Remember all the team projects you did back in high school or college? If you were really lucky, you had a great team of highly capable people who worked well together and produced unbelievable results. But if your experiences were anything like mine, you may have erased them from memory.
In most cases, a few people carried all the weight, the results were mediocre and, often at the end, there were hurt feelings, anxiety and frustration. While so much change has occurred around us since those days, team project experiences have not.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Why?
I just watched one of my children complete a school project. They spent the first couple of meetings trying to make everyone feel included. They spent the next couple of meetings listening to everyone’s ideas. Eventually, they settled on a scope and assigned responsibilities.
They met several times to go over project status. They spent most of those status meetings listening to why certain people did not have their work done. They spent the other half of those meetings having the people who did most of the work defending their work. Sound familiar? It does to me.
What happened next? They rated each other through a peer review. Truthfully, most of the peer reviews were BS, with kids just saying things so others did not get offended. It’s easier to just submit the work, get the grade, and move on. Why add the burden of having to explain to someone, who did not do any work, why you gave them a bad grade…it is obvious, isn’t it?
It’s never too late to learn from our mistakes
The good news is there is a ton to learn from these experiences. The bad news is we never talk about the learnings. We usually do not hold people accountable and try to improve the experience. If the team was excellent, we try to keep the team together. If the team was bad, we run like you-know-what to another team, or maybe avoid being part of a future team project entirely.
Over my career, I have witnessed the same behaviors at work. We speak to the power of teamwork and collaboration, but we are unwilling to do the necessary spade work to make teamwork or collaboration better. We take the easy way out and move on to the next team – or, in some instances, the next company.
What would make it better? Let me share 7 tricks that have helped me overcome the team project blues throughout my professional and educational careers:
- Be honest. This is intentionally the most important first step. Have the courage to speak honestly about the need (or not) for teamwork and collaboration. Sometimes it is smarter and more effective just to get it done. Don’t add work by organizing a team for a project that does not need one.
- Pick your roster. If the work truly would be more effectively done in a team, pick your own team. Choose people you trust; people who have pride in what they do. Pick people you enjoy working with and people who are focused on the outcome, not solely their personal win.
- Keep the team small. I suggest 3-5 people. My college economics professor taught us everyone is out for their own self-interest. It is human nature. If you want to get people aligned, keep the group small and incent them in a common way.
- Identify personal interest openly. Before you begin any work, facilitate a conversation about each team member’s personal interest: “What do they want out of the project?” Write it down and attribute their name to it. It’s ok to have a vested personal interest, as long as it doesn’t contradict or overpower the team’s stated goals and objectives.
- Formally state team operating procedures. When will we hold meetings? How long will they be? What will be the operating procedures in the meetings? How will we hold each other accountable? What does success look like at the end of each meeting?
- Measure and modify. As part of your standing status meetings, track progress as well as anything that is not progressing at the appropriate rate. Assign action steps as needed and implement them immediately to improve progress before the next meeting.
- Fix issues as they occur; don’t wait. Do not wait for the end of the project to do a post mortem. Do them throughout the project, allowing people to learn and grow and still make strong contributions to the active project. It is never too late to fix things.
Sounds like a lot of work, right?
Well, that is because it is. It’s a lot of hard, time-consuming work. That is why it’s so important to determine if a team project is the best possible way to address a given issue or opportunity. The worst thing you can do is create a team project just because it “sounds like a good idea.” Be a leader. Organize in the most effective and efficient way to get the work done. Sometimes that’s not a team project or collaboration, and there is nothing wrong with that.