Time Alone is Essential to Great Teamwork

Strong Individuals Make Strong Teams

Paul McCartney and John Lennon were a great songwriting team. Their time together produced magic—but only because of the important work each did alone. One of them would create an idea or even an entire song before bringing it to the other, allowing the best of individuality and togetherness to shine through in the final product.

I saw how time alone can make time together work better when I was teaching a marketing class at Bentley University. The same few students would always participate in class discussions. If I called on anyone else at random, they would struggle to respond. Rather than stimulating more conversation, the discussion became uncomfortable and unproductive. Then I changed my technique.

Instead of just throwing the question out there, I first asked students to get out a pen and paper and then I asked them to write down an answer to the question. Next, I gave them two minutes of silence. I didn’t repeat the question or fill the time with jabber. I simply waited.

This small adjustment changed everything. Because after giving the students a little time to think and prepare, I could call on any one of them and they would be able to contribute with confidence. After a while, I didn’t need to call on many students because more and more spoke up on their own. 

Wider participation made the class better. A range of ideas and opinions infused discussions with energy. We engaged with topics more deeply, improved our strategic analysis, and walked away with a better grasp of concepts. We got better at thinking as a group because we made it a point to do more thinking as individuals.

The same has been true in my career as well. The more time I’ve spent thinking on my own has always led me to be able to make stronger contributions to team efforts. As a consultant, I became increasingly valuable by researching things in advance and making an effort to sketch out work plans before showing up at strategy meetings. As a result, I came to the table prepared to discuss project parameters, potential issues, and new opportunities with confidence. Not only did I become seen as a strong contributor, I was also able to help the group achieve better outcomes.

As I gained more responsibility, I came to realize that a big component of leadership is not just doing my own homework but in helping others get theirs done too—not by doing it for them, but by creating an environment that encourages it. After all, leading a team is about leading individuals. If you can coach each person to be a strong contributor, you will build a strong team.

Imagine a meeting where each person shows up prepared and eager to contribute their best effort. Is that a team you would like to be on?

That team would probably not squander a lot of time discussing the basics and the background. That team might focus more on specific goals and how to best achieve them. And that team would benefit immensely from each person’s individual perspective and expertise. 

That may sound like a fantasy, but it is the sort of team that can be cultivated over time. Assigning a little homework as part of your work process can build team habits that will encourage a culture of individual thinking. Meld that into a team meeting structure that is a supportive safe space for everyone and the sky is the limit.

The environment needs to be there to support and encourage people. They need to feel like they have the opportunity and the permission to contribute more personally and to expect the same from others. When that happens, the motivation and focus can shift to the most important part of teamwork—the work that is done alone.