Such stories litter the annals of engineering. Your solution may have been technically better, and yet... One thing about making yourself more successful next time is to learn from the team members why your good idea was rejected and the less elegant or capable solution was chosen, then plan a strategy to address such issues next time. That is, if they can be addressed. One thing about team efforts is that politics is involved, and politics is never as "clean" as pure engineering. Good luck in the future.
Engineers are lone wolfs or team players? The answer is yes. From what I have seen most engineers flop between the two states whenever the need arises. Several articles in the past have talked about engineers being interrupted during deep thinking and it takes 20 minutes to rebuild the house of cards. There comes a time when a single person must sit down alone and work out an idea that only that one person understands from beginning to end. If this part of the process is attempted using a team, solutions may wander all over the place and the solution’s path is commonly lost in a sea of good ideas that don’t mesh (assuming multiple solutions). Think about mathematicians, authors, programmers, engineers, architects, and artists; many times they need to slam the door and not come out to they have it all worked out. Once the idea is figured out in a single mind, then a team comes in handy some times because a single person may have the idea (like a skeleton), but it needs fleshed out. Other team members come in and fill, add to, or suggest improvements because everyone has knowledge gaps and teams help fill those gaps. Tesla comes to mind as a person who single handedly thought up the AC system end to end in brilliant flashes and lots of lone time then had other engineers in his “team” help make it and add in their bits that filled in the missing bits Tesla overlooked. Depending on the size of the project, teams may need to flesh out more and add a bone to brilliant ideas sooner than others projects, but it still relies on one person having the initial concept developed in their single mind. Some may argue that this process can be done from the start in teams, but sometime in the process one person suddenly “gets it” and then shares “it” with the others in the team. Maybe engineers are lone wolfs that run in packs ;-).
Engineering is a bit like writing or programming in that it they are great skills to have, but what are you going to write about? What do you need the computer to do? So teamwork is mandatory to interact with other business functions and the customer as well.
If we’re only considering the actual engineering/problem solving side of things, though, I think it depends on the problem and the environment. I have worked with teams where each person contributed unique perspectives and the team synergized the ideas into a much better solution than we could have produced individually.
Then again, when the lightbulb goes off and you have a revelation sometimes being in a team brainstorming session is the last place you want to be. I had one of those moments about a year ago and couldn’t get the team to listen long enough to get the idea across. I’m not sure what my purpose in the room was if it wasn’t to generate ideas. The next day I had a proof-of-concept prototype in hand and still had issues getting the team to consider it because it wasn’t a “mainstream” concept and I didn’t have a BOM cost. (Somehow the lack of cost information for all the other ideas wasn’t an issue, though.)
Result? I’m not on the implementation team so the conventional mechanical assembly is on wear testing (where it may or may not pass). And the noncontact mechanism is my first patent application. I don’t believe the mechanical solution is the best overall for the company--but the new idea will probably sit on a shelf until the patent expires. Sometimes there is no substitute for managing a project as an individual.
The answer is clearly "both." But I like darenw's analogy, although I suspect soccer fans would object :)
A successful engineering project requires a team effort, and also requires the efforts of individuals with their unique skills and perspectives, but most of all it requires those individuals to work together in a coherent manner toward a common goal.
One of the worst mistakes management can make is to treat engineers as a "pool of resources", even if that pool recognizes individual talents and expertise. A team that has experience TOGETHER can work like a well-oiled machine and achieve maximum productivity and quality, much like a sports team whose members have played together for several seasons.
They learn each other's strengths and weaknesses, and how to achieve the goal of "the whole is more than the sum of its parts."
Very well said! I would fully agree with your thoughts about " best individual contributors make the best team players". I have also experienced the same. The best individual contributors are naturally open minded and they get along the team well, most of the time they energize the team.
One manager at a high tech company explained at my job interview that are are two types of teams (at least). Some are like soccer teams - everyone runs around doing what they can, each issue dealt with by the closest member. Players are mostly interchangeable. They definitely must work as a team.
Other teams are like a baseball team - specialized players. A great first baseman isn't equivalent to a center fielder. Individual players can shine, their talents applied in some optimal strategy. A lot depends on individual effort, but they too must work as a team.
So it is not a simple matter of individual lone wolf vs. team player. We have this extra dimension within teams.
Hi Brian - As an applied researcher and corporate anthropologist who works in an engineering environment every day, I'd like to offer a different spin on this interesting topic of 'individual' v. 'team'. Why not consider the 'corporate (Government agency, academic, non-profit or entrepreneurial) culture' as a driver of this manifestation? For the past 50 years, business theorists such as Geert Hofstede has written that corporate culture and its many concentric and overlapping subcultures influences job performance, communications, group dynamics, information systems, and collaboration. And for the past 20 years, Edwin Schein has written specifically that the 3 subcultures of Engineers, Executives, and Operators are almost always in conflict. Just a thought, but if we could find the time and opportunity to objectively explore the overall social cultural environment and the various subcultures that we inhabit in the workplace; our unique observations just may offer a different and innovative explanation of why some working environments foster individual production and others advocate team collaboration and performance. djb
Both is definitely the correct answer. But not all of the time. Sometimes I need to do math and solve math problems by myself, and work out concepts. But then I want to be part of the team to go through the stack of ideas and see what I may have missed, and sometimes collaborative thinking is a much better approach. Farther down the road a team is usually the very best way to go, when each team member can do their section of the project and still pass ideas to the others. Not highly structured arrangement, but a loosely coordinated team.
Oh another thing: I really dont have the right word - but I strongly dislike "Primma donnas". You know them from a mile - "Oh I am so smart".
It is an art form to use such people as a team participant - I aspire to learn this art form.
The question is a bit simplistic, just my opinion. What is needed is talented individuals who have multiple areas of expertise.
Take a big problem, form a team, dice the problem. There you need team work to co-operate. Then swing away, do your rock star thing, come back with brilliant solutions to the table. Then back to team mode, compromise and find the optimum.
Solve and celebrate as a team.
Meeting attenders are barely useful. They get chucked out - some after 20 years. A manager can, however, make use of such people if they micro manage (think situational leadership - some book). It most often isnt optimal.