by Angelica Morgan
Groups are a part of every person's life: people are born into groups, learn to play in groups, go to school in groups, worship in groups, and live in groups. In college, you likely have been expected to work in teams or even write reports in teams. While most people require no training to become effective members of social and cultural groups, work teams require a little more effort. Yet most students receive little or no preparation before they are thrust into a project team, expected to work quickly and efficiently with other students to carry out the project and neatly summarize the results in a report.
The purpose of this set of tips is to provide some guidelines for effective team performance. As the team report is so often a major element of team work, some tips for team writing also will be provided. (The ideas in this tutorial are largely abstracted from the sources identified at the end.) Hopefully, students will find these suggestions helpful in their next team exercise.
When a team project is assigned, the tendency for many students is to jump into some type of action--any action--as quickly as possible, attempting to avoid the inevitable, last-minute crunch. In doing this, the team immediately moves toward solving the problem at hand, rather than clearly defining what exactly the problem at hand is. The problem clarification stage of the team process is extremely important in determining the quality of the final product. Consider this: each of the five or six team members is likely to define the problem according to his or her perspective. If the team does not take the time to collectively define the problem, the team will spend the entire project trying to find a single solution that addresses five or six problems at the same time. This near-impossible task will lead to confusion, frustration, and a poor quality final product.
Experts agree that some type of method or structure is needed for effective team work. This involves creating a structure for thinking through or defining the problem, describing criteria for an acceptable solution, identifying possible solutions, and determining the optimal solution. The team must create a method or structure that best meets the needs of the project. However, whatever method is selected, as stated above, problem definition or clarification is an important first step. Imposing structure, no matter how fluid, will enhance the team process and lead to a better team outcome.
The team method should not be designed as a means of eliminating free-flow of ideas and conflict from the team process. Indeed, divergent opinions should be encouraged, as they lead to a broader understanding of the problem, generate a greater number of alternative solutions, and increase involvement of individual team members. However, team members must be careful that conflict is focused on the issues (substantive conflict) and not focused on the people presenting them (affective conflict). The latter can be destructive to the team process and shifts energies away from the task at hand.
Before getting into the "right" way to conduct team writing assignments, consider how the typical report is written. Sections are parceled out to team members, all of whom see themselves as responsible for their one section, rather than for the whole product. Each person writes their section for a different audience, in a different tone, and probably in a different font in a different software package. Sections often overlap in coverage, not always treating the same topic in the same fashion. The different parts of the report--each of which is likely a first draft--are slapped together the night before the due date. Everyone scrambles to assemble the missing pieces (the executive summary, graphics, the cover) and edit the document. The product is turned in, and each member walks away from the process vowing to never again repeat that team process.
Now consider an alternative, systematic approach to the team writing process. While some of the steps may seem redundant, the general process can be modified for most team writing activities.
This phase involves establishing a team leader who will assume responsibility for coordinating the entire report. This person will break down the project into tasks for the entire team, at the same time helping each team member understand their own responsibility as well as the total responsibility of the team. This person will ensure that each team member takes a broad view of the entire report, and not just their section. Every phase of the report, from writing to taking the document to the copy shop to be bound, is planned and assigned. The team leader is also responsible for keeping the team on schedule to complete the report on time.
This phase involves the team leader working with the entire team to establish a detailed outline of the report, determine a schedule for completing the remaining stages of the project, and planning how each section of the report will be integrated. During this planning phase, the team should also discuss what software packages will be used, how the team will communicate, and what stylistic format will be used for the report. Deciding these aspects up front will save time at the end in pulling the report together.
At this point, each team member should know what section he or she is responsible for and how it fits in with the entire project. Each team member should then independently write a detailed outline of their section and what visuals and graphics will be included. The entire team then works at revising the outlines and integrating them into a structured whole. Also at this phase, the team should identify what other components will have to be assembled (the executive summary, the table of contents, the cover, the appendix) and who will be responsible for them.
Using the agreed upon software package and the agreed upon style, each team member should draft their section of the report. The goal is to produce a complete first draft so the team leader can assemble all of the pieces and determine what yet needs to be done. The project leader is responsible for reviewing the entire draft and making suggestions for revision at this point. Please note: copy editing--such as marking up punctuation, grammar and stylistic errors--does not happen at this point. Such micro-editing is not efficient at this point, when the report is still being structured. The review of the first draft should focus on the report structure and focus. Each individual writer is then given suggestions for revision.
The next step is to prepare the prototype draft. This is the preliminary version of the final report which is essentially complete except for copyediting and proofreading. The team leader then takes responsibility for copyediting the draft, preparing the report for a substantive review by the entire team. All of the team members read the report for clarity and accuracy.
At this point, the team members, except for the team leader, are essentially done. the team leader takes the suggestions made by the entire team in step six and incorporates them into the report. The team leader might also recruit a pair of fresh eyes to help read the report for clarity.
At this point, the due date looms near or is already here. The team leader takes responsibility for getting the report copied and bound and turning in the appropriate number of copies.
Forman, Janis. Novices Work on Group Reports: Problems in Group Writing and in Compute-Supported Group Writing. Journal of Business and Technical Communication. Vol. 5 (1). January, 1991.
Mathes, J.C. and Stevenson, D.W. Chapter 13: Group Writing. Designing Technical Reports: Writing for Audiences in Organizations. Macniellan, Second Edition. New York. 1991.
Warburton, T.L., The ABCs of Group Communication: A Primer for Effective Group Performance. Technical Writing and Communication. Vol. 17(3). 1987.