After graduating from university my (future) wife and I travelled and worked in Kenya as part of the Commonwealth of Learning — an intergovernmental agency dedicated to open learning and distance education. As fortune would have it, my brother had an internship in the neighbouring country of Tanzania during the same time period, and we were able to meet for a few days to enjoy the East African coast in the city of Mombasa.

When we met, we had a chance to catch up on our experience of Africa. One of the biggest contrasts between us was his decision to travel alone, and my decision to travel with a partner. By travelling alone, my brother had complete freedom of choice. He was able to “go where the wind blows”, and generally meander through the country encountering adventure along the way. In contrast, I was part of a team, and any decisions I made had to include both my preferences and needs, along with those of my partner.

Whether you take a vacation, plan lunch, or go to a movie, you have the option of going alone — with complete freedom and adaptability. There is no one to consult, no one to get in your way. If you choose to go with others, things aren’t quite so simple — you need to consult with the group, understand personal preferences, navigate conflicting schedules, and balance the needs of the group with your own needs. After struggling with this for a while, you might conclude that going alone is the better option. Which begs the question. Why do we rarely see people vacation alone?

In every choice we make, we are faced with balancing the forces of interdependence and self-reliance. While the freedom of going alone has some appeal, groups provide immense benefits to both the individual, and the collective. As an individual, working as part of a group reinforces key skills like planning and managing time, breaking complex tasks into parts and steps, giving and receiving feedback, and developing stronger communication skills. Developing these traits leads to successful individual contributors and strong leaders. Groups also give us an opportunity to tackle more complex problems than we could on our own, by pooling together knowledge and skills, breaking up work, refining our understanding through discussion and explanation, and receiving social support and encouragement.

But group work is hard! It forces you to voluntarily give up complete freedom of individual decision making and delegate that to the group. To effectively work as part of a team, you sacrifice some freedom of the individual, with the understanding that you are building a better community as a result. The hope is that the community you are building is stronger, more vibrant, and better than what you could accomplish alone.

There is tension between individual and group decision making. As a software architect embedded within a team, you have a responsibility to walk the line of tension between the needs of the team you are working with, and the needs of the collective community of software architects and the broader architectural vision of the organization. This means architects working with teams need to understand the needs and thought processes of their peers in architecture while also responding to the needs of their teams. If we hope to gain the benefits of that come from being part of a group, we cannot forget our responsibilities to the community we belong to.

“The tensions between … the individual and the collective, have never been easy to resolve. I’m trying to learn to live in the messy space between. Here, you can be both your own and not your own, responsible to communities without exhibiting the dreaded groupthink, and bound by one commitment: to examine your commitments, forever.”

The Myth of Self-Reliance