Effective group work
Undertaking a group project or assignment can sometimes be daunting! The Library team has put together the following resources to help you recognise the skills you can bring to a group and how to make the best use of them. We will also share some useful strategies for approaching group work.
Skills for group work
There are lots of different skills which are relevant to group work, some of which will depend on the nature of the project you are working on. However, there are some key skills which are essential to successful group work. We are going to explore the following five essential skills in more detail:
Effective communication is essential to keep your group project on track, however, it is also probably one of the hardest elements to get right. Different individuals in your group will probably have different communication styles and preferences. When working in a group you will need to be prepared to compromise and get creative with your communication strategies. Creating different opportunities for people to contribute to discussion is one way to support communication. For example, you could set up online meetings and an online chat to allow peers to share their thoughts on the project in whatever way suits them best.
Communication skills are necessary to understand each other’s ideas and reduce the affects of conflict as it arises. When individuals in the group are having to spend too much time mediating conflicts and helping everyone ‘get on’ they are unlikely to be presenting their own ideas and ambitions.
Another skill you can develop through group work is leadership. This doesn’t always mean one specific individual telling others what to do, especially in the case of smaller pieces of work.
Leadership is a skill and not the job of any one individual.
Leadership skills ensure that all the members of your group are motivated and working towards a common goal. There are many different ways of doing this, and those with good leaderships skills will also recognise that different approaches might be needed at various stages of a piece of work.
Sometimes, one individuals strong urge to lead can have a negative effect on the dynamics of the group and the wellbeing of individual members. Resist the temptation to take ownership of every task yourself to ensure the work gets done. This will be demotivating to the group and put more pressure on you. Learning to trust that others will contribute to the success of the project and complete the tasks they have been set will free you up to concentrate fully on your own area and/or monitor the success of the project as a whole. Equally, focussing too much on leadership skills as an individual may divert attention from group goals to personal ones.
The creativity of group members helps the group to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas. A creative mindset also helps individuals to come up with solutions to problem which might occur during the group project. However, when individuals focus too heavily on innovative ideas or creative outputs without enough care for other project work and overall deadlines then they can hinder progress.
Organisational skills are vital to completing any piece of group work. They support the project as a whole and ensure ideas turn into clear actions and a structured achievable plan. Deciding early on which tools you will use to plan and track your progress will help you stay organised all the way through your project, so don’t be tempted to rush this decision!
It’s also important to remember that leaving the job of organising to one individual can cause problems. An individual who is too focused on completing tasks can become inflexible and resist making changes to plans, even if there are good reasons for these changes.
As a group you should develop your organisational skills but remember to retain some flexibility in your plans! When undertaking any project you are likely to encounter unforeseen issues and develop further ideas throughout the process.
Group work is most successful when members of the group work collaboratively and share responsibility. It is important to offer opportunities for everyone to contribute and clarify group goals so that each individual can see how they will help the project succeed. Think about the last group project you worked on:
- What did you contribute?
- Did you make use of the skills and experience you possess?
- Could you have done something differently to make better use of those skills?
The ability to agree common goals and respect the contributions of all group members is vital to the success of any group work. Everyone brings different experience and knowledge to the group and you will each benefit from the contributions of other members. This ‘knowledge gain’ is likely to be increased when working with people different from yourself!
Group work is all about finding the best balance of all the group’s skills. Consider ways you can structure meetings so that everyone can speak and in turn listen to others contributions. This will help individuals feel their contributions are valued and develop a culture of respect in the group.
Sometimes you will choose your group, and sometimes you will be assigned to a group. When you have been assigned to a group you may need to take on tasks and responsibilities you enjoy less or are less familiar with for the benefit of the group’s overall success. When the group works as a team and uses the skills identified in this post, the impact on the inherent culture and success of the group will be evident.
Activity — reflect on your skills
Identify what skills you bring to a group project by completing the skills audit.
Look at each skill and think about when you have demonstrated this skill in the past to fill in the ‘Experience’ column.
Based on your experience, give yourself a score out of 5 for how confident you are in each skill. 1 being not at all confident, 5 being very confident.
Strategies for group work
In this section we will look at various practical strategies you can use to develop establish and maintain successful group dynamics.
Your project is likely going to begin with a group meeting or group discussion. Getting equal contributions from all members of your team in this situation can often be a challenge. Some members of your team will be naturally more vocal than others.
While this can be helpful for preventing uncomfortable silences, it can put quieter members of your group off contributing. There are some techniques that you can use to make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to get involved.
- Think, pair, share
Before discussing a particular problem or concept, ask all members of your group to think about it on their own for a short period of time. They can use this time to make notes. Then ask them to pair up with another group member and share their reflections. Each pair then shares their reflections with the whole group. This technique is effective as it ensures that everyone makes a contribution but that no one is pressured to talk in front of the whole group on their own. Some individuals need time to think before they can articulate their ideas in a discussion, so the initial thinking time supports them to share their ideas. It also encourages reflection and careful consideration of the problem you want to solve.
Simply go round the group and ask everybody to speak briefly about the matter being discussed. Make sure that you agree before you start to listen respectfully to whoever is speaking and that you gather insights from everyone in the group. It can be helpful to offer people the chance to pass their turn or to agree with something else that has already been said, in order to avoid putting people on the spot.
3. Jigsaw clustering
This technique is particularly useful if you have a large group and/or a complex problem to tackle. Divide your project group into smaller teams and assign each team a particular topic or element. Ask each team to research or discuss the problem for a set amount of time, prepare a suggested response then deliver a short presentation to the larger group. This strategy can really help group members take ownership of a particular part of the project and recognise how it contributes to overall success. It also helps effectively manage group time and resource whilst sourcing detailed information about the topic. You could build on this technique by asking smaller teams to rotate and look at each others work, elaborating on the suggestions already made.
Talking in big groups can be anxiety-inducing for a lot of people. Make sure everyone is heard and respected when they share their ideas. This should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: Don’t laugh at, or belittle people for their suggestions, thoughts or ideas.
Time to delegate
After you have discussed your project and decided on a direction to go in the next step is to delegate and divide work equally between group members. Dividing up work can cause conflict, so here are some potential pitfalls to avoid, you may recognise some of these issues from previous group work projects:
- the workload is not divided equally
- tasks are delegated without discussion with the rest of the team.
- tasks are felt to be too easy or too much of a challenge.
- team members are only involved in tasks that are seen as less important to the final result.
All group members should feel able to raise concerns they have about the division of work. When deadlines are approaching it might be tempting to push past these concerns because you ‘just want to get it done’ but it is always best to finish the project with everyone in the group equally satisfied with the outcome. In the earlier section about organisation skills we highlighted the importance of being flexible and adaptable — you may find that listening to your peers concerns and making changes to the project plan will help you to complete everything on time.
Remember group work is about learning new skills and working collaboratively, not just completing the tasks before the deadline! One method for ensuring tasks are delegated fairly is to map them out on a matrix. We will look at this in the next section.
A matrix can be used to map out the key tasks, rating each one based its importance, complexity and the time needed to complete it. This will help you evaluate whether the amount of work given to each person is fair. Try to give each person a balanced workload which involves some complex work and some less complex but more time-consuming work. An example matrix is shown below. You may wish to adapt this according to the type of project you are completing.
Example of a task matrix. Image licensed CC-by-NC-3.0
Make a plan
Creating a shared timeline of tasks is a great way of keeping track of your project. If you are using project management software to keep in touch, it’s likely that a team calendar will be a built-in feature. Applications like Asana and Trello are free for small groups and include powerful, time-saving functionality. You can also list experience in using these applications on your CV.
Creative a positive group culture
Creating a positive group culture helps group members feel supported and able to raise issues quickly. All group members need to feel valued for their contribution, have a certain level of individual responsibility and shared sense of ownership. You are working towards a shared goal. Below are some questions you can consider as a group to ensure tasks have been delegated fairly.
- Do you feel able to complete your task?
- Will you need the support of any other team member(s)?
- Do you feel you are completing tasks which are important to the overall success of the project?
- Have the tasks been distributed fairly?
- Do you feel able to raise concerns?
- Do the tasks you are completing provide you with an opportunity to practice a skill or learn new things?
If everyone can answer yes to most of these questions, your group will have the best chance of working well together and dealing with problems when they arise.
No matter how well you have planned your group project, it’s likely that at some point, things might feel as if they aren’t going as well as they could. This is normal when you are working with a large group of people. We’ll talk about this more in the ‘Challenges in Group Work’ section.
As a group you can return to your audits to analyse the strengths and weaknesses within the group.
In your project groups compare your skills sets. Where are your group’s strengths, where might your group need to develop skills?
Discuss how you may be able to overcome any skills shortages within your group.
Group work can be challenging, however, it is great preparation for the workplace, where it is highly likely you will need to work as part of a team to complete projects. Learning to work well with others is a vital, and every group project will help you to develop these important skills further, even when things don’t go as smoothly as you would like. Don’t forget to download the useful templates at the end of this post.
Once tasks have been delegated, you are almost ready to get started on actually doing the work. Before you do that, maybe your group would benefit from stating your intentions. Below is an example that should work for most group projects. If you’re all on the same page before you start, then that can help mitigate problems further into the project.
How we intend to work
A successful group is built on a positive collective culture as well as the individual skills and behaviours its members display, rather than any one person’s personality. As members of the group we will all be responsible for:
1. Ensuring we each understand the aims of the group and what is required for it to be successful.
2. We will be accountable for completion of our own tasks and responsibilities on time and keeping the rest of the group informed of our progress.
3. We will support each other as members of the group by sharing our knowledge, experience and time when support is requested. We will also ask for support when and where we need it.
3. We will communicate honestly and tactfully, and where issues or conflict occur we will work to find a collaborative solution.
4. We will divide tasks and responsibilities equally.
5. We will attend group meetings, or provide progress updates to the group before these meetings when it is not possible for us to attend. We recognise that everyone else’s time is just as important as our own.
This might seem like a lot of preparation when you all you want to do is get started, but by spending more time planning you will minimise the chance of issues or conflict hindering your progress further down the line. There are no shortcuts to successful group work, but these techniques will become easier to implement the more often you use them.
Challenges in group work
Issues and challenges are a normal part of group work; no project will go 100% smoothly all the time. Open and honest communication, which is focussed on identifying solutions is the best way to get back on track.
Don’t be discouraged if progress stalls. Try to see any issues as an opportunity to develop your problem-solving skills — these situations occur often in the workplace, which is why problem solving skills are valued by employers. Everything is a potential answer in a future job interview.
When problems do arise, the important thing is not to blame any particular group member. This is difficult because maybe it seems like it is actually someone’s fault, but placing blame doesn’t solve the problem and that is your primary goal. Try and shift your perspective from frustrations about people or personalities, to how the resulting problems can be fixed. For example, a team member might say “Alex took too long to complete his tasks and now we’re a week behind”. Rather than blame Alex, try to figure out what the result is. In this case, it’s that the timeline is delayed, so your team would need to work together to figure out how that can be fixed — and how it can be mitigated in the future.
- Take some time to understand the problem, is it essential to sort out? What will happen if you don’t resolve it? It can be easy to lose sight of the original plan when something goes wrong. At this point, it’s important to check back against the assessment criteria and your group plan.
TIP! It is important to remember everyone is different. Listen to people’s issues and concerns, even if they don’t seem relevant.
- Arrange time to discuss potential solutions, noting the positives and negatives of each one. You will need to decide if the whole group needs to be involved based on the size and impact of the problem. Communication is key here. Make sure the rest of the group is informed. If you are discussing issues as a whole or large group, make sure the conversation stays focused on the solution.
- Agree a solution and adapt your plan. Doing something differently may require you to adapt your plan — if this change affects you as an individual try to be flexible! The changes made may also may create new tasks, so make sure you factor this into how the workload is divided under the new plan.
We’re not going to finish on time?!
Issues relating to deadlines are common, especially where you have several tasks which are dependent on each other. If someone isn’t meeting their deadlines and it is having a knock on effect on the overall plan, rule number one is: don’t place blame. Instead offer support, ask the individual what they think the issue is and whether there is anything else they need? When it comes to your own progress, make sure you remain in communication with your team if things are taking longer than anticipated. This can be daunting, but being honest is the only way that things will get fixed.
As well as this piece of group work, remember you each have other demands on your time including individual assignments, work or personal commitments. Watch out for your fellow teammates and check in on their wellbeing — make sure no one is feeling overwhelmed! Keep checking that your plan is up to date. This is especially important where there are tasks which are dependent on others. As a group, check your plan regularly e.g. at every meeting to keep an eye on upcoming deadlines.
Group work can be fun, tiring, interesting and frustrating, but regardless of how your project works out, all the experience you gain will help you answer questions at a job interview. Communicating clearly, delegating tasks, project management and conflict resolution are all skills which are essential in the workplace.
(embed text and podcast)Hear from other students
Listen to the Library’s student team as they share their ten top tips for group work.
Or read the transcript here.