Why you should be a team of one

One of the best exercises a working person can do is this: spend some time doing the jobs of the people you work with. Every manager should be required to do this once a year, even if just for a few hours.  Most of us, most of the time, work with blinders on. We naturally assume our work is harder and more important than the people we depend on, or who depend on us, and the only way to be reminded of this is to put yourself in their shoes now and then.

At the UI14 conference last year I caught an excellent talk by Leah Buley, an experience designer at Adaptive Path, called UX Team of One. The core idea is in many, but not all cases, one person can effectively do both analysis (usability engineering) and synthesis (design and prototyping of new ideas) if they have the right attitude, experience and perspective, which she described in detail in her talk (slides here).

This is not to suggest singular expertise in usability or interaction design is useless.  Not at all. My point is in many cases the usability and design problems are relatively simple and the reason why things are bad is not a lack of expertise, but a lack of willingness among ‘experts’ to step out of their safe expert box and fight to effect change, or a failure to succeed at it. Someone with fewer pedigrees tends to see fewer boundaries, and that’s often what a team or culture or company needs for change to happen. Many projects need basic first aid, not brain surgery, and I suspect medics, who are generalists, do better first-aid than neurosurgeons, who are specialists. Of course if I have a brain tumor, I’ll wait for Mr. Neurosurgery, but otherwise he’s not my best bet.

There are many people with PhDs in cognitive psychology, or Masters degrees in design, working on projects with abysmal usability or interaction design. The problem isn’t lack of expertise, it’s a lack of awareness for how to convert that expertise into action. Their deep expertise can be a liability if it gets in the way of getting their hands dirty.

The intellectual exercise of trying to do a project alone, where you have to play the role of product planner, project manager, designer, engineer, tester, marketer (or whatever the list of roles is in your world), even if just for a day, forces you to rethink the assumptions about each and every contribution on a project. Maybe it’s harder than you think, or maybe it’s easier, who knows? You likely have no idea since you’ve never done any of those things. If you have clients, what do you really know about their world? Project and Middle Managers are notorious for having no real sense for how all the contributions by others that they get credit for, are actually done. This is an easy disease to cure: invest some time standing in other people’s shoes.

I believer there is a core set of skills, orthogonal to traditional ideas of expertise, that defines who is effective at work or not. Call it savvy, self-awareness, organizational agility, or just plain common sense, but it’s the real factor at play at why some experts have an impact and others don’t. Playing Team of One for a day is one easy way to start getting at those skills. It gives you a language and sensibility for thinking about the people you depend on, the absence of which contributes to why they’re ignoring or frustrating you.

10 Responses to “Why you should be a team of one”

  1. TomC

    The fact that anyone felt the need to say this is what is wrong with our industry. When it started everyone was always doing multiple jobs. The idea that Interaction Design and Usability Expertise could ever be separated is the real problem.

  2. Richard

    This explains why most of the PhD’s and MBAs I’ve worked with were useless at turning analysis into action. :-)

  3. Esteban

    Cool article!

    A typo spotted though: “I believer there is […]” for “I believe there is […]” :-)

  4. JoachimK

    I read your article and thought, “Cool, maybe that could be done in my field of work” (I’m a physiotherapy student in Denmark, EU) I thought a little more and I just realized that during our mandatory internships we are already doing that.
    At most hospitals there is a student-ward. The patients are usually hip and/or knee replacements and here students on internships do all the work. But some days you switch fields. So some days the physiotherapist are doing the nurses jobs (to the extend that it is possible) and the nurses might be doing the physiotherapists jobs.
    That gives you a really good prospective on what the others are doing and why and it helps the interaction between fields further on.

  5. Mike Nitabach

    Interesting post, Scott. In the natural sciences, you become a principal investigator–i.e., team leader–*only* by having first demonstrated excellence at doing bench work. However, after you have been a PI for a while, you can begin to introduce bench scientists into your team that are deploying techniques that you have never actually performed yourself at the bench. This requires a mindful learning process so that you can appropriately set and manage your own–and your team members’–expectations about those techniques you have never personally performed.



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