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Group projects: Confessions of a convert

By Cynthia Halatyn - Posted on 15 May 2019

Memories of group work at school meant full time Strathclyde MBA student Cynthia Halatyn wasn’t looking forward to MBA group work but here she explains why she is now a convert to working in a group.

The phrase “group project” still gives me flashbacks to traumatic grade school assignments. As a mousy, bookish child, teachers always put the class clowns and slackers on my team in the hopes that my well-mannered tenacity would somehow rub off on them. In reality, I often ended up doing all the work and sharing the credit.

My undergraduate degree in Political Science was a welcome relief. I embraced the opportunity to tackle all those written assignments and essays on my own terms. So when I began researching MBA programmes and saw that so many of the assignments were group-based work, I was really sceptical. I spoke to friends who echoed my concerns, “why should you have your academic success tied to other people’s abilities?”

An MBA is a generalist degree which covers a variety of topics including HR, Operations Management, Statistics, Finance, Strategy, etc. When I quizzed the recruiters about the group project aspect of their programmes, I was often told to expect at least one project wherein I (*gasp*) would be the weakest link. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long.

I struggled with my statistics course from the beginning. I was incredibly stressed about whether I would be able to pass the upcoming exam. When it came time for the group assignment, I was fortunate enough to work with team members from maths backgrounds. They did the heavy lifting on the assignment and were incredibly patient in helping me to understand what steps we needed to take and why. I also learned a tremendous amount about Microsoft Excel and was pleased when I found a small portion of the project that I was able to contribute to due to my understanding of the software needed to complete it.

My team score on the project was good. I studied hard and went on to ace the exam. The point is that I don’t believe I would have been able to pass the assignment on my own. The project involved analysing a lot of data in order to come up with a proposed solution. Up until that point in my MBA, I felt as though I could have completed most of the assignments on my own.

In order to be open to the learning from my teammates going forward, I had to realise a few universal truths about group projects.

There will never be a perfectly equal division of labour and time

This was the hardest pill for me to swallow. We all bring different strengths and skills to a team assignment. As a native English speaker and someone comfortable with writing, I end up spending a lot of time working on the written report and I used to resent that. I’ve come to realise that my teammates are still contributing tremendous value even if we’re not all spending the same amount of time on our tasks.

I’ve been on projects that required a PowerPoint presentation or quantitative skills and have been fortunate to have such expertise on the team. Some of my PowerPoint whiz teammates can churn out a slick looking presentation in just a few hours. If I tried to do the same it would take me twice as long, and probably wouldn’t look as good!

If you’re working on your own, you’re not learning new, bankable skills for the workplace

You may learn more about the subject matter, but you may not be taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from people who are better than you at software, writing, or presentations.

I’ve learned so much from colleagues by simply asking, “how did you do that?”

The output of the group is better than the discreet contributions of its individual members

If you haven’t heard of the NASA Lost on the Moon Survival Exercise, you should do it in your workplace or MBA team. It’s a fun icebreaker, doesn’t take long, and the results are surprising. One of my professors had us complete it early on during our MBA course and we couldn’t stop talking about it after.

It’s a two-step exercise. Step one is that you individually rank the items in order of importance that you need in order to survive on the moon. Step two is your team has to discuss and reach a group consensus on the items. At the end of the exercise, you look at the answer key to compare how you did individually vs. the team’s performance.

One or two people in our cohort matched their team score, but no one individually out-performed the team and the vast majority of us did much worse.

Even if you’re optimistic, group work is still really hard

I don’t have rose-coloured glasses on. There will always be slackers in the world, conflicts emerge, tempers flare even among hard working people, and there are still moments when I do think, “if I were on my own, this would be easier.” On those days I try to keep perspective by focusing on the big picture.

Click here to download the NASA Exercise and Solution Sheet.

This blog was first posted on Cynthia’s own blog page – you can find it here. More on the MBA is available here.


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