Sidestepping the new groupthink in the workplace

Take your fate into your own hands. — Filmmaker Werner Herzog

I’m often asked how I manage to write so much. I’ve parsed that question pretty carefully — because it’s directed to me frequently — and I think those asking the question are saying that they appreciate my writing, and that it stands out in a noisy, oversaturated media landscape. The contrary interpretation — that they are really saying, “Please don’t write so much, Stowe” — does not seem to be the motivation for the question… although sometimes I wonder.

I estimate that I wrote over 500,000 words in 2013: 11 posts per week at Gigaom Research, weighing in around 600 words each is just shy of 350,000 words. Add to that outside writing — like this post for Dell — and a few dozen multi-thousand-word reports, I cleared over half a million words. Ouch.

And the open secret of that torrential prolixity? Spending the overwhelming majority of my time outside the wear-and-tear of office life, sitting (and now, standing) at my desk, reading, assimilating, and writing. Not working as the member of a team, but as a solo practitioner, chasing my personal muse.

The case I am making is not that of the solitary genius laboring in a garret, per se. But actually the opposite: the strictures and costs of the modern-day model of teamwork provide a scant return on the investments those on the team have to make, individually. Yes, I am aware that all important and useful things can’t be accomplished by soloists, true. But we seem to have swung so far to the teamwork side of the equation that opportunities for individual work are routinely overlooked, or swept into the team to-do list, like everything else.

Susan Cain makes a strong case for avoiding the tyranny of teams (see The Fortunes of Solitude: Susan Cain On Introverts, The “New Groupthink,” and the Problems With Brainstorming.) She refers to the “new groupthink,” a trend that “elevates teamwork above all else.”

U.S. corporations started to adopt teams in the early 1990s, and by 2000 more than half of U.S. companies used teams. Now, teams are ubiquitous. Frederick Morgeson researched teams, and found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe teamwork is at the heart of corporate success.

We’ve been wowed by the allure of collaboration tools that allow virtual teams to work across time zones and bought into open office plans that promise (and fail to deliver) greater serendipity through close proximity. Meanwhile, the notifications on our smartphones and the traffic jam on our calendar apps conspire with the new groupthink to exile us from long periods of deep thought, reflection or down time.

The open office combined with an obsession with teamwork make today’s office more of a minefield than a “mindfield”: It’s not a place to think deep thoughts for long periods of time. Steelcase Inc. CEO James Hackett said, “There has been a shift from “I” to “we” work. Employees used to work alone in “I” settings, meaning workstations and cubicles. Today, working in teams and groups is highly valued. We are designing products to facilitate that.” The square footage per person is falling, and the amount of communication and interaction is climbing: more of a pressure cooker than a context for creativity and reflection.

This may be one of the reasons people find co-working spaces great places to work. People might be fleeing from corporate offices that have adopted the new groupthink, and more enterprise employees are moving into co-working spaces as an alternative to the corporate HQ. Why? Michael Kenny, managing partner of San Diego-based Co-Merge, told researchers, “In the past year and a half, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of the space by enterprise employees. We have seen teams come in to use various on-demand meeting rooms. We have users from global companies of size ranging from several hundred to several thousand employees who use the space not only to allow their distributed workers to get productive work done, but also to attract employees who demand flexible workplace and work time.”

Or who want to avoid the groupthink at the company’s office across town and, instead, work in a community of motivated independents at a co-working space. You can still have the benefits of community — people to talk to about challenges, ideas, and last night’s basketball game — but without the pressures and obligations of team membership. Learn more on the impact on creativity within teams in an earlier post.

So, you want to get that design done, that campaign planned, or that article written? Get out of the office, head for the nearest co-working space or your home office, and turn off your phone. It might change your life.

This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. For more on these topics, visit Dell’s thought leadership site PowerMore. Dell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.

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Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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