You find all sorts of problems in group work. Anyone who has participated in even one group project in college knows this.
Perhaps you believe these challenges are external to you? Others cause problems, because surely you must not be contributing to the challenges facing your group? Let’s examine, understand, and overcome these challenges before they get out-of-hand.
The first major reason is the unpredictability of your situation. One key characteristic of your group presentation is its rampant unpredictability. The project appears submerged in ambiguity that we seem powerless to affect. It’s bad enough to face the unknown variables of case analysis and its attendant presentation, but then several other variables are added to the mix in the form of other people.
We all prefer to control our own destiny. Most all of us want to be judged on our own work. We like to work alone. This is very much the craftsman’s view. Our labors are important to us. We take pride in our work.
But with group work, the waters muddy. It becomes difficult to identify who is doing what, and consequently, we worry about who will get the credit. We worry if there will even be any credit to distribute if our presentation collapses under the burden of multiple minds and differing opinions and people who seem not to care.
We begin to worry that our contribution will be overlooked. We worry that someone else will take credit for our work and we’ll be left with the crumbs. We see ourselves becoming submerged, and as we sink into a kind of group ethos, our individual identity is threatened. How will the boss, the professor, or anyone else, know what we do? How will they know our contribution? With every additional person, the unknown variables multiply. Worse, what if we get saddled with a reputation for poor work because someone else screwed up?
The second major reason for group failure is the ordeal of time management and schedule coordination. Six different students, each with differing class schedules and who often are working part-time, must somehow work together. Moreover, you may be involved in several classes that require group projects. And you invariably are faced with the pathology of one or two team members who “don’t have time for this.” So the difficulties mentioned here multiply.
Why the Group Presentation? It’s a Complex World
The group presentation is not an easy task. It can be downright painful. Infuriating. It can turn student-against-student faster than anything else in college outside of Greek rush.
So why do your professors require them? Why do all of your B-school professors seem determined to put you through this misery?
You’ve probably heard the spurious reasons. One pervasive student myth is that professors assign group work so they can cut their own grading work load. The reasoning goes something like this: it is much easier for a professor to grade six presentations or papers than to grade 30 individual papers. This myth is so pervasive that it has become conventional wisdom among students. There are three big problems with this.
First, by definition, individual work is not group work. If group work is an essential part of the workplace experience, then individual papers or other assignments do not contribute to the learning experience that is specifically designed to prepare you for the workplace.
Second, professors often are required to assign some form of group work in their courses. The prevailing pedagogy in most business schools advocates the group work experience as essential to prepare students for the 21st Century workplace. Frankly, this is the way it should be.
Third, this myth assumes that professors enjoy watching students stumble their way through awkward presentations, poorly prepared and half-heartedly delivered. While you, as a student, prepare for only one or two presentations, the professor oftentimes must watch 20 presentations or more in course of a semester and then evaluate them. I assure you that this can be an unpleasant experience.
The proverbial bottom line that we all talk about in business school is this: You do “group work” because it is essential to the 21st Century business world. In fact, corporate recruiters list it as the second-most-desired skill in the job candidates they consider. So why not embrace the group presentation as a necessary component of your school experience?
The days of the business generalist are all but dead in corporate America. Specialization rules the business workplace, and the manipulation of knowledge is ascendant. This means, from a practical standpoint, that we cannot produce major products by ourselves. There is little doubt that you will become one of these knowledge-workers upon graduation. You also will begin to specialize in certain work, especially if you join a large firm. This is because business operations today are incredibly complex and fast-paced.
These two factors make it almost impossible for any one person to isolate himself or herself from the combined operations of the firm. Major tasks are divided and divided again. Think of it as an extreme form of division of labor.
So we must work with others. The globalized and complex business context demands it.
In Part II, I show you how to not only survive the Group Presentation, but how to thrive and turn it into the cornerstone experience for your first job out of school . . . or your next job after getting your MBA.