Team Work

Posted: October 29, 2010 in Food for thought, Useful advice for students
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Working collaboratively is one of the hardest and most rewarding things I do. I don’t know if you ever get good at it. With each new collaboration, I feel I learn something new about how to collaborate. The process is difficult and it’s important to pay as much attention to how you work together as to what you work on.

Here are some tips about team work that I’ve been thinking about and would like to share with you:

Clarify the goal

For every thing you need to accomplish, make sure everyone understands what the final product should look like. Discuss it, describe it, have several team members repeat this vision. This ensures you’re all working towards the same goal.

Spell out tasks

Break your work down into tasks and write them down. Make sure everyone understands and remembers what tasks need to be done and who is doing what. At the end of many work meetings, we spends a few minutes repeating to each other who’s doing what tasks, to make sure we understand and remember, and to let others know we understand and remember.

Have each member check the final product

Assemble your final product sufficiently early to give everyone in the team a chance to look it over before submitting. People make honest mistakes. One more round of proofreading will probably find one more spelling error. From an individual perspective, it’s important you check what goes out with your name on it. If you are co-authoring a paper and your co-author plagiarized, you are in just as much trouble. If your co-author’s section has spelling error, this reflects on you, too. I cannot emphasize this enough: If something has your name on it, check it before it gets submitted.

Use redundancy and repetition in your communication

I know some of you get bored to tears when the teacher repeats the same thing several times. I feel you and I’m sorry you have to listen to all the repetitions when you got it the first time. However, as a teacher, I can tell you that even when I repeat something until I myself am bored to tears, there will still be people in the room who didn’t get it. Repetition and redundancy help reduce the probability of misunderstanding. Use them shamelessly in your group communication. This does not mean that one member should be constantly repeating things to others. Each group member should take it upon themselves to repeat back to the group what the common understanding should be. For example, once someone in the group has summarized the tasks until the next group meeting, one or two other group members, should repeat them: “OK, so I do this and you do that, and we post it there when we’re done and then we move on to the other thing.” Also, make sure you write the tasks down and post them somewhere where all group members can access them easily (e.g. a shared file on Google Docs).

This repetition practice may feel silly and awkward in the beginning, but it is very much worth it. The only way to check with the other person to make sure you understood them correctly is to repeat what they said back to them: “So, if I understood correctly, what you are saying is…” Use this in your work and personal communication, and I promise you will communicate more effectively.

Now, it is your turn to share your tips for working well with others. What has your experience taught you? What works well and what doesn’t? Let us know!


  1. hanjunxian says:

    I understand the importance of all the points you made. However, I think redundancy and repetition rarely, if ever, happen in communications via emails.

    One good lesson I learn from the teamwork experience of working in the nanoHUB project is, it is important to know the strength/weakness, working styles, and general schedules of other team members. It helps complete the task more effectively because every one gradually has expectations of others and has much less misunderstandings than it is first started.

    • Mihaela says:

      Really, you have not seen repetition and redundancy in email communication? (how about blog comments?)… umm… have you read my emails lately :)? Seriously, it does and should happen. I’ll try to remember to find and share an example for you.

  2. korash says:

    I have never found out the best solution yet for collaboration work especially as class group project. Sometimes, as Dr. V pointed out, I thought all the group members are on the same page because there was no comments or questions regarding the current matter or topic but it turns out one of members did not understand and we were not on the same page. We used email as a communication method. This is from my class project experience.
    The first problem was that the member who was not on the same page did not check and follow up the emails sent from other members. The second problem was that email was not the perfect and easiest way for the communication because of the repetition and redundancy problem. We did not spell those task out checking the To-Do list. We could have done that using Google Docs but we thought that at the beginning email would be enough for us.
    Even in this nanoHUB project, there are 34 emails which has the same subject. Some of those emails have nothing to do with the subject. If this is the case, someone could not pay attention to that unrelated email and sooner or later he/she will get lost.

  3. narayun says:

    I do agree on the lists of items listed. Sometimes I observe a good amount of people get clouded in emotion/perspective. Clarifying the materials and the requirements usually help to strive to the final goal.

  4. swoodall says:

    Taking each section, I thought of how a project management tool would handle these ideas and apply them in their product. (Think Huddle or Basecamp)

    Clarify the goal = Mission Statement

    Spell out tasks = Milestones, assign them to people and have them report when completed; creates accountability

    Have each member check the final product = Sign off, electronic signatures that wait for approval.

    Use redundancy and repetition in your communication = Reminders through text messages, email, dashboard, etc.

    It’s amazing how these items are key to successful team projects. And, that’s why there are a flood of project management tools online that dedicate to these functionalities.