Do Group Projects Limit My Opportunity to Grow Individually?

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Few things evoke nightmarish flashbacks to college as quickly as the group project.

Many times, things ended badly in school. You wound up stuck with more than your share of work while the slackers shared a great grade. Worst of all: the instructor had no idea how hard you toiled.

And now the group project has rolled back around, this time with stakes a lot higher than your GPA. Your professional reputation is on the line, not to mention promotions.

This time, though, things are likely to be different.

These days, companies of every size as well as government agencies are focusing on building true “team cultures” where collaboration is valued over competition. Aristotle was on to something when he posited that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

It’s a hard concept for some, particularly those who grew up professionally in environments that rewarded individual achievement, to wrap their heads around. If you ever played team sports, though, you have a head start.

In football, the quarterback has a job. The tackles have a job. The tight end has a job. Everyone must do his job well in order for the team to succeed.

It’s the same with a well-organized work group. Smart businesses create teams of employees with different skills. They’ll come from various departments and have a range of expertise.  What they’ll have in common: each will have special knowledge that’s key to the team solving the problem.

That means that there’s a good chance you were assigned to the project because you have something unique to contribute. Just because there’s no “I” in team doesn’t mean you won’t have your chance to shine.

A team project also is a wonderful opportunity to learn skills and build relationships. You’ll emerge with a much better understanding of how the company as a whole works, plus you’ll expand the network of co-workers to whom you can turn for brainstorming and support. 

It’s a chance to practice management skills, but not the traditional “top down” variety. Every team needs a communicator, an organizer and a planner. These roles usually aren’t formally assigned but evolve as the group works.

If you fit one of those niches, step into the role. Be the one to say, “so what we’ve agreed to is …” and send a recap email after the meeting. Come armed with your calendar and guide team members toward specific dates to complete phases of the project.  Create a spreadsheet listing essential tasks and make sure each job is filled.

Finally, a team project is a fabulous opportunity to practice listening and facilitating skills. There’s a big chance that at some point talks will become at least a little contentious. If you can sit back quietly for a bit and really hear what people are really saying, there’s a chance you can help broker consensus, if not agreement.

Is one team member expressing a legitimate technical concern the rest of the group doesn’t understand? Guide that coworker toward clarification. Is the problem stemming from territorialism and fear of losing turf? Tactfully point out the many advantages the proposed course of action will provide to every department.

In the end there’s still opportunity for you to grow even if your worst fears are realized. Fellow team members will know you picked up someone else’s slack, and word will get around. Your reputation will grow as a result.

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