The dreaded team project

The team project is every student’s worst nightmare. The grim acceptance of yet another doomed academic exercise seems to be an unavoidable part of higher education. Yet, as I tell my students, you will work on some kind of team project in virtually all modern workplaces. With a little bit of planning, you can–and will–survive.

First, let’s define a project. It is

•a temporary endeavor
•focused on achieving a goal
•an allocation of resources: time, money, people, equipment…
•bound by constraints: time, budget, scope

The key to survival is focusing on that first bullet point. A project is temporary. Hang on to that hopeful thought.

It’s also comforting to know that conflict is a natural part of teamwork. Almost 50 years ago, Bruce Tuckman identified his famous team stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. If you are “storming” within your team project, you can remember that your project is following the Tuckman progression just as it should. (Of course, the problem is that some teams never get past the storming stage. More on that in a bit.)

Meredith Belbin (1981) looked at team projects through a behavioral lens. He noticed that different individuals in a team displayed distinct “team roles” to varying degrees. A healthy team features a fairly balanced distribution of the roles:

  • Coordinator (Chairperson): sets agenda, tracks, coordinates
  • Resource Investigator: finds new info, new ideas
  • Team Worker: looks for his/her part, gets work done
  • Shaper: focuses on action tasks, completing project
  • Implementor (Company worker): turns plans into actions
  • Completer/Finisher: detail-oriented, schedule-aware
  • Monitor/Evaluator: IDs flaws, focuses on outcomes
  • Plant: creative, focuses on big picture
  • Specialist: adds depth, masters a specific topic/area

Knowing that people exhibit their unique set of dominant team behaviors (Plants versus Completers?) helps us understand why we have conflict. Teams truly do have a personality, a mix of traits and behaviors.

The ultimate secret to project success is communication. This involves planning the project (brainstorming, asking questions), establishing a common vision (sharing ideas, setting goals, understanding scope) and time management.

Time management is probably the aspect that causes the most pain. Attending (or efficiently running) the team meetings, meeting deadlines, and completing tasks in a timely manner all contribute to the success of a team project.

Team project tips and coping skills

If you’re about to embark on a team project, here are a few helpful suggestions based on personal experience and Study Skills: Team Work Skills for Group Projects, an article written by students for students.

1. Begin by describing your project. As a group, write a few sentences to establish the exact deliverable (report, poster, PowerPoint, etc.) and what it should cover. Get everyone on the same page, so to speak. It also helps to define what types of work you will need to do to complete the deliverable: research, writing, surveying, gathering stats…

2. Create a project plan. At minimum, a project plan should define the responsibilities of the team members, establish a schedule, and map out conflict resolution.

  • Share email addresses, phone numbers, and any other contact information that could be useful.
  • Decide how quickly team members should respond to project communications: within one day is reasonable.
  • Sit down with calendars and mark off the days that will and won’t work for team meetings. Mark the deadlines of any deliverables, including intermediate steps (drafts, progress reports). Anticipate holidays, birthdays, and the inevitable demands of other classes’ projects. (And be sure to build in time for editing and proofreading!)
  • Hope for the best but plan for the worst. If one team member drops the class/gets sick/stops caring about grades, what will you do? Figure this out on Day One. Avoid some of the “storming” and put your team on the path to “norming”.

3. Divide & conquer–or not? Most team projects take a piecemeal approach: you do the introduction, I’ll do the bibliography, he’ll do the graphics. There’s nothing wrong with the divide and conquer approach–it can be a very efficient way to work. Well, that is unless it’s the last hour before the project is due and you are the person who ends up assembling and editing all those inconsistent, unrelated, or missing pieces.

To reduce frustration, be sure to also build in time for the group to simultaneously work on the project. In this approach, all of you assess your progress, assemble the pieces each person has completed, and identify what still needs to be done. This is an iterative process, depending on how much time you have to devote to the project.

4. Take advantage of collaboration technologies. If you have never used Google Drive for collaboration, get yourself to Google now and start learning! Google Drive is free cloud storage for all kinds of formats: Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations, Forms, and more. It can be a bare bones substitute for Microsoft Office, and best of all it allows you to share, track versions, and see who added that hideous purple text on page 4. Google also offers video and text chat (IM), so you can work together even when you’re apart.

Other technologies include Dropbox (free shareable cloud storage for files), Doodle (a simple calendaring app that lets you schedule meetings at convenient times) and a whole bunch of others. You can even build a free website on Weebly or Wix or (hey!) WordPress.

If you need a high-powered (costly) solution, look for 30 day trials or academic versions. And don’t forget to check out your school’s site-licensed software. You might be pleasantly surprised at what is available.

Conclusion

Stay positive and stay flexible–you will get through this. Look at it as a chance to build your management skills and snag a good story for a job interview (“tell me about a time you had to solve a problem.”) And if all else fails, seek motivation.

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