Monday, 29 October 2012

10 Top Tips for effective group working - Start with a party ?

Justin O'Brien says "Start with a party: One of the best ways to fast track your high performance team."  Royal Holloway MBA 2012 members comparing notes over a traditional pint."
(1) Texting is not communicating.  It’s cheap, it’s easy.  Low cost suggests limited effort, easy suggests unimportant.  Email can be similar.   Use difficult to avoid communication approaches (a) short telephone calls (not to voice mail) and even better (b) in person meetings as this is the best way to gauge all the non-verbal communication messages that indicate distress/unhappiness/problems/lack of interest. 
If you are angry or frustrated at poorly perceived performance – put it into words and talk it through.  Do you think that shouting at someone along the lines of “where is your input ?” is going to result in anything but a mouthful of abuse and or defensive behaviours.  Remember, often in txt (sic) language across cultures and email the rich two way exchange of communication is lost.

(2) Group work is not easy.  On a per word per student basis often the volume of output is less.  Ever wondered why ?  Because it is expected that setting up a group, learning each others strengths and weaknesses, planning and co-ordinating inputs takes time and effort.  To treat a group assignment as merely a piece of work you split into four (or however big your group is) individual elements that are neatly zipped together at the end, requiring little or no collaboration is entirely missing the point.    If this was the desired way of working it would be described as something like “zipped together individual work”.  It shows to the marker and gets scored down accordingly.

(3) Harness the creative, variety of skills within your group.  It is often easier to work in a group where everyone is like you – you are easily deluded into feeling that because your group is like minded that you are able to go further, faster.  Whilst this might appear to ‘successful’ there is interesting research that suggests that heterogeneous group make up can lead to more innovative (& therefore successful) outcomes.  The trick of course is to put in place mechanisms to ensure the variety of talents are identified within the group and carefully managed together.  And if Billy and Jo really don’t get on – why not construct a process that facilitates this.  Elton John, the legendary British performer never worked in the same room as co-creative Bernie Talpin – it just didn’t work – but they churned out hit after hit for several decades, with Elton putting the words to Bernis tunes. 

(4) Groups really should Form, Storm, Norm, Perform – Tuckman’s theory (undertaken in a mental health institution) that suggests a natural journey that sees groups struggle (Storm phase) before understanding how to work together, norming – which might include a list of principles or rules to ensure harmonious working ensues (Performing).

(5) Define success.  Often in a student group many are going for top marks, whilst others are happy to get a solid 55%.  Understanding this may see more appropriate skills and motivational matching of group work.  You don’t all have to do 25% (for groups of 4) – matching skill sets and particularly motivation appropriately can be very important.  Not everyone is comfortable writing complex prose – but equally, not everyone is great at making a group work and ensuring the group is working well.  Perhaps it is entirely fair and equitable for a ‘just pass’ / low motivation student to do a bit less, or take a less crucial role at the front end of the process.

(6) Identify the different roles required in the group – understand everyone’s natural group working style.  Remember too many cooks spoil the broth – sometimes great leaders know how to follow.  Developing your own personal skill set and capability awareness can come from asking others for feedback – “How can I improve ?”  “Could I have handled that better ?”  (Developmental feedback when you have messed up does not thrust itself upon you). is a useful web resource for team building exercises and a variety of practical management and leadership tools.  You may find personal awareness/style insight tools such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or Belbin useful in these kinds of situations. 

(7) Give each other feedback regularly.  The feedback sandwich (start and finish on positive/appreciative feedback, fill the sandwich with developmental comments) can help you earn the right to make suggestions for improved performance by winning the trust of group members by complementing and appreciating good performance.  Catching people doing it right is a positive motivational technique – we all like to be told we are doing well and valued.  Make a habit of making positive appraisals of fellow group members performances – they notice when it isn’t there and will want to know why.  Having someone seek out developmental feedback from you is ideal – as they will want to listen to what you have to say.  Machine gunning negative feedback just sees everyone take cover and wait until you have gone away. 

(8) Ask for feedback.
Creating a culture where 360 feedback (up, down and across an organisational hierarchy) can be very powerful.  Asking for feedback on your own performance can give you valuable insights into ‘blind spots’ weaknesses/failings you did not know about.  Quite often people are unaware of things they do that annoy or frustrate their peers and it can be things that are easy to change.  Knowing about your own weaknesses helps develop a strong sense of self-awareness – a question that is very likely to be put to you in every interview you sit. 

(9) Plan. Plan. Plan. 
Assignments often seem to behave like London buses – you wait around a long time to catch one and then three of them turn up all at once – and you just wanted the one !!  The stress caused by poor time management is particularly noticeable in the School of Management during busy end of term hand in events.  Remember a basic law of science, “Your capacity to undertake high quality work does not (usually) increase the closer you are to an assignment deadline.”  To be honest, unless you are super human, with stress and anxiety, your effective productivity will decline.  The best way to focus on a project is to have one project – so why not slice your time into three periods and plan to work on projects back to back – rather than spreading yourself thinly across multiple projects.  The focus should concentrate your efforts and ensure more satisfactory outcomes. 
Work out a time plan, put in a contingency (someone is going to be sick, your hard drive will fail) and work to your own completion deadline – not 1400 in the Moore Building foyer.

(10) Start with a party.  Group work should be fun, start out as you want to – enjoying your work will ensure you put your best in and hopefully so do others.  Play spin the bottle in Medicine, a game of badminton or  go on a tourist trip into London are just three ways a group can spend time together and fast track towards effective team working.  ( has more ideas).  Understanding what makes your team members tick, knowing what else is going on in their lives (getting married, family problems, health issues, relationship issues) really helps understand how to handle unplanned situations.  You never know – you become good friends and enjoy future interactions.