of work alone is when you have the task of finding a creative solution to a problem. There is a tendency in these situations to gather groups together to engage in brainstorming, but the evidence is overwhelming that letting people throw ideas out to each other actually reduces the overall creativity of the group.
The reason for this is straightforward. As soon as anyone in the group says something, it causes everyone else in the group to retrieve information related to what that person says. As soon as a few people throw out ideas, everyone in the room is thinking about the problem in a similar way. Thus, it is important for people trying to be creative to work alone—at least when they are trying to let their thoughts diverge from those of others.
There is power in the group to create consensus, though. After individuals generate ideas, it’s valuable to get people together to discuss them and to reach agreement about which ideas should be adopted and how to move forward.
Many aspects of business life require establishing and maintaining a relationship with clients and customers. The best salespeople have a rolodex of people who trust them and their recommendations. Service providers must understand the needs and preferences of their best clients.
It’s valuable to have a team that can ensure that someone is always available to deal with key clients and customers, but there should always be one person with the primary responsibility to develop that relationship. People don’t really develop relationships with brands or companies. They develop relationships with people. If you want your organization to be sticky, then one person needs to take responsibility for the relationship with a key individual.
From an organizational standpoint, that creates some potentially tricky problems. Firms need to have a plan for how to maintain relationships when an employee leaves the firm. A good way to manage that is to have one person be the central contact for individuals and provide introductions to other members of the team. At team meetings, important developments with clients should be discussed. Then, if an employee leaves, the person taking over that relationship should reach out immediately to let customers know that there has been a change.
Ensuring a uniform voice
Group writing is hard. Often, you need several people to work on a document, because many different types of expertise are required for complex projects.
But just because many people played a role in crafting a document, the end product shouldn’t read as if it were written by many individuals.
To create a cohesive, clear voice, a single person needs to understand the whole project and then go through a report (or presentation, or website) in detail, ensuring that it reads clearly and coherently. This is a difficult responsibility, because many projects are complex, and so it can be challenging to be conversant about the whole thing. Without that effort, though, reports can often contain internal contradictions that can limit their overall value.
In addition, when one person has internalized the key elements of a report, it often leads to new questions that no other individual working on the project thought to ask. This is because gaps in the story only become evident to someone able to see the whole picture. Thus, having (at least) one person who understands the whole project improves the quality of the work overall, in addition to the quality of its presentation.