Creating teams that work

One of the assignments in my first Library Science class is to write a blog post reflecting on the “personal skills needed to succeed as an online student and as a member of an online team.” We were encouraged to review “Is an online program right for you?”, a checklist apparently crafted with me in mind. Based on this list, I’m well suited for an online program: I’m habitually organized and disciplined, I’m self-motivated, I work very well independently, I have tech skillz, and, oh yes, I *love* a challenge.

Next we received some tips on study habits and time management, emphasizing how the online course experience differs from in-person instruction. Online courses provide more flexibility (you work when you’re available) but therefore also shift responsibility onto the student’s shoulders. Suggestions include using a calendar to track deadlines and designating regular times to work on the course. I would have done the former anyway, but I appreciated the reminder about the latter; diving into the class opportunistically, as time permits, is not a recipe for success when all of your other daily demands crowd around!

We were given two videos to watch that focus on the skills involved in successful teamwork. I gather that we’ll encounter group projects in several classes during the course of the degree. I found these videos very interesting, realizing as I watched them that I’d never been explicitly taught how to approach group work. I’ve experienced my share of frustrations, disappointments, and communication failures, but I attributed this to the necessary evils of group work. In terms of personal skills, I’m a natural organizer, I’m very reliable, and I’m a good communicator and editor. My weaknesses include naively assuming that everyone has the same goals I do, imposing possibly unreasonable expectations on others, and a perfectionist urge to jump in and “do it right” instead of trusting others. Being aware of these things helps me head them off.

The first thing I learned from Dr. Haycock’s colloquium on “Working in Teams” was the power of the term “team”, as opposed to “group.” A team consists of people with a common goal and individual accountability. “Group” covers a range of gatherings, possibly with much looser structure and lacking defined goals and ground rules. Dr. Haycock also enumerated factors that lead to team failures: lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. These can be addressed by having clarity in team goals (including, for coursework, the desired quality of the resulting product; what grade are we aiming for? It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d need to ask this question!), clearly defined roles/responsibilities, and established ground rules (expectations for team meetings, how information will be shared, how to serve as checkpoints on each others’ work, consequences if rules aren’t followed). I was persuaded that taking the time to converge on these items up front could head off a lot of problems later.

Dr. Haycock then described four stages of team development: Forming, Storming (dissatisfaction), Norming (resolution), and Performing. Two comments he made struck me here: that all four stages are normal (so expect some dissatisfaction and know that there are ways to work through it), and that not all teams make it through all four. He noted that many teams hand in their final project, never having made it to the Performing stage. Sounds like a painful experience!

I liked his suggestion to designate a “process observer” within the team whose job it is to take a minute or so at the end of each meeting and comment on whether the team succeeded in sticking to its ground rules. Presumably this could be a rotating duty, and presumably this internally generated feedback could help to remind members of the rules or to inspire changes in the rules, if needed.

The second video was “The Monster Inside Library School: Student Teams” by Enid Irwin. She offered additional advice for successful team experiences, including learning about your teammates’ skills and being willing to mentor teammates (the latter skill being something you may use day-to-day in a library position!). She also noted that one reason teamwork figures prominently in the SLIS program is that librarian jobs often include a lot of teamwork, so learning functional team skills now will serve you well later. I reflected that I participate in several groups (not all what I would consider “teams”) at work, and none of them are as structured as the ideal described here. Perhaps I can incorporate some of these ideas into improving teams at work, too.

The pursuit of excellence

As someone subject to perfectionist tendencies, I enjoyed reading this article on Excellence vs. Perfection. The former is defined by its focus on process, while the latter focuses on results.

While the article highlights perfectionism’s negative impact on self-esteem, I couldn’t help also noticing that the excellence-focused path just seemed a lot less stressful.

“The pursuer of excellence sets realistic but challenging goals that are clear and specific whereas the perfectionist set unreasonable demands or expectations.”

This goes beyond just setting realistic goals for a single task — but also to time management and prioritization: how many tasks can you realistically accept? If you are constantly striving to do or complete more than you realistically can, and unsatisfied until they are all done “properly”, are you setting yourself up for unremitting stress and, ultimately, burnout?

“The pursuer of excellence would examine the situation and make decisions about what is most important to do, where they can set limits by saying “no,” and when they can delegate.”

An excellence-seeker can accept criticism and suggestions, since they aid in the process of improvement. A perfectionist instead sees them as challenges or reminders that they have not reached their goal.

The article also encourages us to slow down and to be patient in our pursuit of excellence.

“The pursuer of excellence finds enjoyment and satisfaction in the pursuit of goals whereas the perfectionist is usually unhappy or dissatisfied. When goals or risks are challenging and achievable and are not attached to the self-concept they can be fun to pursue.”

Overall, this was a welcome perspective. I’m already predisposed to value the process of learning or acquiring skills over the end result. (So far this has worked quite well with my violin practicing, possibly because I’m not aiming for any kind of recital or skill level but instead simply to improve over time.) But it’s easy to get sidetracked by evaluations and grades in a school setting, or deliverables and publications at work. Here then is a nice reminder!