I was recently back on campus at Royal Roads University where I am completing my Masters Degree in Leadership. Part of the residency experience is that they put us in teams to do various projects, allowing us to work on both the content of whatever the project is and the process of working in a team. Easier said than done.
Let’s be honest : no one really likes team projects. Kids get forced into teams in school and complain about the one kid who doesn’t pull their weight or won’t pay attention and the experience generally doesn’t get that much better as we grow up. Many a Dilbert cartoon has been fuelled by the unpleasant experience of working together with people of different talents, agendas, and interest levels.
I do think there is a possibility of having a team experience be what the books say it’s supposed to be – rewarding, engaging, and ultimately producing a better result than you could achieve on your own. But it takes more up-front work than most groups are willing to put in, focusing on the process before the content, which can be frustrating when you just want to get started on the work itself.
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The team I was in last year adhered to the “process” requirements suggested by our professors—identify who will do what in the team and your rules for engagement before you starting working on the project itself. I won’t lie, it was painful to take time up front when there are so many competing demands and so much to do, but ultimately it gave us something shared and agreed upon to fall back on when things got messy, as they inevitably do.
This year, the team I was a part of decided (me included) not to do the upfront process part, we just jumped right into the content of creating our project. And I have to say we suffered for it. When people were tired and not paying attention and we had different agendas, there was no common ground to go back to, no way to bring everyone back on track. I felt helpless to steer us as a leader, and frustrated that we weren’t all on the same page. There was no container within which to work out our disagreements, it seemed as though we had no boundaries around us to keep us together as a team. And I think our final product wasn’t as good as a result.
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As much as I find that the upfront process can be tedious and feel like it’s slowing the team down, in reality I think it speeds the team up in the long run because the inevitable conflicts can be dealt with quickly and with minimal damage. The two key things to keep in mind when trying to produce something in a team:
1. Figure out who will do what. It sounds very obvious, but until you get specific and formally decide who does what, it can lead to things getting missed or more than one person thinking they own the same part of the puzzle. You might decide to rotate roles (i.e. chairing a meeting or collecting the action items to send out afterwards) but get them clear before you start working on content.
2. Decide on your rules of engagement. This one can also feel bureaucratic but it gives you the foundation to fall back on if things go sideways, which they inevitably do. Some typical rules might be: we start on time, people send out their information a certain amount ahead of the meeting, we brainstorm first with no debate, then we debate ideas respectfully, etc.
The reality is that we all have different styles and preferences, so although it may feel like nails on a chalkboard to those who want to jump in and get it done, starting with a few ground rules and clear expectations allows a team to deliver better results and have more fun doing it.