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Working Alone In The Crowd

Posted on April 8th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


Last time, we looked at the view that innovative ideas and solutions come most often from small teams or solo inventors and engineers. Steve Wozniak, who I’m sure we’d all agree is deserving of the title of “inventor”,¬†explicitly¬†advises that others with the potential to invent should seek out¬†opportunity¬†to work alone. He says that we’ll only do our best work when we’re going solo, rather than working in a larger team.

But even if we wanted to follow that advice, how do we actually go about working alone? Most of us don’t have the¬†luxury¬†of our own offices with a door we can shut. Most of us already work in teams. Most of us are actively encouraged to work collaboratively with our colleagues. Working alone is easier said than done.

Increasingly, our workplaces are being designed with the exact opposite of lone working in mind. More and more, they’re open plan, noisy and full of people. Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer, highlights the same problem in her short talk on the power of introverts¬†which I’d highly¬†recommend.¬†Extroverted¬†behavior, being social and outgoing, working collaboratively are all held up as the gold standards for us to aim for. But that might not be a good fit for those of us looking to create or innovate.

Finding A Way

As well as working alone in his garage, Steve Wozniak also did a lot of his creative work in the office. To fit with his notion that he’d do his best work if he was alone, he would go into the office before his colleagues arrived in the morning or, more often, work after they’d all gone home. He found a way to create space by himself in a context where that wasn’t the norm.

I’ve worked with plenty of colleagues who also crave quiet space while working in an open plan office. Some set up temporary desks by themselves in a quiet lab when trying to think through a difficult problem, while others wear headphones of ear defenders to try to block out background noise and distractions. I’ve personally hired out meeting rooms, moved away from my regular desk to work from a table in the cafeteria, or worked out of the coffee shop next door in an attempt to create space to work alone.

None of this means that Steve Wozniak, my colleagues or I are social awkward and incapable of working alongside others. It just means that we recognize the importance of working alone sometimes. And that’s ok.

Creating space to be alone to think, to create and to invent is increasingly difficult in our modern workplaces. What do you do, or what could you do, to carve out time to work alone or encourage others in your company to do the same?

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