Soloist in hiding

In my last post about my haircut boycott, I tied the haircutter’s perspective to the broader workplace as I summarized in the last paragraph. For most of human history, we relied very heavily on the individual masterclass skilled craftsman to single-handedly create some product of deliver some service. That solitary individual necessarily follows the observe, evaluate, plan, and act type cycle that is taught for the various forms of project management. For the solitary craftsman, there is no need to discuss such a breakdown. It is simply how work has to be done. He has to observe the tools and materials he has to work with. He has to evaluate the situation against the request, then he plans, and finally acts. This is repeated multiple times as he gradually produces the final product.

I contrasted this solitary worker with the now ubiquitous model of teams. Teams build products or deliver services, not individuals. In addition, the teams have to be inclusive of a lot of different perspectives and aptitudes. Together they will produce a product, and together they will share the accomplishment.

In modern work environment, nearly every job posting insists on the need to be a team player. Although I notice a trend in recent years of an increasing emphasis on individual initiative and working alone. Reading between the lines, I think the manager is saying he really wants a soloist, but the reality is that the position fills a slot within a team. The request is self-contradictory. A soloist is by definition not part of a team. The person may be able to work well in a team, but that work would not be as a soloist.

I use the term soloist deliberately with the intent to evoke the image of a solo musician. From a young age, I admired the musician who was able to perform an entire song alone on a stage. The ideal I had in mind were people who played instruments and sang at the same time, and particularly when the instrument was a piano. I permitted the presence of an instrument accompaniment to fill in the harmonic elements or perhaps to add a percussion element, but these were always in support of the soloist. In that regard, I also admired the solo skill of the accompanist to always take his direction from the primary soloist.

In music, I prefer live music than recorded music. A good part of the audience satisfaction comes from experiencing the live performer, especially when the performer is adjusting to better express himself to the present audience. A soloist is good at performing the music and mastering the material. The great soloist takes it further by observing the audience and adjusting the performance to get a desired response. While he is performing, he is observing and evaluating the audience. Based on what he sees, he plans for how to better express the following phrases. These adjustments are minute and subtle, but the audience can pick up on it.

A really great soloist can send a message to the audience. That message is more than what the music means to the performer. The message would include whether the performer likes the audience, or perhaps even hates the audience. The audience would receive that message.

I tried myself to take up instruments when in school. I failed at my attempts. I attribute the failure due to a lack of talent, but certainly I lacked the discipline to practice more intensely. A big part of my problem is my inability to conform to a beat or rhythm. There is a deep part of me that keeps rebelling against consistency and conformity. I am not proud of that, but in all these decades I never figured out how to rid myself of it. I also can’t dance or even march in a marching band.

Despite the lack of talent and potential, I still try to practice music. It is just in my private space so no one can hear me. I still stumble around a lot, probably still at the first year level of a normal music student, but I still keep at it. I find the attempt to be satisfying. I also cling onto the notion that I will someday be able to perform to a non-critical audience. At 60 years old, I am running out of time, though.

As I mentioned, at an early age I aspired to become a musical soloist. By the time I graduated high school, I closeted that aspirate. By that time, I realized I would have to work a lot harder than most musicians. I needed to focus on something else. In college, I focused on my technological training but I was in audience of the the music school productions, including some shows that primarily appealed to music students.

Throughout college, I kept trying to find some way to connect my technology aptitude with my musical inclinations. I always failed. Something deep in my soul rebels against the music’s demand for discipline and consistency across beat, rhythm, and even tones and harmony. The mistakes I make seem like my mind is deliberately sabotaging my playing.

As an aside, there was just one time when I decided to pay a psychic at a sidewalk booth for a palm reading. She concluded the same thing. That something inside was restraining me. She described it as a foreign spirit instead of a personality or behavioral issue. That made sense to me, so much so she scared me out of trying to find out what that was. Whether she was right or wrong is beside the point. The description was accurate. Something is constantly sabotaging my efforts as soon as they show signs of approaching success.

I have tried other hobbies and each with similar failures for the same self-sabotaging reason. The most notable attempt was attempting abstract sculptures in wood. I managed to make a couple sculptures including one I held up with pride even though it was clearly a novice level of skill and discipline. That effort also ended when High School ended.

Writing is the one area where I have managed to sustain an effort. It started with hand-written stories that attempted to create characters in a story plot and where the overall story had a theme or tone. When I mastered a typewriter, I used it to write some more stories. This story writing ended by the time I entered grad school, but there are still a couple stories that I admire. They are on paper in a box I haven’t opened in years, but I know where to find them. I wrote other stories that impressed me, but they also scared me because I did not want to believe I wrote them. I threw those away in a big purge sometime in the early 2000s.

Since then, I have been writing for the pure sake of writing. During the 2000s, I was blessed with a job that demanded a detailed monthly report to describe my work. This was a perfect match for me. I wanted to write a long essay. In order to do that, I needed to get a lot of work done, and tie that work to a theme I wanted to write about. I was working to be able to write, and yet I was being paid to do the work. Most of my writing effort was done off-clock. I think I charged about one hour to write the report, but it should have been obvious that the reports took more than an hour to write.

The reports themselves were not too consequential at the time. They were mostly a way to produce a deliverable that could be filed away somewhere. They certainly have no lasting significance. That was perfect for me. I consider writing to be a kind of performance art. The interesting thing about writing is the writing itself. Once I am done writing, I am content to throw it in the trash. That trashcan could be some contracting officer’s file cabinet of deliverables. Lately, I have been using the Internet as a substitute file cabinet of deliverables. The Internet is just my trashcan.

Writing can be the purist level of the performance artform. I am speaking about the process of writing, especially in the way I am writing here where I am just typing whatever flows out of my mind at the time my fingers are on a keyboard. The end product is a written work, and that product need not have any value whether artistic or professional. In my view, the written work is the debris of the writing. It is what needs to be swept up using the broom behind the publish button.

Going back to the workplace, I spent most of my career pretending to be part of a team. I have good reason to suspect that my team members valued my contributions to the team itself as well as my own contributions to the project. I rarely felt likewise about the team as a whole. I always worked with individuals within the team. When I worked with them, I always thought of the work as an individual effort, not a team effort. Either I was coaching them, or they were coaching me. In either case, the coaching was to become better at working independently.

The team element always seemed superficial and irrelevant. I was never convinced of the value added of a team. There may have been a rare moment where I experienced a moment where the whole was more than the sum of the parts, but even that was not repeatable.

The obsession over teams is especially annoying when it comes to hiring new staff. With my frequent job turn-overs, I have good experience on both sides of this. Each time, there is an emphasis on the person’s ability to fit in with the team. Even in interviewing questions about how to solve problems, frequently the questions were seeking evidence of team engagement in the solution.

Because of the focus on the team, the job opening becomes very precise. The opening may seek a clone of someone who recently departed. Alternatively, the opening may be to fill a skill gap clearly missing within the existing team. In both cases, the job is constrained to work within the team. The job is not intended to do an entire project alone in isolation.

Repeating a point I made earlier, I think many managers secretly hope to find someone who can work alone with the self motivation and initiative to complete project by himself. They also have an expectation that many of the projects could be accomplished by one person. They may even observe this in team presentations where it is clear that a single individual was responsible for most of the most critical aspects of the project. The reason why that individual did not do the entire project was because he had to work in a team.

I do not understand the obsession on teams. From my own experience, I find situations where the project is stuck with a particular group of people. There is no direct and simple way to let them go. Instead, the requirement is to get productivity out of the existing staff who can not be productive alone. The team is the solution to this problem.

There is a promise that there is value in the diversity of different skills and experiences. There is promise of the benefit of having the ability to review each other’s work in terms of quality, relevance, and appropriateness. I rarely saw this promise ever realized. Successful teams always had at least one particular member who comprehended the full project and knew how to do everything in the scope of the project. In the agile context, often one person would make the primary contribution to each and every stage of a project sprint. There is a hint that the person didn’t need the team, if given the opportunity to develop into a true soloist.

I suspect the real reason for the team obsession is fear. A skilled and productive soloist is very dangerous. The business may end up depending on the soloist. With this dependence, the soloist has power over his managers, overturning the expected order of command.

Very early in my career, I knew of these soloists. This was at the end of that era where soloist were welcomed, and it was at the start of the era of obsessing over teams. In those early examples, the soloists were older workers who had no management responsibility, but they were given much larger and more private offices than managers even a couple levels above him. There was a clear indication that the organization valued this one person in particular, and that value was in that person’s ability to solo.

That disappeared entirely over my first decade of work. Organizations allowed normal attrition to remove the older soloist. At the same time, the adopted a new model that prevented such soloists from ever emerging again. All jobs would be team jobs, and each job would be narrowed to a specific sub-discipline that alone could not complete a full project or even fully appreciate the relevance of the task with the larger objectives. There is a task board with all the tasks the team needs to work on. On that board, there are specific tasks for one person to take the lead on. The job is to complete the task. The hope is that the project would emerge when all the tasks were complete.

In an agile process, the project does emerge. It is the minimum viable product. It is what it is, but it is something that the customer can use. It may not be exactly what the customer wanted, or even close to what he requested. But it is something that the customer can try to use and offer feedback. The customer’s role is converted from specifying up-front requirements to offering suggestions for how to make an existing project more relevant. Agile promoters describe this as a good thing, and I do not disagree.

I have a suspicion of too extensive of up front analysis without the feedback of testing a prototype. A recent YouTube video illustrates this danger with the recent near failure of the Oroville Dam. This was a massive project with many serious flaws that were only discovered when the danger was the highest, when the reservoir was full. This near catastrophe occurred despite extensive prior planning and analysis by the best engineers. As described in that video, the flaws could have been discoverable by more testing or even by requalification of the design with more recent guidelines. A dam project of this magnitude does necessarily involve teams, but these are engineering teams instead of agile teams. Each subproject probably had a single engineer responsible for the entire subproject. He had helpers, not team members, to work with.

Back to my point about agile. I like the idea of short sprints and the concept of a viable product that the customer can evaluate with the understanding that future sprints will improve the product according to his suggestions. I argue that this process does not necessarily need a team of peers. A soloist could be responsible for an entire sprint and do all of the critical work. The soloist would have helpers that are like the musical accompanist, they are there to support the main star. The accompanists are praised for their ability to support the main star, but they do not shore the praise directed toward the soloist. This is a workable model. Teams are optional and may be a hindrance.

I think many thoughtful managers know this. It shows in the job postings. They want someone who can work independently and on their own initiative. They have to describe the job as a team position. Once hired, the soloist is placed in a team. The message to the soloist is that the team has to appear to be doing the work. To the extent that the individual is a soloist, the team environment will degenerate his solo aptitude. If the person only has the potential to later becoming a soloist, the team environment assures that that will never happen.

Ultimately, the modern workplace fears soloists. They have good reason to fear them. The soloist has power. Like in a music concert, if the soloist can’t show up, the show can not go on with just the accompanists. If the soloist fails, there is nothing the accompanist can do to save the show.


One thought on “Soloist in hiding

  1. Pingback: The individual in a team obsessed world | Hypothesis Discovery

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