A volcano spewing lava

Group Project Survival Guide

I vaguely re­mem­ber chill­ing in an af­ter­noon class, try­ing to stay awake. My hand steadily sketched out notes as the pro­fes­sor ram­bled about com­puter al­go­rithms or some­thing. Then, ran­domly, the pro­fes­sor charged us to work with a neigh­bor to ex­am­ine a prob­lem just scrib­bled on the board. Sigh. I wasn’t sit­ting next to a friend. The girl ad­ja­cent to me seemed equally as un­in­ter­ested. Assuming my mem­ory is cor­rect, nei­ther of us choked up words. I at least had the prob­lem writ­ten in my note­book—and enough sense to write out part of an an­swer. Luckily, we were not called upon to pre­sent any­thing.

Why even bring up this mem­ory? Well, I wanted to show a clear ex­am­ple where I did every­thing wrong in a group set­ting. As long time ac­quain­tances know, I am a quin­tes­sen­tial in­tro­vert—talk­ing isn’t my forte. Yet, I don’t bring up this awk­ward in­ter­ac­tion to put down me or my part­ner. Instead, I in­stead want to fo­cus on my growth. I got bet­ter guys! This es­say is an op­por­tu­nity for you to learn from my past fail­ures, so you don’t make the same mis­takes. Let's jump into this.

For Starters

For one, you can ac­tu­ally be friendly and act like a per­son. I tended to be pas­sive early in col­lege, ex­pect­ing oth­ers to ini­ti­ate con­ver­sa­tions. Sure, in most group pro­jects, peo­ple will talk—a lot. Usually, at least one per­son will take charge and make sure every­one (who cares) gets a piece of the pie. But this doesn’t al­ways hap­pen. Sometimes, the group is dis­tracted or just plain in­ept. Also, you might have the best ideas, which should be voiced. It will help every­one if you speak up.

Setup a Communication Channel

Please—for the love of every­thing good—don’t use email to com­mu­ni­cate with a group of col­lege stu­dents. It will not work. I rec­om­mend switch­ing to a hip­per so­cial tech­nol­ogy as soon as pos­si­ble. Consider ex­chang­ing phone num­bers, cre­at­ing a Slack work­space, or fir­ing up a Discord server, among other op­tions. You can al­ways block them later.

Once you have a com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel setup, you should use it. A silent chat isn’t a use­ful one. Share the progress you are mak­ing on the pro­ject and ask ques­tions. If you need some­thing, like ac­cess to a file, let peo­ple know. Tell the group how you fixed that one prob­lem, so oth­ers don’t fall into the same predica­ment. Take some re­spon­si­bil­ity and make the ride smoother for the team.

Inevitably, some­one will ask for the pro­ject’s due date—so be pre­pared to share it. While you're at it, try to keep on topic. For ex­am­ple, don’t share memes or per­sonal epi­tats with­out per­mis­sion. Like read the room bruh. Also, don’t flirt with peo­ple or post of­fen­sive ma­te­r­ial. The space should be kept pro­fes­sional and com­fort­able for every­one.

Meet in Person?

Relatively early on, con­sider ask­ing for peo­ple’s avail­abil­ity times. This tip is es­pe­cially help­ful if you're go­ing to meetup mul­ti­ple times. To prove this point, let’s con­sider the crazi­ness of col­lege sched­ules. So, hy­po­thet­i­cally, Joe has band prac­tice. Jessica has yoga. George has 17 tests and a pa­per due every day of the week for the month of February. Oh, all of them also work jobs. It can be dif­fi­cult, to say the least, to find a time that works for the group. Luckily, there are some sched­ul­ing tools that can help out—but at least ask.

For larger pro­jects, con­sider sched­ul­ing in-per­son meet­ings if needed. You should try to hold the meet­ing in a pro­duc­tive lo­ca­tion, so don’t go chill out in some­one’s dorm room. Once all your group mem­bers ar­rive, you might ask if any­one has any ques­tions or needs clar­i­fi­ca­tion on any­thing. They’ll prob­a­bly lie or be too un­or­ga­nized to give a good re­sponse—but there’s a chance you could avoid a prob­lem or two.

While in the meet­ing, be cour­te­ous of every­one’s time. Keep the meet­ing short. Also, con­sider check­ing if any­one needs to leave early. Your group can then let these peo­ple con­tribute first, and let them know any im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion be­fore he or she takes off.

Divide the Work

While y'all are in one place, try to break up the work into in­de­pen­dent, even pieces. If your team can pull this off well, each piece can fit to­gether like a puz­zle with lit­tle mod­i­fi­ca­tion. (In com­puter sci­ence speak, try to avoid a merge con­flict.) This tech­nique also min­i­mizes the amount of com­mu­ni­ca­tion needed. If pos­si­ble, try to match group mem­bers to pieces they find in­ter­est­ing or are good at do­ing. This isn’t al­ways pos­si­ble, so don’t fret too much if some­one is as­signed some­thing they don’t en­joy.

Follow Up

Encourage peo­ple to fol­low up af­ter the meet­ing. As a plus, this tip will help peo­ple who suck at think­ing quickly in the mo­ment. Try to make these types of peo­ple feel in­cluded. It would be a loss to the team to lose out on their ideas.

Spark Some Creativity

Sometimes, the pro­ject will go smoothly—de­ci­sions will be made, and peo­ple will fin­ish their work on time. Other times, the group gets stuck. The ideas flow­ing are just bad, but don’t fret. You can try a few things.

For one, be­fore a meet­ing, you could brain­storm. Try mak­ing a list of ideas be­fore show­ing up. You don't have to pitch all of them, but you'll hope­fully have a few de­cent things to share.

At the meet­ing, share all your ideas, even if you think their stu­pid. It's hard to know how good an idea is with­out shar­ing it with other peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, I had a dumb idea for a key recog­ni­tion app. Let me ex­plain. You prob­a­bly have a key ring full of keys. Over time, you might for­get which key be­longs to what door. The app would al­low the la­bel­ing of the key, so it's owner could re­fresh their mem­ory in a con­ve­nient way. I thought the idea was po­lar­iz­ing and left it sit­ting in my dig­i­tal notepad. Yet, when I pitched this idea for a class pro­ject, the team ac­tu­ally de­cided to tackle it. Take a chance and speak up.

If all else fails, con­sider mak­ing a pro­to­type and show it to the team. It doesn't have some­thing time con­sum­ing—maybe a PowerPoint slide or two. I once was in a group where we had to write a para­graph length de­scrip­tion. This isn't hard, but we couldn't agree on a topic. I ended up scrib­bling out a rough draft for an idea I liked. The group, per­haps out of lazi­ness, ac­cepted my idea.

Conclusion

As Kendrick says, stay hum­ble. Be will­ing to learn from oth­ers. Listen to them. Please don't uni­lat­er­ally make de­ci­sions for the whole group. Try to get oth­ers in­volved—or else they will loathe you. People herd­ing is hard, and prob­lems will arise. Out of per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, I rec­om­mend con­fronting group mem­bers in pri­vate, rather than putting them on blast in front of every­one. Keep the feed­back con­struc­tive. Build peo­ple up, and praise them in pub­lic. Also, my ad­vice isn't meant to be taken lit­er­ally. Push your­self but don't force things on the group. It will all work out fine.