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June 23, 2011 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Group Project Skills: How do I overcome my instinctual desire to just work alone?

I can't stand working in groups for academic projects. I could hack being on student film sets, largely because I was responsible for crafty (aka food) and that was fun, but when it comes to collaborating on papers, projects, and presentations, I get very antsy about making the grade with so many other cooks in the kitchen, so to speak.

Throughout middle school and high school I had to contend with group-mates plagiarizing enormous portions of our papers, not completing their portion of the presentation by the deadline, or disregarding agreed-upon standards for quality. It didn't matter how good of communicators we were; the disparity between work ethics and knowledge bases did us all in. Eventually I started weaseling out of group assignments by offering extra work to my teachers so that I could just do things my way. I've avoided most group projects ever since.

Now I'm in grad school and I can't escape, which means I need to get over my aversion to academic collaboration. I've already offered to be the final-product-maker so that I can be in charge of editing our paper and producing the visual end-game for what we're working on, but I hate how that pretty much equates to me not trusting these people. I don't feel like a team player. I want to be one.

What strategies can I use or consider to help my group be as successful as possible without going overboard?
posted by These Birds of a Feather to Education (6 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Well, one thing to consider is that your experience in grad school is likely to be quite different from your experience in middle school and high school (or even college). Think about how much higher the bar is for being a grad student than it was for being a middle schooler. The quality of your collaborators is going to be so much better, and the work ethic/knowledge base disparities are going to be way smaller. I used to feel just like you in high school. I remember very clearly how blown away I was the first time I worked in a group that was actually good. It's fun! It's enriching! I now do my best to turn every term paper into a collaboration with someone else, because I get way more out of it than I would by myself. I learn so much from my grad student peers and collaborating is one of the best ways to do so.

I think you need to consider this an entirely different beast. Just don't let yourself connect it to your previous group work experiences, because it simply isn't the same.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:27 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had to deal with similar situations of group members being lazy or not up to par with my own standards (although this issue lessened with each year at school). It's tough, but learning how to deal with these things is really important--not just for school, but for the working world.

Some things to maximize outcomes, as a group:
- Discuss everyone's strengths. Work together to determine which tasks can be best completed by which group member. People work harder and happiest when they are doing work they feel comfortable and confident doing.
- Review and provide formative feedback on all project work at set milestones throughout the work using whatever grading criteria is provided by the professor.

If you're not happy with something, speak up, but politely and constructively. And ALWAYS after you've given group members a chance to do the same on your own portion of the work. Don't forget that being a control freak doesn't necessarily mean being right or the best--I'm a control freak myself and have learned this lesson the hard way (oh the tasty humble pie).
posted by smirkette at 10:28 AM on June 23, 2011

In my experience in grad school, everyone is now an overachiever and will be trying to do EVERYTHING; it becomes a piranha feeding frenzy to grab up all the work and all the credit. It's a whole new management problem. Have you actually given these people a chance?

That being said smirkette has some very good strategies above.
posted by bleep at 10:38 AM on June 23, 2011

Don't start with the assumption that your group is going to suck, that they will be lame, or that you are capable of carrying the group to success if you need to. You may actually be the boat anchor, especially if you haven't learned to function properly in groups up to this point.

Learn to accept sub-optimal implementation of a portion of the project. Someone will do something differently than you would have - you will have to get over it and get through it. It is important to know when it is worth fighting for a specific method of implementation, and whether it is truly better than other member's proposed method - especially if your method is one that the other member is incapable of properly following through with.

Make sure statements of work for each people are compartmentalized and specified so everyone knows what the expected end result of each person's project is. That way, you can plan according to the specificiation. Set deadlines.

Have different kinds of meetings. Meet frequently on project status, but keep those meetings short. Use longer meetings for working sessions where part of your time is independent/study hall style work, and the rest is presentation style critique/collaborative effort. Have people semi-paired up so that if someone is falling behind, and putting the whole project at risk, that someone knows and is familiar enough with the work to be able to take over if necessary.

Also, start reading Farnam Street and learn how groups function.
On Groups:

On Leadership:

On Delegation:

On Responsibility:
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:13 AM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Now I'm in grad school and I can't escape, which means I need to get over my aversion to academic collaboration. I've already offered to be the final-product-maker so that I can be in charge of editing our paper and producing the visual end-game for what we're working on, but I hate how that pretty much equates to me not trusting these people. I don't feel like a team player. I want to be one.

I think the best thing is just to force yourself to collaborate a bunch. One realization you will come to is that the kind of people you are collaborating with, at this level, are quite possibly smarter & more skilled then you in at least some respects. (And possibly better at the "visual end-game"...) In fact if they aren't, this is a reason to consider not continuing the collaboration, at least in the long run, because you won't be getting as much out of it. Once you come to this realization, you should have a lot easier time accepting collaborative research, but in my experience it isn't easy for the typical overachiever incoming grad student to come to it except by experiencing it.
posted by advil at 11:26 AM on June 23, 2011

I just finished a grad class (Project Management) where I became the accidental group leader of an online team that spanned four different countries and (at least) four different time zones. If you are willing to work hard, I highly (highly!) recommend taking the leadership position out of the gate. You then have control and are not at the mercy of someone else deciding what needs to be done and setting your timeline.

As the leader, you are free to delegate and oversee various aspects of the project, as you see fit. You can ask for as much or as little from your teammates as you wish. You do need to stay several steps ahead of everyone else, but if you set clear expectations and timelines (I did weekly email status reports . . . daily as we got closer to project due date . . . to the entire team, copying the instructor). If Mary was not doing her part, I would write something like, "We can expect to have Mary's numbers by Thursday and then John can proceed with writing the scope statement," or something like that to let Mary know I was watching and would call her on it. (Use this tactic very carefully and diplomatically!) I used exact dates and times (even stating the time zone) for each deadline. I was very surprised how well people responded to being told *exactly* what was expected. It is important to listen to the team and get feedback (I constantly requested feedback, although little was given), but as the leader, you set the tone. If you are consistent, the team will respond.

Team members were consistently late with their contributions. That was okay because I set each deadline for two days prior to when I actually needed the work. I then had time to follow up with the individual. I also produced back up content just in case they fell through altogether. This created more work for me but caused me much less stress.

There will probably be at least one other person on the team who wants to work hard. Make friends with that person. Get them to be your ally . . . they can later help you motivate the others, if needed. There will also be at least one complete slacker. Try to identify this person early and give him/her tasks that you can easily do yourself (or reassign) if he/she does not come through. You cannot force someone to participate but you can write whatever you want about them on the group eval at the end. Try to minimize the potential damage they can do, while still allowing them the opportunity to participate.

I went into the project thinking that I wanted everyone to like me and think I was a good leader. But you know what? I wasn't there to make friends. I was there to accomplish the project and the class. I was friendly, but when it came down to it, I was all business.

It was not easy. When I signed up for the next class, I swore if I saw "group project" on the syllabus, I would drop it. But I learned so much. Regardless of the course content, I truly learned what it means to manage and work with people. I am by nature, very solitary. I learned definite pros and cons of truly working in a team. That is valuable fodder for a resume.

Good luck!
posted by ainsley at 7:08 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

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