A Team of One
Why being all by yourself doesn't mean going it alone.
Do you ever revel in your uniqueness? By that I mean — do you ever spend time thinking about what, to quote the Pink Panther, makes you “the one and only truly original”?
I’m not just talking about your singular genetic makeup. Sometimes I’m struck by the idea that I am the only person who has ever done a certain thing. Just like Natalie Portman’s, erm, history-making dance moves in the movie, Garden State.
The thing in question can be quite mundane: I am the only person to have eaten a hot dog with ketchup and mustard in this very lawn chair, the only person to have repurposed the keynote song from the first Frozen movie as a potty-training ditty (get in touch if you want the new lyrics – I’m very proud of them).
Zooming out, I think I’m probably the only person who has worked in newsrooms in London, Paris, Beijing, and San Francisco, before becoming a UX designer and then a content strategist in Boulder, Colorado. So that’s cool.
Sometimes when you reflect on the size of the universe, or that there are 7 billion humans on this planet, it’s nice to remind yourself you’re unique. But sometimes being the only one means feeling lonely, isolated, or misunderstood. Perhaps you’ve felt the pressure of this at your workplace — the only one advocating to change a policy, or who comes from a particular cultural, ethnic, religious, or educational background. At times like these being the only one can make you feel more vulnerable than empowered.
You’ve probably heard the expression “a team of one.” It feels like a bit of a paradox — how can you be a team if you’re by yourself? Is this just a euphemistic way of saying you have to do everything on your own with no help?
I recently became a team of one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not literally on a team with no other people — I still belong to a broader team of UX practitioners at Viget, and I still collaborate very closely with teammates on client projects. But I am the only person with my exact job title and responsibilities. This presents challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the work I do risks becoming siloed or echo chamber-y. On the other hand, it gives me ownership over what I do, and the agency to craft what my discipline means at the company.
As I navigate this brave new world as a team of one, I’ve come up with some principles that I hope will mean I don't live in a bubble of my own creation. Maybe they'll be useful to you too:
1. Advocate for and share your work
In other words, make sure other people know what you do. (Obviously this means you have to have a good understanding of what this is before you start telling others!) Have an elevator pitch in your pocket and shop it around. Mine could be that I design systems for publishing and managing website content using strategic thinking, organizational principles, and storytelling techniques.
2. Find overlaps with other teams and disciplines
You might be the only person who does your exact job but I’ll bet there are some competencies that you have in common with others. My work intersects with brand strategy, information architecture and UX writing, for example, and I’m very focused on building bridges to those disciplines. To avoid becoming a bubble of one, look for opportunities to augment your work with skills you learn from others in related fields.
3. Find allies
I’m lucky to have a manager who’s not only interested in my professional growth but in developing the work I do across the company. We hold monthly working group meetings where other employees who have an interest in content strategy come together to discuss questions, topics, and pain points. Even as a team of one, I have no shortage of people to go to for input.
4. Practice things outside your job description
If you’ve chosen to specialize, or a specialization has chosen you, it’s important not to lose sight of your broader skill set. Rather than becoming a one trick pony, I want to always be able to jump in and support various different kinds of work. The goal is to balance depth with breadth – a model that is called “the T-shape”.
5. Train others
It’s exciting that you’re cultivating your niche, so be generous with the ensuing expertise. Open up your process with a masterclass or a brown bag lunch meeting so your colleagues can benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.
Being a team of one does not mean you are an island. Approached with the right mindset, it’s an opportunity for nurturing greater personal growth and enhancing your connection to other people.