Shifting gears

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb

I like riding my bike. It keeps me fit, gets me out of the house for a bit, and it gives me time to think. While I spend most of my cycling time alone, I also ride with a group once or twice a week. In cycling, the group can operate as a team; this gives the time in the saddle different qualities than time alone. In much the same fashion, the way we work can benefit from an exploration of the characteristics of spending time on projects alone and working on projects with a team.

Think about an activity that you enjoy that is materially changed in the solo or team settings. If you are playing basketball, gardening, or hiking, etc., what are the differences between the two forms of engagement? Sometimes it is nice to take all the shots, but sometimes it is nice to have someone to pass the ball to. You can choose plants and lay them out as you wish, or possibly benefit from the artistic view of a friend. You can enjoy the solitude of the wild or enjoy sharing time with someone you care about. There are certainly benefits to both approaches.

We simply cannot be experts in everything, there is just not enough time. So, if we want to execute science across disciplines with wide ranging implications, we need teams to accomplish these goals. This is not a new idea and there is a significant amount of literature describing how this can work, often referred to as “co-production.”

That is not to say that the individual efforts go by the wayside, only that the two approaches need to work in concert toward a goal. From an individual standpoint, the tricky part is that to effectively move between these two roles, we must operate while smoothly changing our self-perceptions and manage our role effectively in both environments. However, if we are able to function in this way, we can leverage our expertise with the knowledge of others to enhance our work and reach our shared goals. For instance, if we need to make decisions about using limited supplies of fresh water, we will be more successful when multiple voices – e.g. farmers, tribes, fishermen, scientists – have a seat at the table. In this way, individual values can be expressed and considered, resulting in more holistic decisions.

This can be hard, as when operating alone we can make all the decisions, but when we take those choices to the group they will be examined, possibly challenged, and maybe even rejected. This can be difficult to process positively. Yet, knowledge of this process may be what can allow us to rise above what could be taken as injurious feedback. We know that all our ideas can’t be lightning bolts, and we know we need the expertise of the team, so what are we left with? We can control our motivations.

If we can keep the idea that the team goal is the objective, and this is aligned with our bigger picture goals, then the integration of self into the team dynamic will probably be more fruitful, and even a little less painful. I like the proverb and its simplicity, but an evolution of the thinking might allow us the best of both approaches: to go far while running with the pack, but it is OK to sprint every once in a while.

Quinn and his teammate Higgins. Photo by Heather Turner.

Author: Quinn McColly

Quinn McColly is a post-doctoral research associate with the Socio-Economics Group at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. He has a deep appreciation of the natural world and hopes to help improve environmental conditions for future generations.