Boosting Team Productivity — What We Can Learn From University Projects


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What makes an unsustainable, inefficient, and selfish department? For that, we can look towards a scenario that many of you might be all too familiar with: College group assignments, especially during the pandemic.

Hitting your KPIs; strong interpersonal skills; the ability to manage both upwards and downwards—these are some of the many skills I assume a “good” B2B manager should have.

Amongst them, perhaps the most coveted one is the ability to build departments that operate sustainably, and reach peak efficiency when needed while still being able to help individual members achieve their personal goals. At least, that is the impression I got after sifting through numerous Reddit posts and business articles.

Rather than figuring out the right strategies to do so (which may not be applicable to everyone’s unique circumstances), why not consider the opposite instead: What makes an unsustainableinefficient, and selfish department?

For that, we can look towards a scenario that many of you might be all too familiar with: College group assignments, especially during the pandemic.

🔪The Horror

I have never once encountered anyone who had a great time working on college group projects during the pandemic season. Those who do, tend to form groups with close friends, and even then, there will always be a mix of outsiders. Good friends do not necessarily translate to being good teammates either, and many are lucky to remain friends once the project is over.

Just like in any work environment, we may have little to no control over whom we choose as teammates. There are lecturers who often assign groups randomly and arbitrarily, thinking smugly to themselves that they are cultivating a vague sense of “teamwork” and “team diversity”. (No, you are not.)

This age-old problem is further exacerbated no thanks to virtual communication being the new default choice. It is more difficult to gauge emotional cues and encourage team commitment when the camera is turned off. This issue is also universal—haunting students from the most prestigious university to the lowest-ranking community college.

Why does it suck to work on these projects? I tried breaking down how projects get done, hoping to find some clues:

🔊How Teams Communicate

WhatsApp chat groups and virtual meetings have been the status quo for university group assignments over the past few years. If you are lucky, some team members might offer to take notes and meeting minutes. If you are extremely lucky, you might have virtual meetings held right after lectures. These are few and far between, and while almost everyone is exhausted, at least most teammates are able to commit to the timing.

Expectations for teams in WhatsApp chat groups can also vary greatly. Some may feel pressured to respond to messages immediately, while others may go for days without responding.

A better team would have used whiteboarding tools like Miro, which, granted, is a more interactive way to collaborate and makes meetings more enjoyable (or at the very least, less intolerable). However, these teams would also quickly run into many roadblocks.

  • It assumes that all team members are comfortable working with digital tools more complicated than Microsoft Word.
  • It requires team leaders to be familiar with collaborative tools (timers, pointers, breakout rooms, etc.), and to coordinate teams to use these tools effectively.
  • It runs into the same issues as standard virtual meetings, requiring everyone to be available at the same time and to provide certain levels of commitment.

The result? The Pareto principle, or more famously known as the 80/20 rule—where 20% of team members will actively contribute to discussions while the remaining 80% remain passive. Emoji reactions and random questions will occasionally dot the empty void—up until the final few days before the submission deadline, when everyone scrambles to get the work done.

I was fortunate enough to have completed my undergraduate studies before the days of Zoom, G.Meet or Teams. Projects that produce the best results and are the most fun to work on are often held via dorm visits; with a healthy mix of lengthy discussions, deep work sessions, food breaks and overall messing around.

💼 How Work Is Assigned

Many groups that I have encountered tend to distribute workload based on competency and conviction. Good talents are “rewarded” with complicated tasks, while bad talents are “punished” with a lighter workload. Rarely is the work distributed equally amongst team members. The result is teams being separated into the tryhards that carry the entire team, the noobs that may or may not be engaged with the project, and finally, the rest of us normies.

While horrible at first glance, this strategy is surprisingly effective at producing high-quality work on a short-term basis. The tryhards have free rein to tweak the project however they see fit without the constraint of others; occasionally obtaining blessings from the rest of the team once they have completed their portion. The “carry” culture also manifests in our culture of celebrating star players, or MVPs, or best performers of the month. Hence, why this strategy is prevalent in sports matches, competitive shooters, and of course, college assignments.

However, this strategy is also horrible at building team sustainability. The tryhards are in a never-ending quest to find like-minded people, the normies are just trying to get by, and the noobs constantly cycling through a limited pool of teammates that can carry them—eventually ending up with each other when the pool dries up. Teams composition at the start of the college intakes will look wildly different in the final semester.

It is not so detrimental in a college setting, but I noticed that it is a work philosophy that carried itself into the corporate world. But the workplace is nothing like a college environment. There are huge stakes involved in the work, and teams have to work together for months, quarters, and years on large-scale projects, often with external and internal stakeholders.

The tryhards will eventually burn out, and job hopping is easier than cultivating a dream team. Department heads are left picking up the pieces, a new team carry is somehow expected to emerge magically from the shadows, and the rest tries their best to maintain the status quo. If your company has a high turnover rate amongst high-quality talents, perhaps this is something to think about.

🔍 How Projects Are Tracked

Opaque is the best way to describe it. Rather than relying on a single-source-of-truth, the responsibility lies on the project team leader, who constantly chasing after individuals for progress reports. Sometimes it is written down in a shared document. Most times, it comes in the form of WhatsApp chat logs that needs to be scrolled through every time it needs to be referenced.

This strategy places the burden of project management onto the team leader. In fact, inquiring about project updates makes up the bulk of communication between team members. Pay attention to the types of questions being asked in these group chats, the flow of information, and its purpose.

More often than not, it stems from the fear that work never gets delivered on time or at the quality expected. Even when work progress is on schedule, there are concerns of losing momentum or slipping up. Rarely does communication stem from a spirit of collaboration, idea sharing, or the goal of improving the project.

It is a shame to see that constant verbal updates are needed to enforce accountability in-between group members. To nag or be nagged. No matter how tight relations are between two people, annoyance will always fill up the gaps in trust. Friction between team members is built up unnecessarily for the wrong reasons.

Before studying data science, the bulk of my assignments were made up of film projects. The producer is the de facto team leader, and good producers are effectively productivity wizards. The sheer logistics of mobilising large teams, expensive equipment, tight deadlines and budgets is astounding.

But a producer rarely works alone—with much of the documentation and planning process being delegated to the rest of the team members. Everyone has a unique duty to perform with little overlap; everyone has ownership of their respective roles and the responsibility that comes along with it. The cinematographers handle the shot list, film editors handle the post-production schedule, directors handle the script … all play a crucial part in producing documentation that makes the project a success.

This is unlike many types of the projects that have strong overlap in job descriptions, where theoretically the documentation can be produced by a single person. This is where the “carry” culture can better manifest itself.

Everyone has the same job, but some can perform better than others. I have seen teams where the underperformers are tasked with writing the introduction and conclusion of the assignment paper, without even understanding what the entire project is about. (It still blows my mind to this day that such a thing can happen.)

Hence, to build an effective team, I believe it’s important for project management to be democratized instead of being centralized into a single role. Teammates have no choice but to trust everyone else to be experts in their respective domains, and for them to do it well. While there are better ways to track project visibility, at least in the realm of filmmaking, it opens up enough breathing room to consider creative ideas and conduct intense problem-solving sessions, instead of solely focusing on delivery dates.

Separating People Problem From System problems

I can only speak from experience, but the issues I come across rarely stem from the “who” working on the project, but rather the “how”. Many are just victims of circumstances, and more importantly, victims of an inefficient system of working that has failed them.

All tryhards just want to produce good results and have fun doing them; All normies and noobs just want to learn, grow and get good in their respective roles–or at the very least, better their current position. If teams are going to spend large chunks of their days committing to projects, they want to do it well with as few mental, emotional, and systemic resistance as possible.

Hence, my department utilises tools like Notion, to facilitate project management. There are plenty of software tools today that aim to make work easier and less intolerable through great UI/UX, functional features, and stable builds.

For my next newsletter, I will highlight what’s so great about Notion, how its features help solves many problems regarding team and project management, and why it can still be easily replaced by newer, shinier pieces of software around the block.

In the meantime, merry Christmas holidays and a happy new year!


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