5 Tips for Group Work
If there is one thing that I grossly underestimated when I was preparing for MBAland, it was group work. Sure, you see the breakout rooms –miniature fishbowls with tired looking students huddled over a screen—when you are on the b-school tours, but it isn’t until you are smack in the middle of your first group meeting that you realize just how ill-prepared you are for the special “dynamic” (notice dynamic and dynamite share the same root) that is group work. Here are 5 things that I’d share about group work:
1. Believe in The Art of War, Chapter 1: Initial Estimations (Laying Plans)
In MBA land, you usually get your syllabi early, scan it and find out if you have any group work ahead of time. From what I’ve seen and from what I’ve done, most people form groups in advance of class. “Who do you choose?” you ask next. Well, that is a complex question, and people have different strategies for selection…I’m so glad you asked…
2. Try The Match.com Strategy… When selecting a group, you are basically picking a class”mate” for the entire semester. My approach is eerily similar to when I was single and dating: how do I find someone who amplifies my strengths and bolsters my deficiencies through their own competencies? Unfortunately, just like when you are dating, it is not so easy to tell the cray crays on the first date. Hmmm… the girl who sits in the front near the teacher with the entire semester’s worth of readings printed out in a three ring labeled binder on the first day of class? Possibly. How about that guy in the back who doesn’t seem to even be paying attention –wait, is he watching a tennis match on his computer?—yet opens his mouth to answer a question and solid knowledge gold pours out. How about him?
My advice: professors usually give you one or two class sessions before you turn in who your groups are; so, you have some time to “speed date” if you will. Get there early and stay late and chat with as many people as you can. And just like dating, just cause someone asks you out, especially if you are sitting near them, doesn’t mean you have to say, “Yes.”
3. Know that Your Reputation Precedes You
So, the match.com speed dating strategy may or may not be helpful in the beginning, but know that by the time you get through a semester or two of MBAland, you already have a reputation. Whether you are known as the person who is uptight, who blows off meetings, who does all the work for the entire group without giving anyone a chance, who wastes time, who doesn’t do their agreed upon work, or who is a pure joy to work with, you indeed have a reputation after a while. And frankly, some of the negative reputations can be used to your advantage –oops, I mean “leveraged,” to put that in MBA speak. Sometime you find yourself with limited options when it comes to group members –and sometimes you may even be someone else’s limited option –but this can at times be a good thing. If you have a clear idea and are excited about a particular group project in a class, you can make lemontinis out of lemons by having to work with someone who doesn’t want to take leadership whatsoever and just wants tasks to be given to him or her. Just remember, that you might be someone else’s lemon as well.
4. Believe in Repeat Offenders and Rockstars
This may sound cynical, but one of my classmates says that we should trust people to be who they are. Now, before you get all Ke$ha “We R Who We R” on me, whether you believe that people can change or have transformative experiences, that’s not what I’m talking about. When it comes to group work, believe me, people will be who they are and it is highly unlikely that they will change greatly since either a) the first time you worked with them and / or b) the reputation that you gathered from a trusted source.
So, if you know that a person is always 15-30 minutes late for meetings, don’t expect that to change. If you know that a person is always going to promise to build the slides properly and the powerpoint is a little less than the Mona Lisa promised, manage your own expectations. Sure, hold people accountable and to standards (and yourself for that matter) but manage your own expectations as well. That way you can build in the time or efforts that it will take to adjust.
The good news is that rockstars are usually always going to be rockstars. These are the lovely group members who do what they say they are going to do on time and better than expected. They too will usually continue to do the same and their amazingness can be built into the planning as well.
5. Always Self-Reflect
Have I always been a great group member? Sure, I try, but Yoda wants me to do or do not. And well, I haven’t always exhibited the force. After each group I am in, I try –whoops, I mean *do* –consider my strengths and weaknesses along the way and consider my sum contribution. I also like to think about how my classmates contributed to my learning too…like Zak who taught me a whole other level of powerpoint construction, Chuan who taught me that you don’t have to use the traditional methodologies at hand, but you can also create new, quantitatively sound ones as well; or Alexandra who modeled what a considerate group member could be when she offered to help me with my work when my child was in the hospital. I’d like to try and learn from their examples / skills too.
Speaking of which, I have learned more about my skills and areas of opportunity (we don’t call them weaknesses in b-school) through group work than any exam or individual paper.
So, as you consider going to b-school, do consider the role of group work upon your learning. It will be quite the experiential learning opportunity, I assure you.