The difficulty to understand group work

We are all individuals. All of us know that it is quite difficult to come up to our own expectations. Quite often we fail due to inexperience, incompetence, laziness, unexpected events, procrastination, and many more non-ideal qualities we all carry inside us. Maybe there are a few out there who have it better in their lives, but I guess that the imperfect individuals constitute the vast majority. However, we all try to get better over time. This we call “life.”

So much about individuals. Unfortunately, our society has decided to favor a much more complex situation: groups of individuals.

It is difficult enough to get used to oneself, but getting used to the dynamics of groups of individuals is even more difficult. Still, we need to train it. This we all seem to agree upon.

At university, teachers quite often ask students to work in groups. In addition to new material which should be understood in some knowledge domain, we find group dynamics which quite often “terrorizes” the group members.

A non-functioning group can quite easily cost another year of studying. Isn’t this unfair? Should the university not try to avoid such unfair situations? After all, a year is a quite substantial part of a typical life time. Who pays for the extra costs?

Here is an original comment of a student who had it difficult in the practical of Rechnerorganisation during the last semester:

Außerdem bin ich das Konzept “Gruppenarbeit” hier endgültig leid geworden. Ja, wir müssen lernen in Teams zu arbeiten. Aber im zweiten Semester kennt man möglicherweise noch keine Leute, auf die man sich verlassen kann. In meinem Fall sah das so aus: Dreierteam, der eine hat mir nicht mal seine Martikelnummer zur Anmeldung des Teams geschickt, der andere hat mir einen Tag vor der Abgabe gesagt, dass er doch nichts gemacht hat. -> Ich hab alles alleine machen können. Bin fertig geworden, war jedoch viel mehr stress.

And here is another comment from another student in the same practical:

Es ist nicht klar, warum die 4. Aufgabe eine Gruppenaufgabe ist, wenn (theoretisch 😉 ) jeder alles machen soll – in der Praxis funktioniert das so nicht, da werden die Aufgaben natürlich aufgeteilt.

All of us know about these two situations. And many have similar experiences — negative experiences and hopefully also positive experiences. Nevertheless, we all seem to agree that experiencing group work is a necessary part on a student’s road to professionalism.

Let me try to make a checklist for successful group work:

(1) Decide whether you want to participate in a successful group in some course.

(2) If yes: Invest quality time to choose group members. If you are lucky, you already have good buddies for a group. Otherwise, you should search for potential candidates with all your social skills available.

(2a) If no: Just forget the course and drop it; maybe you are in better shape next time.

(3) Start searching and constructing a good group long before the course work actually starts. If you think that you are late for this semester: The next semester starts in a few months only; you can already try to find group members for the next semester.

(4) If you seem to not find able candidates for your group, you should consider to choose whatever is available. In this case, you have the opportunity to develop skills for creating a group atmosphere which smells like success. It might be tough, but you can develop substantial skills; you will find similar types of characters during all of your life. Thus, it is good to get to handle such situations early on.

(5) However, you should also be prepared for the worst, i.e. some group member or even members turn out to be unreliable. If this is the case, it is best to find out early in the project. And you should work with “redundancy”: Try to solve all the class projects yourself. Most if not all introductory classes during your bachelor studies have group tasks which can be solved by individual students also. As a side-effect, you learn the basics of your studies even better.

(6) In case of doubt, whether your group is stable for success, do like explained in point (5).

(7) In case of the uncertainty that some group member might drop the course, do like explained in point (5).

(8) In case of the possibility that some group member gets sick during the semester, do like explained in point (5).

(9) Since the possibility that a group member could get sick is larger than 0, always do as explained in point (5).

(10) Always do as explained in point (5).

So what is group work good for, if every group member according to this reasoning needs to do all work anyway?

See it like climbing some mountain: You want to do it in a group. It is more fun. You can talk about the activity. You can schedule regular meetings in order to get “Jause” with “Saft”. You can discuss difficult parts of climbing. One can show the other how she would tackle some problem. You can share experiences. If one loses motivation on the way up, the others can help to overcome this momentary lack of motivation. If one gets hurt, the others can help out. Learn about those who always complain. Learn about those who seem to be happy all the time, no matter what weather just is. Learn about those who easily give up upon the first difficulty arising. Learn about those who are “die-hards” and never give up. Use all this collected experience for understanding groups. Group work can be that easy, once all group members have chosen to climb a mountain together. In any case, you learn.

In this analogy there is obviously no place for the following scenario: One climbs the first part of the mountain. Another group member gets flown in with a helicopter and climbs the next part. And the third group member — again flown in with a helicopter—finally does the last part up to the top. Later, those who have not been on the top are checking out the photos from the top and claim to have been on the top themselves. What a lie!

Moreover, if one of the group members cannot fulfill her task, the whole group is doomed for failure. Have a look at statistics: Let’s assume that all individuals have a failure rate of 1 in 5. If you take 5 such individuals together in a group, each one doing 1 of 5 tasks, the combined average failure rate is 100%.

As soon as each group member solves a different set consisting of 3 of 5 tasks, the average failure rate for the group can be reduced considerably. Compute yourself.

I wish you all the best with choosing group members. Learn to develop skills for finding individuals for groups and for talking straight inside groups. Learn to use your individual strengths in an optimal way within a group. Once you have developed some skills, you can try out to distribute work among people.

I have had the luck to work in a successful group for decades now; I am really grateful for seemingly having had the skill to find and maintain such a preferable professional situation.


5 thoughts on “The difficulty to understand group work

  1. Pingback: KU Rechnerorganisation 2014 — Die Nachbetrachtung zur Evaluierung | Computer Organization @ IAIK.tugraz

  2. Jake

    Great article. I also live by the adage “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” and to always be prepared for the worst.

    Even Warren Buffet said that he is always preparing for the case that he might lose everything the next day. According to him, the “universe” wants you to check and double check everything, assume the worst outcome and be prepared for it. This way no matter what happens, everything is your fault, because you could have prepared for it. Of course one could argue about natural disasters/getting sick/getting mugged being out of our control, but we still have the possibility to reduce these elements of randomness with skill/habit. This way, if something occurs which is out of our reach although we took all the necessary precautions, we don’t have to beat ourselves up because we can legitimately attribute it to randomness.

    Of course, as everything, this shouldn’t be taken to an extreme level, but it is a universal principle for success in many areas of life.

    In accounting, corporations and companies abide this rule in the principle of caution (Vorsichtsprinzip) by assessing assets (try repeating this 5 times) at the lowest expected future value, but rating debt at the hightest expected future value.

    This way, we are avoiding to be in for some bad surprises.

    My grandpa used to tell me “What you don’t have in your head, you’ve got to to have in your foot.”, when I helped him lay a fence and forgot to take a screw with me from the barn when he told me to. Since we already walked a few miles, It was a long way back to the barn, but I learned a valuable lesson from this.

    Life will bring machine-gun adversity, so we continuosly need to prepare by reflecting on how many tools we have in our belt. (Perseverance, soft and hard skills, removal of sloth and unreliability, charisma, ability to win friends and influence people). If you’re not prepared, it will hurt.

    I will wrap my post up with one last quote by Charles Munger (Investor, Billionaire) to give an additional bone to chew on:
    “I spent my whole life preparing for tomorrow to be a bad day and I’m happier for it, not more sad.”

  3. Rudl

    I agree, but with one little but important disagreement:

    Is it only my personal success that is important?
    If so, I should work damn hard to find the fittest students and avoid everyone who fails this pretty ambitioned mark. That is: survival of the fittest, others remain prey.

    So if I fail to overcome this magical mark I am doomed to work with other more or less talented partners and we might end up 65% below top – together. We might have done that with tripple the amount of hard work than the prior mentioned “alpha” group. But our payment – our grade – will be far beyond theirs.

    This does and has to lead to some kind of two-class students. An exclusive group of the upper 10%, and a bunch of so called loosers.

    Then, why would someone with the reputation of a professor in such a world teach EVERY student, with bad to very bad teacher – student ratios? Why for free (less than possible)? the fittest will be able to pay for that service – even a lot if the professor is on top of the top 10%.

    So if someone happens to have a chance and reach for this exclusive class – isn’t it some kind of personal responsibility to help others? Just because it is human to do so? Just because no one of us would be where we are if there were just and only egoists populating this place we call home?

    I don’t expect myself to be a potential member of theese upper 10%, but I worked hard to get where I am right now. And as I see I worked hard enough to help at least a few others climb that mountain called bachelor. And as I am everything but athletic I WILL require the help of exactly those individuals to climb a real mountain.

    Concluded I see it as my duty to help others, even if this WILL cause me a LOWER grade in the end. My final grade is not given by the University only, parts of it I’ll do by myself. An A- Grade gained on the shoulders of others – with no more than a shrug – gives me a personal total grade of F – at best!

    1. Jake

      The problem with your argument is that you help others, but also EXPECT others to return the favor. OP mentioned that you should find reliable students, not everyone will return the favor. If you’re helping others out of altruism, that’s fine, but then don’t expect anything back from them, otherwise it’s not altruism anymore but rather an exchange of services.

      See, you might get disappointed when someone you’ve helped doesn’t return a favor, but this person might have no idea that you even expect something since you seemed to do it just for the sake of helping.

      One key to not only teamwork, but relationships and other areas of life in general, as I have experienced, is to follow a framework I refer to as “evolutionary stable strategy”.

      A simple analogy to demonstrate this concept is the scientific finding, that cow saliva helps grass to recover faster. Cow saliva contains a certain bacteria which aids that recovery process, thus the cow will not run out of food in the future. You could say that over time the grass and the cow created a deal together, evolutionary speaking, where they could coexist in a win-win situation.

      The way you described your situation it seems like you tend to form win-lose relationships in some way or another, regardless of whether you are on the losing side or the other person.
      I am sure you are bought into the simple belief of “Do upon others as you wish others to do upon you.”, which sounds reasonable, but in reality not everyone is following this adage.

      Also note that it’s not the most intelligent or strong species that survives, rather it’s the species which can adapt the best. So be adaptable and dynamic, there is always a way to form a new, stable group, it’s one of the beautiful things you can learn which will serve you in the future. Read the obvious signs in front of you and don’t project what you want reality to be like.

      1. Rudl

        Reaity is partially made by mankind. Mankind is a set of people. You and me, we are part of that set. Arguing about the reality is useless, but doing ones part – as little it might be – FORMS reality. This will be what one might percept as an “obvoius sign” in the next iteration. So watch me changing your future perception. 😉

        Btw.: I don’t expect nothing, it’s beyond my power what others might do.
        I just accept that success is never ever totally self made.
        Therefore success is allways a duty one WAS allready payed for.

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