The trouble with teamwork

by Swimmer9634 min read23rd Mar 201156 comments


Personal Blog

I've hated group projects since about Grade 3. I grew up assuming that at some point, working in groups would stop being a series of trials and tribulations, and turn into normal, sane people working just like they would normally, except on a shared problem. Either they would change, or I would change, because I am incredibly bad at teamwork, at least the kind of it that gets doled out in the classroom. I don’t have the requisite people skills to lead a group, but I’m too much of a control freak to meekly follow along when the group wants to do a B+ project and I would like an A+. Drama inevitably ensues.

I would like to not have this problem. An inability to work in teams seems like a serious handicap. There are very few jobs that don’t involve teamwork, and my choice of future career, nursing, involves a lot.

My first experiences in the workplace, as a lifeguard, made me feel a little better about this. There was a lot less drama and a lot more just getting the work done. I think it has a lot to do with a) the fact that we’re paid to do a job that’s generally pretty easy, and b) the requirements of that job are pretty simple, if not easy. There is drama, but it rarely involves guard rotations or who’s going to hose the deck, and I can safely ignore it. Rescues do involve teamwork, but it’s a specific sort of teamwork where the roles are all laid out in advance, and that’s what we spent most of our training learning. Example: in a three-guard scenario, the guard to notice an unconscious swimmer in the water becomes guard #1: they make a whistle signal to the others and jump in, while guard #2 calls 911 and guard #3 clears the pool and does crowd control. There isn’t a lot of room for drama, and there isn’t much point because there is one right way to do things, everyone knows the right way to do things, and there isn’t time to fight about it anyway.

I’m hoping that working as a nurse in a hospital will be more this and less like the school-project variety of group work. The roles are defined and laid out; they’re what we’re learning right now in our theory classes. There’s less of a time crunch, but there’s still, usually, an obviously right way to do things. Maybe it gets more complicated when you have to approach a colleague for, say, not following the hand-hygiene rules, or when the rules the hospital management enforces are obviously not the best way to do things, but those are add-ons to the job, not its backbone.

But that’s for bedside nursing. Research is a different matter, and unfortunately, it’s a lot more like school. I’m taking a class about research right now, and something like 30% or 40% of our mark is on a group project. We have to design a study from beginning to end: problem, hypothesis, type of research, research proposal, population and sample, methods of measurement, methods of analysis, etc. My excuse that “I dislike this because it has absolutely no real-world relevance” is downright wrong, because we’re doing exactly what real researchers would do, only with much less resources and time, and I do like research and would like to work in that milieu someday.

Conflict with my group-members usually comes because I’m more invested in the outcome than the others. I have more motivation to spend time on it, and a higher standard for "good enough". Even if I think the assignment is stupid, I want to do it properly, partly for grades and partly because I hate not doing things properly. I don’t want to lead the group, because I know I’m terrible at it, but no one else wants to either because they don’t care either way. I end up feeling like a slave driver who isn’t very good at her job.

This time I had a new sort of problem. A group asked me to join them because they thought I was smart and would be a good worker. They set a personal deadline to have the project finished nearly a month before it was due. They had a group meeting, which I couldn’t go to because I was at work, and assigned sections, and sent out an email with an outline. I skimmed the email and put it aside for later, since it seemed less than urgent to me. ...And all of a sudden, at our next meeting, the project was nearly finished. No one had hounded me; they had just gone ahead and done it. Maybe they had a schema in their heads that hounding the non-productive members of the team would lead to drama, but I was offended, because I felt that in my case it wouldn’t have. I would have overridden my policy of doing my work at the last minute, and just gotten it done. It’s not like I didn’t care about our final grade.  

My pride was hurt (the way my classmate told me was by looking at my computer screen in the library, where I’d started to do the part assigned to me in the outline, and saying “you might as well not save that, I already did it.”) I didn’t feel like fighting about it, so I emailed the prof and asked if I could do the project on my own instead of with a team. She seemed confused that I wanted to do extra work, but assented.

I didn’t want to do extra work. I wanted to avoid the work of team meetings, team discussions, team drama... But that’s not how real-world research works. Refusing to play their game means I lose an opportunity to improve my teamwork skills, and I’m going to need those someday, and not just the skills acquired through lifeguarding. Either I need to turn off my control-freak need to have things my way, or I need to become charismatic and good at leading groups, and to do either of those things, I need a venue to practice.

Does anyone else here have the same problem I do? Has anyone solved it? Does anyone have tips for ways to improve?

Edit: reply to comment by jwendy, concerning my 'other' kind of problem. 

"I probably didn't say enough about it in the article, if you thought it seemed glossed over, but I thought a lot about why this happened at the time, and I was pretty upset (more than I should have been, really, over a school project) and that's why I left the group...because unlike type#2 team members, I actually cared a lotabout making a fair contribution and felt like shit when I hadn't. I never consciously decided to procrastinate, either...I just had a lot of other things on my plate, which is pretty much inevitable during the school year, and all of a sudden, foom!, my part of the project is done because one of the girls was bored on the weekend and had nothing better to do. (Huh? When does this ever happen?)

So I guess I'm like a team #2 member in that I procrastinate when I can get away with it, but like a team#1 member in that I do want to turn in quality work and get an A+. And I want it to my my quality work, not someone else's with my name on it."

I think it was justified to be surprised when the new kind of problem happened to me. If I'm more involved/engaged than all the students I've worked with in the past, that doesn't mean I'm the most engaged, but it does mean I have a schema in my brain for 'no one has their work finished until a week after they say they will'. 


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Aside from various other issues on which people have remarked, one thing that hasn't been pointed out so far is the problem with college projects: they're too damn small.

For every project, there is a good range of team sizes, large enough for many hands make light work, but not large enough for too many cooks spoil the broth (where you start having to split it up so finely that coordination overhead swamps the actual project work - see Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month, for a classic discussion of this).

I remember one college project I had, we were supposed to do it in teams of four. Problem was, like other college projects, it was comfortably sized for one person, a moderately tight squeeze for two; four people was an insane glut. Solution: the two best programmers in our team did the project, the other two paid for our beer for an evening.

Now you say "all of a sudden, foom!, my part of the project is done because one of the girls was bored on the weekend and had nothing better to do. (Huh? When does this ever happen?)"

Well the answer is, it doesn't happen often in real life, because it's a symptom of a project much too small for the team size, or equivalently a massive glut of manpower for the project size - in real life, you have a to-do list stretching to somewhere around the middle of the next century, that grows by two items for every one item you knock off, and a desperate shortage of skilled people to do the work.

So while teamwork is important in real life, and many issues thereof do arise, that particular problem is mostly endemic to college projects.

At UMCP, they have a program called Gemstone that I was in for ~2 years; the idea was to take a group of >10 undergraduates and have them complete a real research project over the course of 4 years. Apparently, they've learned from their high attrition rate and now try to ward away bad matches.

They didn't have the size problem- many projects were too big, and got seriously scaled down. The same interpersonal issues were present; the same priority problems were present. Having too little work may be a sufficient condition, but it's by no means necessary.

That seems quite plausible. I work part-time in an institute for real medical research, and all of the full-time employees are swamped. All the time. They may or may not have teamwork problems for other reasons, but they certainly don't have this problem.

Yes, I've had this exact problem in school, and it took me about 12 years (3rd grade through middle year of law school) to figure out how I could cope with it.

One hack that's helped me work together with people who have, shall we say, varying levels of motivation, is to ask people, nonjudgmentally, about their motivation levels and then try to assign each person a quantity of work consistent with him/her getting that work done very well. When you start hearing phrases like "Really? That's all you want me to do? OK! [shrug]" then you know you've cut the portions small enough. With a little bit of friendly prompting, the small amount of work will probably get done reasonably well and reasonably fast -- you will spend less time/energy prodding than you would have needed to do that portion of the work yourself.

Of course, this strategy will leave you and any other highly motivated team-members with an "unfairly" large chunk of the remaining work, but, crucially, this will still be less work than you would have if you tried to go it alone, either before or after trying to assign lots of unwanted work to unmotivated teammembers and then having to (re)do it when it's not completed on time or not completed up to a reasonable standard.

I find that its better to know that you're going to do a lot of work and plan for that than to be surprised when you find at the very end that someone didn't pull their weight, and you wind up cramming to do it.

Both ways you do the samish amount of work, but in the first way you can actually deal with it on your schedule.

I do a lot of my work at the last minute anyway, since I a) try to pretend school doesn't exist a lot of the time, and b) focus better when I have a tight deadline. Which is why I ran into trouble with this group project, but it makes it easier to deal with other groups where last-minute cramming ends up happening.

First, something not-particularly-useful-now but hopefully comforting: group projects in school, even ones that mimic real world problems, very often are not comparable to Real World projects in the sense of group composition and motivation. In school, you just can't get away from the fact that your ultimate goal is a grade, which is intangible and at least partially arbitrary. Because of that fact, you will nearly always have less total group motivation and more total disagreement on how much work is required for an "acceptable result" on a project for school than you will once you are out of school. As you noted in your lifeguarding example, being paid for your work helps no small amount. I'd also rather think that the fact that someone's life rides on the group's performance (as it certainly will in situations you encounter in nursing) takes motivation to a whole new height.

I had your problem all through high school and most of my undergraduate education. I attribute its fading primarily to learning to trust my group members more, which was facilitated through

1) picking group members carefully when I got the chance, to maximize potential for # 2

2) realizing that in my field, chances were high that at least half of any group I was in would be in the same ballpark as I was where motivation was concerned.

Each time I had to work in a group, I made a conscious decision to trust my group members to do a decent job, which helped me remember not to let my control freak tendencies make me objectionable. Sometimes this involved noting members I didn't trust and resolving to watch for slack from their end, as well, but quietly.

I also became a good leader by creating and administrating a very diverse group of players in World of Warcraft for almost three years, but I really don't recommend that route unless you have either an absurd amount of free time or a very low regard for sleep.

Thank you. That's quite helpful.

I have had some good group experiences and some bad ones. The good experiences differ from the bad in two ways: group members know what they're doing, and care about doing it. The former relates to both general knowledge (as you put it, knowing the right way to do things) and specific knowledge of one's assignment, while the latter is basically motivation.

Of course, it's easy to reflect on my past experiences and see, in retrospect, what shaped my feelings about them. However, that's not quite at the point where it's useful for predicting when future experiences will be good ones. Working in a group, especially with people you don't know well, can lead to a lot of anxiety due to your uncertainty about the other people and how they will perform. Here's how I've resolved this problem: figure out when I can trust the other people to know what they're doing and care about doing it. If my priors for the group members indicate that I should trust them, I simply do, unless new events warrant a reevaluation of that trust. If they indicate that I shouldn't, I assume that I will have to do all the work myself, and get going based on that. These can be mixed and matched, if I have different priors for different people. Coming to a working conclusion about the other people and then acting on it eliminates much of the anxiety from uncertainty.

One example of a great group experience was this past summer, when I did research at Fermilab. Because of the prominence of the laboratory, my priors for trusting my group members' competence were high, and every day that trust was validated. Everyone had skilled backgrounds, knew the right ways to do things, and cared about the research.

In contrast, many such "group projects" in school were bad experiences. Year after year of these led me to develop the policy that if a person seemed unlikely to be invested and competent, I* would cut them out of the action or give them busywork whose importance was minimal (in those highly irritating cases where the teacher demanded that each person contribute or the grade would be lowered anyway). School group projects are generally important for the grade rather than their actual content, and therefore, I reasoned, getting the grade is also more important than achieving the "intended" semi-egalitarian group experience.

I suspect this is what led to the "new sort of problem" you described. It seems likely that when you missed the meeting and didn't actively respond to the email communication, alarm bells went off for one or more of the other people in the group, especially if they didn't know you well beforehand. I admit without embarrassment that I have done to other people the same thing that happened to you. Obviously you know you're competent and invested, but that doesn't mean others do. It's unfortunate that you lost a group learning experience. However, for a project in which the outcome (the actual result and/or the grade) is most important, best practices dictate not taking chances on other members whose competence and investment seem uncertain.

To sum up: decide when and who you can trust, and go from there. Realize that the outcome is what's important, and it's not your responsibility to coax and prod every group member into a state of motivation and competence if they're not already there; in the same way, it's not others' responsibility to do that for you.

*I recognize that you stated you're not skilled at leading groups. To modify this advice for you (and other such people), I suggest that, if you come to that sort of realization about the person in the group and you're not the appointed or apparent leader, bring it up to the person who is, in such a way that ey'll hopefully take care of the problem.

Edit: I should have refreshed the page before submitting, as I now realize I repeated much of what other people posted before I finished writing mine. Oh well.

[-][anonymous]10y 1


I didn't. I learned the rule when I was left to my own devices and began to fail because nobody was prodding me (ie in university, fresh out of high school).

I think failing personally (rather than watching other people fail) is a far more powerful motivator.

Really? University was terrible for my work habits. I was used to having a constant stream of projects and assignments, and all of a sudden it was just midterms and finals. I went to all my anatomy classes and studied maybe a few hours total and pulled off an A+. Which was awesome, but now I expect school to be like that and I feel resentful when they give us assignments that actually need to be worked on outside of class.

(The fact that my academic courses in first year were all related to biology, the area where I had the most general knowledge already, made it a lot easier. In, say, physics, I would have had to study very hard for an A+).

studied maybe a few hours total and pulled off an A+

Yep - I did that at fist too. Mainly because I began in Maths - which I was really good at... that led to me getting lax and assuming that I didn't have to do any work at all... Generally I found I got 90-100% in the subjects I was interested in... and barely scraped through on the ones I didn't like... eventually I failed one - one that I knew was easy enough that I should have aced.

That woke me up and I started to try to change my habits... but because I'd basically been slacking for over a year by then - I was so out of the habit of actually working that I also resented it. I also didn't have deadlines (except the mid-term/final one), and was living away from home - and there are SO MANY DISTRACTIONS at university... so it was a hard slog to learn to actually work. :P

But eventually I did...

There are cases specifically intended not to follow that rule. For example, when my advisor takes on undergraduates for research projects and they haven't done research before, he does coax and prod them, and he encourages the more experienced student members of the group to do the same. In that case, the result doesn't matter so much; the project, at least initially, is meant to be an experience in which members can develop competency and motivation. Some amount of hand-holding will be necessary.

Often, teachers think they're creating this same sort of environment by assigning group projects. However, the project is structured so that the grade is still the most important thing. For a student assigned such a project, it's important for em to realize that ey has no moral obligation to go along with the teacher's implied intention for the project. Developing that sort of mindset is then helpful down the road, when one is involved in other projects where the result is most important.

em to realize that ey has no

Please consider using "e" instead of "ey" or conjugating the "ey" as one would "they". Spivak pronouns don't annoy me but "mis"-conjugation does. This may not be worth the effort to you but there probably exist some others with the same foibles as me.


Spivak pronouns are intended to be conjugated with singular third person verbs.

I’m more invested in the outcome than the others (...) I skimmed the email and put it aside for later, since it seemed less than urgent to me.

Notice a contradiction?

To a reasonable first approximation teamwork consist of exchanging and fulfilling promises. (To a first approximation only; in particular, affect turns out to count for a lot, but more over the long run.)

See this article for an introduction to one framework for thinking about promises, inspired by the work of Fernando Flores and Terry "SHRDLU" Winograd, and by Searle's theory of speech acts.

The situation you describe can easily be analyzed in terms of failure to negotiate a reliable promise - consider the specific details "an exercise for the reader". The failure isn't necessarily on your part - but one major point of the article is that reliable promises are a shared responsibility.

That is why I said this was a different problem than my usual one. And it really bothered me that I hadn't held up my end, which is why I left the group, even though they would certainly have put my name on the final draft. If I ever end up in this situation again, I'll know that they actually do mean they want the project finished a month early...most people, if they say that, don't mean it.

Actually, if I ever encounter this situation again, I'll probably leave the group if that's an option. I don't like the feeling of being less invested in the outcome than the others any more than I like being more invested. It just makes me feel bad for putting in a level of effort that's reasonable for my expectations by not for theirs.

Incidentally, I'm looking forward to doing the project alone. It's actually quite an interesting assignment now that I can put aside worrying about group dynamics.

And it really bothered me that I hadn't held up my end

Cool stuff - this means you've spotted the main important point to learn from this experience.

But don't take it too badly. This is a one-off. An eye-opener, for sure - but now you know that groups exist out there where everybody just gets on and does the work... where everybody trusts each other to do what needs doing without being asked. It's called being proactive - and it's looked upon very highly in the "Real world".

Personally - I think that, now that you understand what's expected of you - you'll find that your "new experience" kind of group is actually better suited to your personality...

Sure thing there are lots of "group 1" types out there... that only work when somebody pushes them, but if you don't want to become the person doing the pushing, you won't want to join that kind of group.

However - you have to internalise that if you're not doing the pushing.. you're also not going to be pushed (and will have to push yourself)... or you'll find yourself left behind. So - learn when to push yourself. Don't beat yourself up if you miss the signs a few times, but use the experience as a lesson to know what to look out for next time. eg to start straight away, instead of putting it off for later. To look for things that could be done - instead of waiting for other people to ask you.

This is actually a really important skill for nurses. You can't just react to what other people are telling you. The patient doesn't know what's wrong with themselves... and neither do the other nurses - you have to dig to find out. That means using your own initiative.

My mum has been a nurse for decades now, and she has stories from saving several people's lives where she spotted something that she didn't have to do... could have put off... but just went and did anyway.

Oh - and she's a total control freak too, so don't worry about that part. ;)

So keep at it. you're going great.

So basically it's all about proactivity...which does not come naturally to me. Outside events that require a real-time response always feel like an intrusion to my personal bubble. Which may be the source of my 'reaction problem'. It's like "I was in the middle of thinking about quantum physics, what do you mean I have to go deal with this kid crying and bleeding on the pool deck?" See my post Ability to React,

On the other hand, when I'm already doing something, and I feel fairly competent and in control, I get into a state of "flow" where being proactive is easier than not being proactive. I managed to get into that state this morning, during my first clinical placement when I was actually looking after a patient.

Yep, thats a good summation.

I can say that I personally do not know a single person of whom proactivity comes naturally. Everybody that I know that has learned it... has had it metaphorically beaten into them - either through a parent (lots of women learn this skill from their mothers) or through their own personal failures (mainly through crying over lost opportunities only spotted in hindsight...).

If you can get started on learning this skill early... I predict that it will be of wide-ranging benefit to you in the future :)

I predict that my 2-and-a-bit remaining years of nursing school will hammer it pretty deep. And I do try to be proactive...or at least slightly more so than my classmates, so that my teachers think I am!

And I do try to be proactive

AFAICT that's the essence of getting better at this one. So keep doing that :)

That link on securing reliable promises looks excellent-- that is, it looks much more thorough than my ideas on the subject and there was nothing obviously wrong with it. I admit I haven't poked it hard to check for errors.

I'll just start off by saying that the latter "problem" will never happen outside of college. People simply do not have the time, effort, or motivation to do other people's work when they have their own job they're supposed to be doing. As rwallace astutely pointed out, college projects are way too small. When you are working, you will find that you (and everyone else) will always have more work to do than time to do it, so you (and everyone else) will not do others's work.

Your problem with the first group seems to boil down to the problem that people have different motivations. The sad truth is that this is going to be true in every setting, throughout your whole life. People always have different expectations of what they need to put in, and what they want to get out of a project.. What you need to do is learn to acknowledge that fact, and work with it. There are several ways of doing this. One of the easiest, though perhaps least fair, is (as was already suggested) to assign the work based on how much each person is likely to do. The problem with this is twofold: how much motivation someone has is is fairly hard to judge accurately, and it can foster feelings of resentment in those who have to do most of the work towards those who are (relatively) coasting.

One thing I liked to do with groups in college, which admittedly is not for everyone, was to have periodic meetings. At the end of each meeting we would decide what we wanted done by the end of the next meeting. We would then partition the work that remained (not just that which we wanted done by the next meeting) among the group members. Everyone was encouraged to do as much of their assigned work as they had time to, but there was no penalty except the ire of the rest of the group if they didn't.

So far this sound like how almost everyone does projects, but here's the catch: we made a deal that no one could leave a meeting until the work that was expected to be done by the end of that meeting was done. If everyone did their assigned work, then meetings were short. If no one did it (as happened sometimes) meetings would go into the wee hours of the morning.

This system worked well for us for a few reasons.

1) Everyone got to do as much work (individually) as they wanted. 2) Everyone ended up doing a portion of the work. Those who had difficulty motivating themselves to work on their own got to do their work with others there to goad them into getting it done. 3) Since everyone ended up working together on large portions of the project, no one felt like anyone else was free-loading, as we all saw everyone else doing at least some work. 4) It was very easy to consult with other group members if there was a part you didn't understand, or had difficulty with. This also lent our documents some flow, as they ended up being done mostly in the same style. 5) Most importantly, the work always ended up getting done.

I'm not saying I've solved the problem, that this is the be-all end-all solution to how every group should work. The point of this post (if there is one) is to say that every group needs to acknowledge the fact that motivations differ among group members, and to find a system to deal with that. If my solution is the one you feel would work best for your team feel free to use it, but if not, get to work developing your own. If you and your team acknowledge and work around the problem, your teamwork will be much more harmonious, and will produce results of much higher quality.

I have quite a bit of experience racing sailboats, in roles including skipper, tactictian, and trimmer/regular crew. I have raced with novices and with experienced crew. The single best predictor I have found for success at teamwork is that everyone is interested in winning (in a way that typical students may not be interested in doing a good job on a school project, even one that closely resembles a real world project). If my crew want to win, they will follow my instructions, even if they are inexperienced they will accept my coaching (or better yet, my more experienced crew will coach them and take the cognitive load off of me) and still do a good job. Given that, the most likely obstacle is too many leaders though I have been in several races where we solved that by just letting one person be in charge for the race even though several of could have done that job.

Good example! I think most of the frustration I have with group work is when I could do the whole thing myself, faster or at least more efficiently, but I'm being arbitrarily forced to coordinate with other people. In sailboat racing, I'm assuming, it doesn't make sense to go at it alone no matter how good you are, any more than it makes sense to play soccer as a team of one.

Too many leaders happened a lot in the school clubs I participated in. Main reason i stopped participating; it was frustrating to watch people waste time arguing over who was in charge when they could have been doing stuff.

:) I know the feeling.

My suggestions: 1) find other people as good as you. 2) find activities that are you competing against yourself eg: rock-climbing, martial-arts, running, archery, cycling etc etc...

you can do them with groups of people - but aren't reliant on the skills of other people to have a good time doing it.

find activities that are you competing against yourself eg: rock-climbing, martial-arts, running, archery, cycling

Does martial arts, which involves fighting an opponent, really belong on this list?

Yep - I'd say that 80-90% of martial arts involves honing your own craft. You get to try out that practise on somebody else... but it's no way the same thing as "teamwork".

I am notoriously "not a team player" when it comes to sports... and I LOVE martial arts. :)

There are also martial arts that are entirely solitary... for example archery. But they're rarer.

Edit: oh - and I guess I should say, that I consider that the end goal of martial arts is to be a better martial artist. Not to just beat the one guy you happen to be fighting right now.

Thus you are in fact competing against yourself - you are trying to beat your past skill-level... the guy you're currently punching is merely a means to that end. :)

Whether or not you are competing against yourself or others seems independent of whether you are competing by yourself or with others, and so I think you're misapplying the distinctions. Changing the word "against" to "by" clears the confusion and links it back to the original subject more strongly.

Yes, I think that's the important distinction. It's all about whether or not you're cooperating with others to secure the goal, or working by yourself. In all the sports I've described above - you are not cooperating with others to achieve the same goal - except for the more nebulous "have fun" goal :)

The fact that others can be involved while you practice is a secondary matter - that only concerns you if you literally want to be by yourself... which as you say - is not likely to be the case.

I took an interesting computer science course in high school... Grade 11 was exactly what you would expect from a comp-sci course, and by the end of it all of us were fairly fluent in two languages, but the second year was quite different. In a group of about five students, we were given problems to solve (like how to delete a node from a binary tree and rebalance it), had to develop an algorithm, and then learn how to implement it in a language none of us had used before. Our teacher knew that we could all follow instructions and learn from him fairly well. But the hardest part of programming for real is that you are eventually going to be in a situation where you cannot finish a project on your own, and every single person is going to have to be committed enough to learn a language and get their code in on time or you will fail.

We were a fairly typical group of high school students, so you can probably guess how successful we were at first. I was the only one who cared about learning the material, and did not have much I could do to get the others to cooperate.(being two years younger never helps) Eventually, I just had to make it work by studying harder, and telling everyone in the group that if they did not finish their part a week in advance, they were on their own. The people who didn't work hard failed, and those of us who were left eventually got much better at coordinating and working together. I don't think teamwork ever gets easy, all you can really do is give people an incentive to work hard and take up the slack for anyone who doesn't.

I don't know where else you could take a course like mine, but it definitely helped :p

[-][anonymous]10y 3


I have this problem, and I've gotten to a place that works for me. Most times, the project is small enough that one person can do much of it easily, in which case I say that I'll do it and then split the work with anybody who objects. Other times, I ask, "who wants to do part X?" and all the parts that nobody picks up I do. I make sure that nobody has more work than they want, and I check in regularly to make sure people are doing it. Tip for this: people are less likely to mind my checking on them if they can see that I've already done my part.

Tip for this: people are less likely to mind my checking on them if they can see that I've already done my part.

Doing it at the last minute is never going to work, is it?

Sigh. I suppose at some point I need to get over my superstition that it's somehow more efficient to finish things the night before.

Sigh. I suppose at some point I need to get over my superstition that it's somehow more efficient to finish things the night before.

It probably is more efficient, considering that if you start working on a project a week before it is due, the work you do will probably end up looking more like trying to work than actually working. (Insert obligatory typical mind fallacy disclaimer here.)

Yep - it's not more efficient.

Don't forget that overconfidence bias will make you think it'll take a shorter time than it does... therefore if you estimate that you can get it done in the last week, you may find that actually it's a week and a half's work to turn in a really good job, but you now don't have the time to do that.

With more time you can review it if necessary... or just kick back and relax, knowing that everything's already done.

I don't have a lot of trouble with overconfidence bias; I base my time-to-finish-project estimates on other projects I've done in the past, and it's generally about right. If it's a kind of project I've never done before, I leave a bit more time. Also, I'm busy enough, during the school year anyway, that I'll never be able to "kick back and relax" unless I put something aside for later.

I don't have a lot of trouble with overconfidence bias; I base my time-to-finish-project estimates on other projects I've done in the past

Awesome - that's a great skill to have taught yourself. You'll have to keep an eye out for black swans - but you should be able to adapt the skill to new areas of expertise as you go along.

I worked the same way until I started doing correspondence courses. With nobody to hassle me, no classes to hand stuff in at, and no peers I had to learn to motivate myself and follow a schedule fast.

I am motivated well by deadlines as well, but its amazing how much easier schoolwork is when you actually choose when to do it. instead of cramming in a sleep deprived state for the night before, you can break it up into easier pieces when you are most alert. Hopefully these newfound skills will carry over when I start university...

Instead of cramming in a sleep deprived state for the night before, you can break it up into easier pieces when you are most alert.

I don't pull all-nighters for school. That would make me unproductive at work the next day. I don't even stay up late for school, and if I do, I consider it a failure in my time management. I'm pretty good at predicting how long it takes me to do things (planning fallacy doesn't seem to affect me much) and often that time is much shorter than the time it (seems to) take other people, and...well, why would I start a ten-page essay a month early when it takes me three solid evenings to finish it?

Then why leave it til later? three solid evenings today or thee solid evenings a week before it's due? it shouldn't matter to you... but if you do it now you'll at least know that you don't have any other matters interfering with it, and that if something suddenly comes up you can always finish it next weekend.

Whereas if you leave it to the last week... if a personal emergency comes up - there's nothing you can do, you still have to get it done anyway.

It's much better time-management to do it early.

No matter when I choose to do it, I have to give up something I pressingly want to do at the time, whether it's cooking or posting on LessWrong or sleep. Doing a project early always makes me feel like I'm giving up what I really want to be doing for no good reason, since it's not even due yet. ...And no that's not especially rational, but it's not (usually) dysfunctional either.

:) I totally know that feeling. Too many interesting things to do, too little time!

If you're interested, I recommend Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher

This definitely gets stuff done... but you do also run the risk of becoming personally overworked.

My advice is that this is fine for school - but don't keep doing this in the real world. If you're carrying your team on your back too much, eventually you'll buckle under the weight.

learn to spot how much work you can safely do at a sustained rate, and make sure you never take on more than that...

oh, and a related piece of advice is to never trust people when they say "It's just for the next two weeks, and then we'll be past this hump"... IME, on the other side of the mountain is generally a new mountain... so stick to your sustainable pace... :)

Feel free to make that sustainable pace as taxing as you can take, though...

two other related career tips:

1) write down everything you do that benefits the company/team/project (especially when you're taking up everybody else's slack)

2) bring it up in your performance review and ask for a raise/promotion :)

Post and comments seem useful for students and teachers, but I was hoping for hints or links for teams of motivated adults. The teams I've been on mostly produce scientific publications (original research or reviews). Some observations: 1) work doesn't need to be divided equally, so long as each team member makes an essential contribution, but major contributors need to get more credit; 2) "you do most of the work and we share credit" can work if the one doing most of the work is essentially an apprentice (e.g., a grad student or postdoc) -- it's understood what the roles were -- but maybe not for two people with similar status; 3) two (or maybe three) people can brainstorm effectively without needing much structure; 4) big teams are tricky; if one or two people do most of the work with small contributions from many others (each getting a little credit), that seems to work OK. But I would have no idea how to organize a project that took major effort from more than 3-4 people; 5) email works OK, especially with collabators many time zones away; I always wonder about shared-screen-plus-audio tools, though.

I was hoping for hints or links for teams of motivated adults.

These days, I only work for small companies, not huge corporate behemoths.

The majority of why this is so is because IME, huge corporate behemoths have a much higher proportion of unmotivated people working in what they consider "cushy jobs" (ie they're "wally" from Dilbert - trying to get out of doing any actual work), as well as far more political bullshit.

Small companies don't have so much time or money to waste on that. I won't say that they're entirely without their own problems... but the ratio is likely to be better. After all - it's harder to hide lack of motivation in a small team. and a small company simply can't afford to keep on somebody that won't pull their own weight.

So - if you want a heuristic for finding teams of adults that work well together - look at smaller, rather than larger companies.

My second heuristic is to find companies that are actually on the cutting edge of technology. Note: not people that say they're on the cutting edge... high levels of corporate BS bespeak of teams that are likely to be more busy politically wrangling than actually Getting Stuff Done. To find companies that are actually on the cutting edge... you need to know what it actually looks like when you see it - which means you need to learn an industry at least well enough to be able to spot the difference between people actually doing interesting stuff, from people just saying they are.

IME, people that are working on something really cool - and actually getting stuff done... are far more likely to be a motivated, interesting team to work with.

So: small companies, not large companies, companies that are Getting Stuff Done, rather than talking about it...

That's where you'll find interesting teams of motivated adults to work with.

I'd rather have a motivated group that's poorly organized than a well-organized bunch of goof-offs. Given motivation, though, I wonder whether some forms of organization (especially voluntary organization) work better than others.

I'm particularly interested in situations where there's a significant opportunity cost to collaboration, that is, where any time participants spend on collaborative project X comes at the expense of time they would otherwise spend on worthwhile project Y. How can we get things done together while wasting as little of each others' time as possible?

Yes - definitely agree that there are better and worse forms of organisation for well-motivated teams. I think the exact details probably differ depending on the personalities of the team (and the nature of the project) - but I'm sure there are generalisable skills too.

As to opportunity costs, I'm not sure about collaboration in general, but too many meetings wastes everybody's time. Time that could be spent Getting Stuff Done.

There's also the principle found in the Mythical Man Month about team-size... after a certain team-size - if you keep building the team (and increasing collaboration) eventually a larger and larger percentage of the time is spent on just keeping up the intra-group communication (ie the activities of collaboration themselves). The opportunity cost there is that you could split into two teams, working on separate things and get a higher throughput.

I also recall reading something (probably by Paul Graham or Joel Spolsky) about the opportunity costs involved in joining a team of people that aren't as motivated or skilled as yourself... the conclusion of the article was that there's an opportunity cost because you're averaging your skill together and coming out with a lower number - and you could be working with people better and thus raising the average (and therefore the payoff from working together).

To address a previous point you made:

But I would have no idea how to organize a project that took major effort from more than 3-4 people

You can do this by breaking the main problem into smaller chunks - and assigning them to smaller teams within the structure. If the chunks are still too big - you just break them down further and so on.

This is how really big software projects work (eg Microsoft Windows) where you have hundreds of programmers.

I may have missed it, but it didn't really seem like you explained why you had the problem-of-a-different-sort. Could you elaborate on this? You go into far more detail about the first type of problem, when you think your standards will be higher, when you care about the outcome more than the others, etc. (type #1).

But you kind of gloss over the second (type #2), simply admitting that it happened.

It might be helpful for you to reflect (or if you have, add it to an "Edit" section) on why when you were in a type #2 situation that sounds like pretty much what you dream about when in type #1 situations... you seem to have produced the tangible results of a type #1 team member.

I clarified results as tangible, as I am saying nothing of your internal state, what you would have said if you asked whether you thought the outcome was important, whether you cared, etc. What I'm saying is that the output you fear/loathe from others in type #1 situations (not much in the way of contributions, little interaction, procrastination) might not be discernible from your actual output when in your desired type #2 situation, at least to a removed observer.

Have you thought about why that is?

I probably didn't say enough about it in the article, if you thought it seemed glossed over, but I thought a lot about why this happened at the time, and I was pretty upset (more than I should have been, really, over a school project) and that's why I left the group...because unlike type#1 team members, I actually cared a lot about making a fair contribution and felt like shit when I hadn't. I never consciously decided to procrastinate, either...I just had a lot of other things on my plate, which is pretty much inevitable during the school year, and all of a sudden, foom!, my part of the project is done because one of the girls was bored on the weekend and had nothing better to do. (Huh? When does this ever happen?)

So I guess I'm like a team #1 member in that I procrastinate when I can get away with it, but like a team#2 member in that I do want to turn in quality work and get an A+. And I want it to my my quality work, not someone else's with my name on it.

Oops, I think you've got team #2 and team#1 backwards there... in the post above, team#1 members are procrastinators and team #2 members want to get quality work done.

Probably. Thanks.

Some tips from my life:

Try and get everyone to have the same goal. This helps everything else, and gives a reason for the group to get together.

Try and find people's strengths and motivations. Some people will do more work in a certain area than they would in another. Some people will hate doing one part but love a different one. Playing to other people's strengths helps everyone do a better job, as well as making individuals feel more responsible.

Sometimes people just don't know how to start. If you give them tangible guidelines then it takes a lot of the cognitive load off of them. On the other hand, it eats more of your attention that might need to be spent elsewhere.

Hope that helps.