J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

One-Man Band vs. Pairing Up On Problems

One-Man Band vs. Pairing Up On Problems

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How you split the work is one thing.  How you team up on work is another.

This is one of those patterns that can be counter-intuitive, but is one of the single-biggest factors for successful teams.  I've seen it time and again, over many years, in many places. 

When I compare the effectiveness of various organizations, there's a pattern that always stands out.  It's how they leverage their capabilities in terms of teamwork.  For the sake of simplicity, I'll simply label the two patterns:

  1. One-Man Bands (or Teams of One)
  2. Pairing Up (or Crews of Capabilities)

In the One-Man Band scenario, while everybody is on a team, they are all working on seperate things and individual parts.  In the Pairing Up scenario, multiple people work on the same problems, together.  In other words ...

  • One-Mand Band -- One person works on problem 1, one person works on problem 2, etc.
  • Pairing Up -- 5 people work on problem 1, then problem 2, then problem 3, etc.

The Obvious Answer is Often the Wrong Answer
The obvious choice is to divide and conquer the work and split the resources to tackle it.  That would be great if this was the industrial age, and it was just an assembly line.  The problem is it's the knowledge area, and in the arena of knowledge work, you need multiple skills and multiple perspectives to make things happen effectively and efficiently.

Teams of Capabilities, Beat Teams of One
In other words, you need teams of capabilities.  When you Pair Up, you're combining capabilities.  When you combine capabilities, that means that people spend more time in their strengths.  You might be great at the technical perspective, but then lack the customer perspective.  Or you might be great at doing it, but not presenting it.  Or you might be great at thinking up ideas, but suck at sticking with the daily grind to finish the tough stuff.  Or you might be great at grinding through the tasks, but not so great at coming up with ideas, or prioritizing, etc.

The One-Man Band Scenario Creates Bottlenecks and Inefficiencies
As the One-Man Band, what happens is everybody bottlenecks.  They spend more time in their weaknesses and things they aren't good at.  Worse, the person ends up married to their idea, or the idea represents just one person's thinking, instead of the collective perspective.

Crews Spend More Time in Strengths and Gain Efficiencies
If you've had the benefit of seeing these competing strategies first hand, then it's easy with hind-sight to fully appreciate the value of Pairing Up on problems vs. splitting the work up into One-Man Bands.  For many people, they've never had the benefit of working as "crews" or pairing up on problems, and, instead, spend a lot of energy working on their weaknesses and meanwhile, spending way less time on their strength.

When people work as teams of capabilities, and are Pairing Up on problems, the execution engine starts to streamline, people gain efficiencies, and get exponential results.  Several by-products also happen:

  • Individuals end up with shared goals instead of bifurcating effort and energy
  • Collaboration increases because people have shared goals
  • Individuals start to prioritize more effectively because it's at the "system" level vs. the "individual" level
  • Individuals grow in their core skills because they spend more time in strengths, and less time in weaknesses
  • Employee engagement goes up, and work satisfaction improves, as people find their flow, grow their strengths, and make things happen

There are Execution Patterns for High Performing Teams
Of course there are exceptions to the generalization (for example, some individuals have a wide variety of just the right skills), and of course their are success patterns (and anti-patterns) for building highly effective teams of capabilities, and effectively pairing people up in ways that are empowering, and catalyzing.  I learned many of these the hard way, through trial and error, and many years of experimenting while under the gun to bring out the best in individuals and simultaneously unleash and debottleneck teams for maximum performance and impact.  I’ve also had the benefit of mentoring teams, and individuals in reshaping their execution.  This is probably an area where it’s worth me sharing a more focused collection of patterns and practices on leading high performance teams.

If you have a favorite post or favorite write up that drills into this topic, please send it my way.  In my experience, it's one of the most fundamental game changers to improving the execution and impact of any team, and especially, one that does any sort of knowledge work, and engineering.