I’ve been wanting to write a post about team projects for weeks but I’ve been fearing the post will devolve into a “Team Projects Suck Because…” list, which is so much shallower than what I actually want to say. I want to give you more than that! Here goes.
Yes, team projects suck. But why do they suck? And why are they so universally assigned with the expectation that they will teach us essential life, interpersonal and communication skills? Why, instead, do they almost always result in extreme stress and frustration and a final project that is, in most cases, less than amazing?
I come at this topic from the unique perspective of someone who has been out in the “real world” that these team projects are supposed to prepare us for, and then come back to school to be re-subjected to the team project phenomenon. I’ve always disliked team projects in school, but after ten years of experiencing real workplaces and real teams, I’m even more frustrated with the notion that team projects are an important step in preparing students for real life.
I’ve worked with a lot of different types of people and I’ve been on a lot of teams in my career. I’ve been on crappy, incompetent teams. I’ve been on teams with people that I adore and trust completely. I’ve been on teams of people with very different working styles than me. Working with particular people can be both exhilarating and frustrating, no doubt, but none of these professional teams have caused me even a fraction of the stress that school project teams have caused me.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out why school teams are so much more challenging than professional teams. I’ve asked friends and family too, and while they tend to agree with me, they also have trouble articulating exactly what it is that makes school teams so difficult. So after much reflection, I think I’ve finally come up with a few broad categories.
First and most importantly, lack of shared time, space and systems. When you work on a professional team, you (usually) share a space and do your work during work hours when all members of the team can be reasonably expected to be in the same place. I know that with the rise of flexible work environments and telecommuting, teams are not always physically together, but even so, they have dedicated time set aside to work on projects. Professional teams also share email systems, internal chat messaging systems, company software and internal file servers. They share many digital protocols that make collaboration relatively easy.
By contrast, time and space are not automatically built into school team projects. School teams have to find time outside of class to meet. This is a challenge for any group of people, but is compounded in college due to wildly erratic class and work schedules. Not everyone uses the same software and there is no shared file server system. Also, a recent discovery on my part, college kids don’t like to check their email. So I resort to texting them, which is difficult when you have an email’s worth of information to communicate. So I text them to tell them to check their email. Beautifully efficient, no? I do want to give a shout out to Google Drive, which has made a great makeshift file server in the absence of all other options.
Second, lack of hierarchy. On a professional team someone, in some way, is in charge. Whether it be a member of the team or someone outside of the team that manages the team. Someone makes the final call if a final call has to be made. Someone takes responsibility for failure if responsibility must be taken. No such hierarchy exists in school teams. No one is officially in charge and no one knows who should make the final call in a disagreement. You are constantly walking on eggshells and trying not to step on toes. Often the best solution is not fought for and decisions get made based on what will best avoid conflict.
Third, lack of teammate screening processes. Yes, of course, we don’t always respect or like our professional teammates. In fact, most of us probably struggle at one time or another with almost all of our professional teammates. We’re human; we don’t always get along. That said, companies hire people after a lengthy interview process, after meeting them multiple times and assessing their skills, history and cultural fit. School teams are often assigned randomly or must coalesce in the first day or two of class with virtually no method of screening. You might get lucky and end up with the smart kid with great people skills and a killer work ethic. More likely you’ll end up with people who don’t respond to email and like to finish projects at midnight the day before they’re due. And you just get to deal with that because no one gets fired from a team project.
Fourth, dependence on teammates for something highly individual. When you work on a professional project, there is always the hope that it will turn out well. If it does, you may be able to use it to get a promotion or to bolster your resume. It feels good to have a successful project. If, however, the project doesn’t go well, that failure is not branded on you as an individual, forever. You can choose not to put it on your resume, you can choose not to discuss it in an interview. In a school team, the project outcome is something that you as an individual team member have very limited control over, yet the final grade will be carried with you forever as part of your GPA, no matter what your role was in that outcome. That can be very difficult to stomach if the outcome was not what you believe it should have been.
So employers want to hire graduates with teamwork skills. What can be done to make team projects less painful? Or better yet, what can be done in the classroom to build teamwork skills without forcing students to suffer through team projects? I don’t have the answer to that, but I have a few initial thoughts.
- For pete’s sake, provide time in class for teams to work. If it means adding a several-hour lab component to the class each week, so be it, but remove the stress of trying to find a time to meet.
- Provide an opportunity for students to assess their teammates’ performance at the end of each project or the end of the class. Some professors are good about this, but some are not. It’s the least you can do for the students who work their butts off while their teammates are out at the bar.
- Have students come up with their own project proposals and then have the class vote on the best projects. Once the best projects are chosen, the remaining students would “apply” to be part of their favorite projects’ teams. The students with the winning projects would “interview” potential teammates and would then be “in charge” of their team.
- Give individual grades rather than team grades. Be sure to include enough individual assignements to assess each student on their own merits.
- Actually teach students what it means to be a good teammate. I think sometimes students simply haven’t been taught proper team etiquette and throwing them together and expecting them to suddenly coalesce into a functioning team is nuts. Teach them to respond to emails. Teach them to update their teammates on their progress. Teach them that if a project must be assembled into a coherent whole, submitting their portion of it the night before it’s due just doesn’t work.
Working with other people can be an exercise in frustration, but it can also be an absolute delight. When a team works well together, the work is not only enjoyable, but the final product is something the team, the company and the client can be excited about. I’ve worked on a few teams like this in my professional career and it is exhilarating. Working with people you trust, respect and enjoy spending time with is amazing and unfortunately much too rare. This focus on team projects in school isn’t working. Forcing students to work in teams isn’t the same as teaching them how to be part of an excellent team. Let’s start doing that instead.