How to Make Team Projects Not Suck


Given the choice of whether to work alone or with a team, most of us would opt to work independently. It just feels easier and more efficient. We can act quickly on our own ideas, without having to discuss, debate, compromise or adjust. Plus, we’ve all been burned by a few nightmare team project experiences that might be summed up by: “I got stuck with all the work,” “We had to scramble to fix everything at the end,” “The final product suffered because of so-and-so,” or “Nobody was clear about who was really doing what.”

I feel ya. However, the reality is that we can’t solve many of the complex problems facing today’s institutions without a team effort. Effective solutions require the benefit of multiple perspectives, ideas, and skills sets. And the implementation of such solutions is often dependent on a multitude of people.

So, how can we make the experience of team projects less sucky and more functional? Here are 7 tips:

  1. Get on the Same Page Regarding the Desired Outcome: If each person on a team is aiming in a different direction (even slightly), there’s little chance everyone will hit the same target. Teams need to have a deliberate conversation around the group’s goal to ensure everyone’s on the same page about what a winning outcome would look like.
  1. Allow Team Members to Voice Strengths & Preferences: Before rushing into action, teams would benefit from allowing each member to voice what they’re good at and what they enjoy doing the most. Roles can then be divvied up based on these strengths and preferences. That way, tasks will be done at higher levels, at a faster pace, and with more resonance for members.
  1. Clearly Define Roles: The clearer everyone is about who is doing what, the less likely it’ll be that work gets duplicated or just doesn’t get done at all. Do the following situations sound familiar?… “Oh, you did that too? I thought I was doing that part.” Or, “I thought he was doing that aspect of the project. So, I guess nobody did it?” Take the step of putting role responsibilities in writing to reduce any confusion, lapses in memory, or finger-pointing down the line.
  1. Deliberately Agree On Standards and Expectations Up Front: This involves having an initial discussion of what group members can expect from each other and hold each other accountable to. It might include aspects like preferred communication methods (text, email, or phone), expected speed of responsiveness, overall levels of commitment, equality of contribution, and how to give and receive feedback. Getting agreement on these elements up front can help prevent conflict from arising along the way, and can provide a more effective foundation for resolving conflict when it does occur.
  1. Build-In Intermediate Checkpoints: Sometimes teams meet once or twice at the beginning of a project, and then don’t regroup until close to the deadline. This tends to create anxiety and uncertainly along the way, and sets the group up for a scramble at the end. Schedule intermediate checkpoints to gauge progress against the goal and to address any new challenges or unforeseen complications.
  1. Embrace Task-Related Conflict, and Reduce Personal Conflict: Not all conflict is bad. Some disagreement and tension is normal and healthy for teams when it’s about the work itself. Team members might disagree or debate about how to approach certain problems or goals. And this usually makes for a better end result, one that reflects a wide array of considerations and views. It’s only when conflict turns personal that it becomes detrimental and leads to other dysfunction such as political jockeying, sabotage, negativity, or gossip.
  1. Create Some Connective Glue Outside of the Work: Rapport can go a long way in greasing the wheels of a team’s functionality. It’s a lot harder to get frustrated with a fellow team member if you’ve connected and empathized with them on a personal basis. Good teams have taken some time to interact outside of work in order to create more connective glue.

For even more on effective team performance, read about the 6 qualities of a championship team.