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Why Group Work Doesn’t Have to Suck

 

I feel really awkward using the work “suck” in the title of this post because I wasn’t allowed to use the word when I was growing up. My parent’s detested it. Although my kids don’t always agree with the decisions I make, like it’s time to tidy up or go to bed, they haven’t floated the “s” word yet. If they do, I’ll crack down just like my parents did. In the meantime, I hope my mom will forgive me.

Working in groups is an inevitable part of life. Because none of us work or live in a vacuum, group work is something that we will be required to partake in so we might as well figure out the best way to manage it.

Professors don’t assign group work just to torture you. We actually do it for very sound reasons including:

  • To provide an opportunity for students to develop employer sought transferrable skills including communication, time management, conflict resolution, coordination and project management;
  • To assign valuable projects that would not otherwise be possible to manage on an individual basis; and
  • To generate stronger insights and approaches to issues, topics or problems.

I guarantee that one of the questions you will be asked at your next job or volunteer placement interview will be, “tell me about a time you worked in a group and what you learned from that experience”. If you didn’t experience group work, you wouldn’t have anything valuable to share, thank you very much.

Even though (most) professors have good intentions in assigning group work, I understand that it isn’t always easy.

I personally work in multiple “groups”, which are called “committees” in the real world, and I can vouch that the experience isn’t always great. Just like in student groups, there are members who contribute ideas, ask great questions, perform background research, coordinate and track progress and are effective members overall. And there are the others. These members show up when they please (or not at all), complain, offer no constructive feedback, block progress and ultimately take up the good oxygen in the rooms in which we meet.

It’s true. Even experienced, educated “adults” can be ineffective group members!

So what can you do about it?

One of the most effective tools I have used to manage group work is a work plan. A work plan is a document that specifies the tasks to be performed for a particular project. The set up doesn’t have to be fancy. A work plan can be prepared the old fashioned way using a basic table pen and paper-style or can be prepared using sophisticated software.

In addition to the benefit of helping the group reach a consensus for how to tackle the project, a work plan also provides a method for ensuring accountability. Although I’m not in the business of calling people out for not contributing, a work plan allows you to do just that.

Below is a sample work plan template I have provided for my students.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Objective entries represent the overarching goals for the project. For a business plan project, one of the goals would be to understand the customer. Another would be to understand the competitive landscape.
  2. Action steps required outline the process to be followed to meet the objective. In the business plan project example, understanding the customer might involve preparing, testing and administering a survey. Each of these three phases could be broken down into individual action steps with more specific action steps outlined.  The more specific the better in a work plan.
  3. Specific output is a critical part of the plan. This is what you expect the individual to present to the rest of the group when she reports back. Are you expecting a complete summary of the survey results so that the rest of the group can analyze and discuss the findings together? Is an oral report ok?  Or are you expecting the individual responsible for this step to do that work herself? These are very different outputs and if the group is not clear on what is expected,misunderstandings will most definitely arise.
  4. Responsibility simply identifies which member(s) of the group is responsible for the task.
  5. Deadline is when the group decides the work should be completed.

A work plan is not a static document. It should evolve and be updated as new information is discovered and the project moves forward. Keeping the work plan updated is an important part of keeping the group connected and on track to produce a high quality project on time.

Preparing a work plan takes time but if the group is conscientious and thoughtful, the tool can prevent future group work tragedies.

I would love to know what other tools you have used to help manage and coordinate group work efforts. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/39361795@N00/5316094589/”>gordontarpley</a&gt; via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

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