Friday, April 29, 2011

With our powers combined...

Group work has a nasty reputation. Perhaps it is one school project too many where you do all the work and a bunch of slackers take the credit (or conversely, where a bossy know-it-all takes over everything and isn't open to alternative thoughts or the suggestion that there's more to life than a presentation about the food pyramid or whatever). Everyone has a horror story or two.

What makes it so difficult?

 With collaboration of any kind, you're forced to examine how you work: your thought processes, how you make decisions, how you define and divide tasks, what your priorities and goals are, and your procedures and timeline for completing the work. These are usually unconscious, but in a group setting, you have to confront them because everyone else's will be different. This is where the conflict comes in: in trying to accommodate different assumptions, methods, goals, and work styles. What makes things even more difficult is that most people give very little explicit instruction in how to negotiate, compromise, work out a plan, and find ways to use the strengths of all group members. Furthermore, even group leaders who want to specifically design plans around the strengths of their group members have difficulty because most people don't know what their strengths are, and if they do, they often have trouble articulating them. So the entire process tends to be fumbling through, on a deadline, working toward an ill- or hastily-defined goal that (all too often) no one really would have chosen in the first place.

That said, I like collaboration. I really do. I have had some fantastic collaborative experiences, both in school and in personal writing projects. During good collaborations, I feel alive with possibilities and more confident that good ideas will rise to the top because two or more people had to approve them, and they had to be explained clearly enough for at least one other person to understand. I focus more on the process than on the product, more on the ideas than on how people will judge me based on the final product. I have to think about why I want to do a particular thing and justify to another person why the end result will be better for it. This has eliminated a lot of self-indulgent, lazy, and just plain silly ideas on my part.

While there is some truth to the waggish quote about meetings, the fact remains that we are stronger together. Go Planeteers team!


  1. People often say that group work results in a better outcome than individual work. I think I may have even said something about this in my blog post. You mention that good collaboration should push the good ideas to the top. Really, if I'm being perfectly honest with myself, I'm not sure this is ALWAYS the case. Sometimes, because I haven't wanted to be a pushy team member, I've let work be submitted that I thought was less than stellar. Also, while collaboration should bring together different perspectives and ideas so that the best can rise to the top, I've experienced groups where people come to meetings without even having read the assignment instructions. They offer no ideas. Only one idea is on the table, and the team goes with that rather than having each person think for themselves to offer other suggestions.

    If people aren't willing to be prepared and offer their honest suggestions and feedback...well, then I'd really rather work alone. Because at that point, I'm working alone anyway, and it can feel like I'm just wasting my time trying to fill the other people in on everything. It's tiring. This is a bit of a rant (sorry). My experiences haven't been this extreme and have really all turned out ok. But I think group work doesn’t always mean that there is actual collaboration. True, or good, collaboration, is what we describe when we say that the ultimate product is better than what any individual group member could have done. I don't think all group work gets to this level, which is a bummer.

  2. Wow, both of you perfectly articulated why so many group projects end up producing something worse than individual assignments. I think that having a real leader is one of the most important parts of a good group. Those leadership skills can be developed and learned along the way. It's really hard, though, when you barely know each other (if at all), to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates, especially when you're going about it in an online environment. Maybe it's because I've been doing this so long, or because I'm taking classes I'm really excited about, but I know my collaborative experiences have improved. Maybe this is the case also because my classmates seem to be more experienced as well. Sometimes you have to have a bad group project in order to learn how to take the initiative and do better next time. Obviously, we've all had those, and we're through with wasting time and turning in bad assignments!

  3. Some of the best (worst) stories about collaboration came up on the SJSU SLIS Yahoo group last year. One woman was at the end of her rope and asked if anyone else had had experiences with group members citing themselves in papers or showing up to meetings stoned. I have never had such experiences (thank goodness!!), but I did get a laugh. Anyway, as Kathleen Grady says, "It could always be worse."

  4. @Kimberly: Yes, I think there's a strong difference between group work and collaboration. One does not necessarily lead to the other. I think Kathleen made a great comment in her blog about how this is often a function of differing levels of commitment.

    @Casandria: I think you're right about how collaboration really is an acquired skill. We've all had some horror stories, I know, but we've learned from them and become stronger.

    @Kathleen: Those stories sound epic! I could sure add some horror stories of my own. For all I know, some people *were* showing up to meetings stoned. It'd be hard to tell online, and it would explain a heck of a lot. But really, I just don't know what it was. As Hines says, "Some things just defy explanation. Take what you can learn from it and move on."

  5. "I focus more on the process than on the product, more on the ideas than on how people will judge me based on the final product."

    I love the above sentiment because it encapsulates how you have to get past your fears and just engage.I feel a bit more confident these days, but during several of my virtual collaborative endeavors, I spent a lot of unnecessary time and energy worrying about how my ideas might be judged and as a result, didn't participate as fully as I should. At any rate, thanks for the clarifying statement.