How to survive a group project
Group work is a staple of almost every degree course. No matter what university you go to, or what subject you study, the chances are some of your final grade will come from a group project.
Some people love group projects. A chance to collaborate with like-minded people, each adding their own talents to create something better than you could ever create alone.
Some people (like me) aren’t so keen. Memories of projects past, where we couldn’t agree on what to do or where certain members didn’t pull their weight, still haunt my dreams.
Love them or loathe them, you can’t avoid them, so here’s how to get the best from them.
Don’t just go with your friends
Easier said than done, I know. You know your friends. You like them. There’s no-one you’d rather spend an entire project with. Right?
The person who can always be relied upon to supply a witty remark in a seminar, or get the first round in at the pub, isn’t always going to be the most reliable to work with. The attributes that you love so much in your coursemates might turn out to be the very attributes that make you hate them at the end of a project. It’s hard to stay friends with someone who doesn’t turn up to your group meetings and never gets their section done on time.
In my third year, I got so hung up on not wanting to upset the people I usually worked with by going with a different group, I started resenting having to work with them. I spoke to my tutor and he gave me some good advice - in ten years time, you might not still be friends with these people. But you’ll still have your degree.
As long as you’re tactful, any real friendship will survive you working with a different group.
Pick the perfect project team
OK, so you’re not just automatically going with your mates, or the people you ‘always’ work with. So you are you getting on your team?
You’ve got to work with the people that you think you can do your best work with. I don’t mean just trying to group up with the ones that get the highest marks. I mean people who work at around your level, who’ll pull their weight and add something really positive to your group.
Try and get a good mix of people too. A team full of natural leaders can easily descend into an argument as each person tries to assert themselves. A team without any leaders can go round in circles. A team full of creatives can miss out on the more technical aspects.
Of course, you can’t tell what it’s going to be like to work with someone until you actually do. So the best advice I can give you is to play the field. You’ll have plenty of group projects throughout your first year of university, so mix up your team each time and you’ll get a far better idea of who you want to work with for the big projects later on in your degree.
Pro tip: Check out the Belbin team roles - profiles of nine different types of people you find in group projects. It can really help you understand how to build your perfect team.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
The success of your group assignment can be decided in the first few minutes. This is where project management skills can really come into play.
- Before you even start, make sure you all have the same understanding of the assignment
- Break it down into stages so you can figure out exactly how much work needs to be done
- Give yourselves deadlines for each stage, to avoid the last-minute rush
- Agree how often and when you’re going to meet up
Now you’ve got the outline of a project plan. You can get all of this sorted before you even get started on the nitty-gritty of the project content. By agreeing these elements early on, you make working together much easier at the later stages.
Determine everyone’s strengths
If you’ve followed my earlier advice and picked a team with a good mix of people, this step should be easy. Figure out what each person is good at and you can get the best people on each area of the project - something that will drastically reduce your anxiety if, like me, you’re a bit of a perfectionist.
For example, at university my strengths lay in organising people, writing and referencing. So I was in charge of bringing everyone’s contributions together, editing the work so every part read well and getting the Harvard referencing up to scratch at the end. I was also the slightly stern-sounding person that kept everyone on track. I’ve never been any good with design or visuals, so anything that needed those skills was better off with a different member of the team.
Learn to communicate
Good communication skills are invaluable in a project. You’ve got to balance different ideas, schedules, skill sets, priorities and the delicate egos of your teammates - and that’s before you even get stuck into the real work.
If you’ve planned everything out, picked a good team and made sure everyone has a shared understanding of the assignment, you’ve got a good foundation to start with. Share contact details or set up a group chat so that you can all keep up to date with progress, and arrange regular meetings so you can collaborate properly.
Be open to other people’s ideas and encourage discussion so you can all choose an idea that you’re happy with. Key here is diplomacy. If someone has a good idea but you’re not sure it’s right for the project, or it’s just a terrible idea you’ve got to try and turn them down without upsetting them.
Don’t try and do everything yourself...
...Even if you think you’re the best member of the team (if you do, you’re in the wrong group). Not only is this an easy path to stress, but it’s defeating the entire object of group work. If you don’t learn to work in a team now, you’ll have a hard time when you get a job and have to do it “in the real world”, where you can’t always pick your teammates.
Don’t try and get everyone else to do your work…
If you do, you are the worst kind of person to have on a team. I’m not paying £9,000 a year to do your degree for you. Pull your weight or get out.
Be honest, and speak up
Sadly, sometimes people don’t pull their weight. Projects are delayed because one person just can’t be bothered to turn up to meetings. Don’t just let it slide - talk to the person.
Pull them to one side first - there might be something going on in their personal life that’s affecting their studies, and if that’s the case the last thing you want to do is tell them off in front of a group.
If there’s no good excuse, then you need to remind them that it’s not just their grade that they’re affecting. If they don’t do their bit, the rest of you will have to take up the slack and that isn’t fair. Especially if they’re still expecting to share the grade at the end of it.
If all else fails, speak to your tutor so that they’re aware of the situation, then make sure you don’t end up in a group with that person next time.
By rights, this should have been top of the list as the most important thing to remember when doing group work.
Group assignments are all about fostering teamwork abilities and learning to collaborate - essential skills for the workplace. You can’t get away from them and neither can your teammates, so try and make them as painless as possible for everyone by being respectful.
Listen to the ideas of other people. Support them when they do well. Be firm, but fair when people don’t pull their weight. Do the work you’ve agreed to do when you’ve agreed to do it. Help out people who are struggling.
It’s not just your grade, it’s the whole team’s, so find a way to work together and give it everything you’ve got.