On Collaboration: Equal Does Not Equal Same

Collaborating with others is a learned skill. One most people don’t learn properly in school because most teachers just throw a bunch of students together and hope for the best. The students almost always divide the work the same way: so everyone gets a smaller piece of the same job. This is not how projects work in real life because shit actually needs to get done, and it’s the worst way to go about it.

For example, in university I was once saddled with a group who thought sharing the workload meant everyone had to write a report and recite it in front of the class – independently. It could hardly be called a “group” at all. I tried to work for better cohesion: playing MC, tying people’s ideas together, and trying to engage the audience. I even tried to teach the rest of the group to memorize their shit so they wouldn’t stand there mumbling with their noses in their notes, but guess what they did come presentation time. Each was in their own little world, boring the shit out of everyone else.

One girl didn’t present at all, which I didn’t think was a problem because she’d dutifully taken on all the boring logistical problems the group had: taking responsibility for research materials, organizing people’s notes, getting the AV equipment. She’d done more work than anyone, but those immature assholes didn’t recognize it because it wasn’t the exact same work they were doing. When they started bitching at teacher that she shouldn’t get the same grade, I told them all to STFU and listed every contribution she’d made.

When you put people together and force them all to drudge through the same tasks, everyone’s performance is dragged down. What you end up with is an idiot group: one where the output matches the lowest performer involved. The only way to solve this is to find different tasks that fit each person’s skill-set and interests. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. A smart group delegates jobs based on people’s individual strengths and covers their weaknesses.

If everyone was as good as everyone else at the same things there would be no need to collaborate in the first place. The whole point of forming a group is to cover all necessary aspects of a project that can’t be done alone. The best collaborations I’ve had were with people who slotted well into all the gaps that needed filling, where people loved doing jobs others hated. Everyone at once could think, “I’m so glad I’m doing X and not Y,” and be confident that someone else was getting Y done because it’s a job the other person enjoys.

People do their best work when they love it (and continue to love it even when it’s frustrating). If you truly hate some aspect of the work you need done, farm it out. That’s what smart people do, because they realize their time is best spent on things they enjoy.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

4 thoughts to “On Collaboration: Equal Does Not Equal Same”

  1. Smart teachers know enough to assess how the different members contributed to the final result – and which of those members are more hot air than work.

    Other teachers make arbitrary grouping decisions and force everyone to live with them.

    It’s worth your time, if you have any choice, to find the good ones.

    1. I dropped a couple classes in college because I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be able to stand the teacher for a whole semester. A lot of the group activities in college involved us finding our own groups though, and I wasn’t always great at picking them. Still, a learning experience, each one of them.

      I really hated the way the teachers put students together for group projects in grade school though. They always bundled the hard workers with the lazy kids in the misguided attempt to bring the group averages up. Instead, the worse students dragged the brightest ones down because they wouldn’t lift a finger as the kids who cared about their grades did the work of three people.

      1. I have NEVER been on a a team for a group project. Certainly not in school. Collaborating was not done in Mexico – they expected you to do your own work.

        I’m looking back and wishing I had had SOME teamwork – but I was the only girl in grad school in the Nuclear Engineering plasma program. They guys worked together on homework – and were too awkward to include me. I did it all on my own.

        Professionally, of course, we were working on big projects ‘together’ in some sense; though it was the ‘each person cover their area of expertise’ version.

        1. I think that’s maybe why art school graduates get hired into management positions, because the focus is more on communication skills than art itself. Though I say that somewhat sarcastically because they also taught us how to make utter stupidity sound big and important by throwing jargon at it, and that crap is a damned plague in corporate culture. 😉

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