One of the things I dreaded the most in middle school was the phrase “All right, everyone, this next project will be done in groups.” Even worse: “You won’t be able to pick your partners.” Maybe my fear was exaggerated, but a series of less-than-stellar events had made me wary of the prospect of being forced to work with strangers—actual strangers and might-as-well-be strangers—not of my choosing. I looked forward to the end of compulsory group work, which I imagined would come with graduating high school.
Now I’m in university, and I still have to do a lot of group work—lab reports, presentations, and collaborative homework assignments—but it’s less scary to me now than it used to be. Over time, it’s become easier and easier to work in a group, because I’ve accumulated experience dealing with different types of people and situations. I know now that group work is a fact of life, almost everything involves some degree of cooperation with other people. Since those days in middle school, I’ve found that collaborating with other people can inspire me creatively and, more often than not, create a better end product than if I’d worked alone. That is, if you can all get along, make decisions together, and stay on task. Sometimes that’s not so easy.
If you find yourself assigned to someone or a group of people who slack off, refuse to pull their own weight, or derail the project with distractions, it can be tough to try your best and be 100 percent productive. Worst of all, whatever you’re trying to make—a poster, a LEGO robot, or a lemonade stand—will be stuck in development hell. That’s no fun for anyone. But don’t freak out just yet. Even if you’re partnered with some questionable characters with even more questionable worth ethics, I’m confident you can get it all together and make something absolutely incredible. It just takes some organization and a little elbow grease, and I already know you’ve got that in spades.
1. Have a plan of attack (for your project).
It’s pretty hard to get a bunch of people to work toward an end goal if there’s no plan for how everyone’s going to get from start to finish, so once you know how many people are in your group, figure out who is doing what. Ideally, everyone should be assigned an equal workload. Sometimes that just isn’t possible, but it’s usually a good idea to start out dividing the workload equally and figure out if and how that should be changed afterwards.
Next, appoint a leader. It can be uncomfortable to step up and take charge, but someone’s got to do it. I don’t mean you necessarily have to assume a leadership position, but there needs to be some way for the group to make decisions cohesively.
Decide how you’re gonna communicate. I find that, although it’s clunky, email is a good way to organize these sorts of things out. It’s relatively efficient and ideal for contacting near-strangers in the early stages of any project. Just make sure everyone knows to consistently check their email for work-related updates!
If you are using email to communicate, make sure everyone included in the thread knows to hit “Reply All” every time they want to contribute to the discussion. This might seem like a small, super obvious thing, but you’d be surprised how many times people forget this little detail. If everyone is gently reminded about it from the beginning, it can save you a lot of headache down the line.
Another matter that needs to be cemented in is the deadline factor. The objective in the planning stage is to get everyone’s head in the game, and deadlines are a huge part of that. You’ve gotta know what you’re working toward and how long you have to do your part. Long, intensive projects lasting weeks or months might require multiple mini-deadlines, so judge the number of symbolic due dates you need based on how much time you have to finish your tasks and how many parts comprise the larger work. You can set individual mini-deadlines (“By the end of each week, Morgan will be finished tasks W and X Alex will be done Y and Z”), or task-oriented mini-deadlines (“We’ll be done shooting the raw footage for one scene per week”). Either way, the goal is to keep everyone on track and clear with their duties.
Set your final deadlines a couple of days before the project is actually due. If you encounter unexpected troubles—printer jams, computer malfunctions, or spontaneous baking soda volcano combustion—you have some time to pull a Tim Gunn and make it work.
2. Check in and communicate.
Once everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing and when they’re supposed to have it done by, one of the hardest parts—getting everyone on the same page—is already over. But it’s important to make sure everyone’s actually sticking to the schedule, and that’s when communication is key.
If someone is unable to hit the checkpoints your group has set up together, that’s something you’ll have to discuss with them. Life does happen, and sometimes it truly is impossible to keep up a rigorous work pace when family matters or other personal emergencies come up. In that case, it’s best to cut that individual some slack—maybe offer to take up part of their responsibilities or, if you can, extend the amount of time they have to complete their own tasks.
But if you’ve got a group member who flat-out refuses to cooperate, maybe they’re playing video games and partying when a crucial deadline is coming up and the entire group is taking a hit for it, you might have to consider either explaining the situation to a teacher or whoever is in charge (if it’s a project set by someone with more authority), or, deciding as a group whether or not you should continue to let this person ride on the coattails of the rest of the group’s work. The honest truth is that you do not deserve to be piggybacked on when you’re putting your best foot forward and pulling all-nighters trying to get your own work done. If you know someone is going to try to claim credit for the work that you are doing, ditch ’em as politely as possible.
3. Celebrate your accomplishments.
Every time your group smashes a milestone—you finished half of your PowerPoint, the score for your short film is perfectly synced with a new scene, or the whole g-dang project is done, done, and done—that calls for a celebration. It doesn’t have to be huge, it could be as simple as giving yourself half a day off or eating an ice cream cone, but celebrate some way, somehow. Celebrating the small stuff is a really, really important part of the creation and completion process because it gives you something to look forward to and motivates you to hit your next goal, and your next one, and the next one and the next one and the next one. If the whole group knows that working hard leads to a reward, it helps everyone stay in a productive, focused mindset. Each group member, and you!, will likely be motivated enough to hit their deadlines: You guys will be crushing it.
If you don’t think you’d like to celebrate as a group, by the way, you totally don’t have to. You could send out a simple email: “Hey guys, I noticed that we finished editing all the written parts of our report! Since we have some time before we’re supposed to be finished the poster, I think we’ve earned a short break. I’ll be done with my part by the deadline. Great work, everyone!” Then go out and enjoy yourself for a little while. Easy-peasy!
And that’s really all there is to it. As long as you plan ahead, keep everything on track, and ensure everyone completes their work by the time they’re supposed to, every project—no how big or small, and no matter who your partners are—should be a pretty smooth ride. It’s about coming together to create something that shows just how talented and smart you all are. Go forth and work that group work! ♦