Do not go down with that ship

When I die, I want my group project members to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time....
— Unknown

As written for Auckland university of technology

October, 2015


I hope that when you look back on your undergraduate journey, you can laugh at the necessary but painful learning experience that was group projects.

In the real world, we rarely work in isolation. In postgraduate research and projects, group work is the gift that keeps on giving. When it’s good, you’re grateful to have competent people who can share the load; when your team members vanish off the face of the earth or talk an epic game without much to show for it, you might think you’ve found grounds for manslaughter.

We rarely have a choice of who we work with, and sometimes this can yield surprising and fruitful collaboration. If we only worked with who and in ways we already knew, how well or quickly could we break new ground?

We can’t always decide who we work with. Unless you’re part of the management team, you can’t always determine how the project will be run. Of course, in all things, what can you control? Yourself, the attitude you bring, and the way you want to work.

Know your process, be aware of the tools at your disposal, and always be open to new ideas or ways of doing things. Never make the mistake of thinking your work is a sacred territory that must be guarded and praised like a princess in a tower. That princess will more likely bury you alive at the first opportunity. While the soil is piling up, most group members will either be too busy mixing mortar to intervene, or they’ll murmur knowingly that they saw it coming all along. So, don’t guard your princess; when people want to offer her advice, give them the chance.

For the sake of yourself and everyone around you, please don’t be too precious. Neither be too dismissive. And definitely don’t be a martyr, because we’re trying to get work done, not fuel a religion.

I personally love group projects, because a part of me hates them as well. And I love to defy that cynical part of me that knows the risk and remembers how badly they can go wrong. I love proving to myself that – to the best of my ability – working in a team will never be as painful as the past has shown.

So, what can you do to give your team the best chance? Have clear roles and responsibilities so everyone knows what has to be done, by whom, by when, and the interdependencies. Never assume you know how people will work – discuss and agree at the very start about how you’ll run the project, keep in the loop, work as a team, and manage problems if they come up.

At the first sign of concern, raise it with your team leader.

Some key words in project language: escalation and delegation. If you’re lower in the food chain, “escalate” (raise the problem) up the chain of command if you couldn’t resolve the concern with the source one-on-one. If you’re a leader or a manager, practice “delegating” (assigning work by agreement) as much as possible to spread the load and give everyone the chance to own something, to stay involved, interested, developing their skills, knowledge and experience.

I’ve gotten it really wrong in the past, even when I was sure I had my bases covered, and I still make mistakes. But I try to remember that learning is a lifelong experience and there’s something I can learn from everyone in my project, even the ones who drive me crazy (sometimes the lesson is as simple as what not to do). I try to remember I’m probably driving that person crazy, too.

I try to remember that you rarely know someone’s full story, so don’t take it personally when tempers are high and tact flies out the window. Search for common ground. Make an effort to know people as people; people like to be recognised as complete humans, not just a means to the end of delivering a piece of work. It makes it easier to push through the tough times together. Always find reasons to laugh. Seek to believe there is no such thing as a bad person, only bad behaviour.

And sometimes, you just have to let the ship sink. Not everything can be saved, especially when the ones in charge are intent. Look for the lesson and consider how you can prevent the next ship from sinking.

If we still find you laying into a punching bag at the end of the day, we’ll understand.