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How to succeed in teamwork, lessons from academia

How do you feel when asked to complete work as part of a team? For many, the prospect of teamwork fuels feelings of anxiety and dread—a reaction to multiple occasions where expectations and experiences didn’t match up during completion of team-based work. The frustration associated with teamwork may be attributed to instances where an individual felt they were asked to complete more than their “fair share” of work. Others may feel angst because “teamwork,” for them, means seeing associates dominate aspects of the project, completing work in isolation, and returning to the group with “the solution.” The solution being something that the team never discussed, provided input on, or had time to influence before fast approaching deadlines. I think that teamwork can be a wonderful thing. However, in order to make teamwork a good experience for everyone involved it is essential to first learn how to work in teams (i.e., we suck at team work because we don’t know how to work in teams—we have not been taught to collaborate effectively).

So, how do we learn to work in teams? I found a few ideas for teaching teamwork on Tomorrow’s Professor Blog—an online resource for effective teaching managed by clever thought leaders at MIT and Stanford University. In a post titled “Tips and Strategies for Effective Teamwork” Richard M. Reis, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing at Stanford and Associate Director of Global Learning Partnerships of the Stanford Learning Lab, suggests focusing on six key areas (listed below). These areas are based upon an article published in the August 2010 issue of Graduate Connections Newsletter from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The six key areas

  1. Same Teams for the Semester – Maintaining who is in the group for a set period of time (i.e., don’t have team assignments on a whiteboard that changes every week).
  2. Team decisionsEnabling the team to review options and make a decision regarding which option to pursue, not just assigning who does what portions of work.
  3. Same project – Having all the teams in a course work on a similar problem so that teams can compare their solution and workflow to that done by others.
  4. Developmental peer evaluations – Facilitating conversation about performance in order to modify/encourage best behaviors for all members of the team.
  5. Conversation maps – Prototypes to help teach workflow (i.e., you do work, you talk about your work, you talk about other’s work, you summarize the final decision taking all contributions into account).
  6. Teamwork skills – Nurturing behaviors that contribute to successful collaboration (i.e., trust, shared experience and expectations, getting to know one another, leveraging differences).

I think there are a couple key takeaways from what Reis proposes. In order for collaborative work to succeed members of the team must trust each other. Trust develops when people work together for extended periods of time (hence the suggestion in the key areas that teams work for a full semester), develop shared experience, hopefully like or respect one another (which comes from open communication, and understanding more about where individuals come from), and feel invested in decisions (i.e., aren’t just assigned or agree to complete work—they are encouraged and supported in suggesting solutions and are involved with choosing what solution to pursue).

Teamwork can produce amazing results—in part, because you are leveraging the experience, creativity, and production power of multiple people. At the same time, teamwork is really hard, and sometimes feels impossible, because it requires bravery upon the part of the participants (to share and listen to ideas—i.e., putting oneself out there). In addition, a collaborative decision must be reached that everyone can live with. Each team member must deliver results which will in turn be discussed and evaluated for quality (possibly resulting in revisions to original work). The work we produce can feel like an expression of our own personal values, quality, and ability—when our work is judged or we are asked to make changes, it can feel like more than just the work is being evaluated.

I think that the final point made by Reis is the most important one: “teaming is not effective for every situation.” Knowing when and when not to form a team around a project is yet another challenge for leaders and staff to sort out.