Team Collaboration for Beginners

It’s generally acknowledged that teamwork and communication skills are important skills for employability applicable to everyone. This includes everything from presenting posters and presentations, to writing reports, as well as how you work together with others to complete the project your reporting on to others. How one ‘works as a team’ seems to be something we expect people to learn by doing, which is fine, but we don’t seem to share ‘how’ to do this with students beyond the basics. We tell them meet, pick a leader, and talk about how you’ll break down the work, and assemble the results.

I know that I’m just as guilty about this as others. While preparing materials for our MSc IT summer project students I noticed that I’d overlooked this aspect for most of my other courses. Even in CityLab, where we pulled students together from two universities, we’d only provided general guidelines in a few talks about how to collaborate on their project work. There we were always drifting around and advising them, so maybe it was less obvious, but a guide would’ve helped them.

There are things that I’d told the teams that I mentor for software engineering, and things that I’d told students in enterprise computing, where everyone works in a team, but I’ve only recently started to write these down for them, so that they had them in a one-page document. We have to provide them these skills so that they know how to work together, even if they wouldn’t choose to hang out together.

Slowing down and preparing for covid-19 related remote delivery of workshops to guide the IT students in their summer group projects made me realise that I’d been overlooking this aspect. As the summer’s gone on, I’ve become sensitised to see that it doesn’t seem to be something we cover with students in much depth, except in the software engineering course; instead that course focuses on the development and delivery of the software, with the team parts being all about leaders and delegation of tasks.

I’ve now pulled together my thoughts on what we should be teaching our students about team collaboration. While computing students do a longer team project, most of the other disciplines also expect an amount of team collaboration. I’ve come up with a draft idea of the topics that a guide should cover, plus an initial draft of ‘rules for team collaboration’.
The topics should cover a range of issues as part of the background on team collaboration, and the possible different approaches that can be used:

  • Collaboration in general
  • Communication within teams and to other groups/stakeholders
  • Communication channels within team and with stakeholders
  • Decision making and hierarchy within the team
  • Working agreements about how to work, shared purpose, and vision
  • Workload and scheduling of work, prioritisation and risk plus estimation of work to be done
  • How people ‘do the work’, solo, pairing, mobbing, etc
  • Feedback loops on output, working processes, collaboration, the product/project, etc
  • … (whatever I’ve forgotten at the moment )

The initial ‘rules for team collaboration’:

  • Work in prioritised small batches
  • Validate your assumptions with regular feedback
  • Diversity in team members adds strength
  • Sync and integrate your work together regularly to avoid surprises
  • Use a working agreement to clarify your team vision and how you will work together
  • Work in pairs or as a whole team to share understanding
  • Only commit early to something when you know why

Each of these rules supports the others, and while a few might be missing, is probably enough to see a team through a small project. I can see me working on this more to determine a small number of ‘essential’ rules, and then adding in ’supplements’ to dig deeper into some scenarios. While this is mainly based on software development, I think it should work with non-technical topics too which produce a report, or some other piece of work because these are also the rough rules that I’ve experienced with others putting together conferences and other events too.

My next step is to draft this guide and share it with others for feedback. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or feedback, then please get in touch.

4 thoughts on “Team Collaboration for Beginners

Dr Pauline Bremner
July 22, 2020

Hi thanks for the offer to feedback – I’ve used a communities for practice (Hoadley and Kilner (2005 ? )approach for teamwork with on site wishing to transfer on line 
This has contracts approach in it and allows for all those skills you have noted to be incorporated 

Used belbin roles, tuckmans approach and reflective statement with kolb underpinning – happy to chat 

Adam Wyner
July 23, 2020

Thanks Bruce! I don’t have specific suggestions at the moment, but it is certainly a document worth working further on. After all, what students learn at Uni will impact on their work later. I find faculty teams at Uni have little idea about working as a team, so early training is necessary.

Phil Marston
July 27, 2020

It’s interesting you mention leadership and delegation of tasks, because what immediately came to mind for me was the waterfall model of software development, but while I was reading your list I was very much reminded of everything I’ve read about Agile. I wonder if that might be a fruitful avenue to explore – sort of Agile as a model of team-working rather than just as project management? And of course highly pertinent to software development.

Bruce A. Scharlau
July 27, 2020

Thanks to all of you for the comments. This helps me a lot in deciding whether this is worth the time, and how I might approach a solution.

Phil, I’m thinking less of ‘agile’ v ‘waterfall’ and more about what people see as ‘things you do when you collaborate’. My goal is to cover these topics, and then point to workable solutions.
In the end, I suspect it will be very much an agile approach, as this always works whatever the context in my experience.

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