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How do I organise group assignments?

Some teams work efficiently as a team all by themselves, but these are the exception. More often than not, team meetings take too long, discussion is unproductive, the work load of team members is distributed unevenly, or there is tension and frustration.

There is no magic cure to fix these problems. These tensions take on particular forms in student teams, but they are not so different from 'real life' teams as you may think. In professional situations also, ambition levels and interests vary, personalities clash, and miscommunication occurs.

One way to manage these problems, is to formalise team meetings a little. Here is how to do it.

1. Appoint a chair

A competent chair person can solve a lot of problems of working group meetings. The tasks of a chair are more complex than you would think and it takes quite a bit of practice to become a good chair. Here are some tasks of a chair:

bulletprocedure
bulletestablish the agenda: issues that need to be discussed; normally include minutes of previous meeting at the top of the agenda
bulletmanage the time: make sure you finish in time, while all issues get the time they deserve
bulletallocate speaking time, organise turns in discussions
keep order, if need be
bulletcontents
bulletsummarise, clarify
bulletraise issues that are ignored or should be addressed
bulletaffective
bulletinvolve people, also the timid ones
bulletmotivate, enthuse, or even provoke
bulletguarantee fairness to participants and issues
bulletmanage expectations (e.g. "two more questions and then we must finish")
bulletritual
bulletopen and close the meeting: marks the beginning and end, transition to the formal meeting and perhaps the informal after-the-meeting continuation.
bulletattitude: play the role of chair, e.g. take a central position

A good chair manages to balance these tasks. A bad chair might be so focused on managing the time that he or she forgets to pay attention to people's emotions. A chair exclusively focused on emotions, may not get to the work done. Balancing these tasks is very difficult.

A chair is appointed and thereby the team temporary confers authority to this person to manage the process. This may feel a bit awkward, to interact with student mates in such a formal way, but it may well help to keep those team meetings under control a bit. At the end of the meeting, you can just lay down the role of the chair and interact in your normal informal way. (Hence also the importance of the ritual closing of the meeting.to mark this transition.)

2. Make minutes

 Minutes of meetings reduce the risks of conflict or disagreement over what was agreed at previous meetings. They also include a to do list, a check list to make sure all work gets done. Minutes do not have to be extensive. Many things said during a meeting are just suggestions that are bounced around and discarded for other ideas. Minutes should mainly include the outcomes of discussions, perhaps a few key considerations that lead to these outcomes, and a list of concrete actions to be taken by each team member.

Since chairing is such a complex task, you cannot expect the chair to also make the minutes. To divide the burden evenly, teams often have rotating secretaries and even chairs.

3. Archive

Set up a (virtual) archive, accessible to other team members. Include shared documents, links, but also minutes of team meetings and draft texts. This allows you to share and learn from each other, but also makes sure everybody knows exactly what has been agreed (even if you were not at a particular team meeting) and even allows you to give detailed feed-back on each others contributions. (e.g. with 'track changes' in Word)

4. Conflict

Conflict is part of life and you will also come accross it in team work. Formalisation of team meetings can take some of the personal sting out of conflicts. Also, conflict management is a part of the task of the chair. As lecturers, we expect you to solve conflicts yourselves, as part of the management of team work. However, when conflict gets out of hand and can no longer be managed within a team, then you will have to seek help from lecturers, who may have a meeting with a team, remove team members, split teams, our simply keep a closer eye on team proceedings.

If things go wrong and you cannot agree, then do not wait too long to consult the lecturer. Obviously, there is little we can do after 90% of the assignment time is over.