I’m sure you’ve worked on a group project before in school. You’ve probably had at least one terrible experience where a group member was slacking or just plain bad at their job. The worst part is, you can’t give any feedback since (usually) you risk getting in trouble with your teacher.
Thankfully, that sh*t doesn’t happen in the real world if you play your cards right. Those people who slack off in your eighth-grade science project will grow up and possibly join your team. Your job is to make sure that your team is on their sh*t and is made up of the best workers that you know.
What Does Success Even Mean?
Success is inherently subjective, to some it can be winning a prize, being the top 1% in their field. To others, it could be learning something new, earning a set amount of money, fame, or a great circle of friends.
For me, collaborative success is when you are in a hardworking, smart team that is able to bring in results. These results could be anything from winning a prize to a major breakthrough like AlphaGo or even just constantly getting the job done and improving the status quo.
Why Should You Listen To A 15-Year Old About Success?
In the past two months, I have:
- Won a global AI hackathon where my team of 5 built mockups for a therapeutic app that would use Brain-Computer Interface and AI algorithms to help teenagers cope with their mental illnesses through music.
- Collaborated with 3 teammates and sent a recommendation deck to Instacart (multi-billion dollar company) detailing how to improve their company by expanding into smaller specialized shops, adding customer preferences into their platform, and streamlining the consumer experience.
That’s a decent amount of success in only two months. However, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything without the phenomenal teams that I’ve been a part of.
Success won’t come easily, but you can optimize for it.
In my experience, I found that you can optimize your chances for being successful in a team setting. Although you can never guarantee it, you can get pretty damn close. You will be closer to success if you…
Know Your Team
It really surprises me when people jump into projects or hackathons without knowing the people that they are working with. How can you work with someone when you barely know their name, let alone their working habits, priorities, and skills. I always make it a point to know my team well, before I work with them.
If you are in a position where you can’t get to know your team before you work with them which is also fairly common, get to know them. Go out for lunch with your new coworkers, organize a games night, or play a game of we are not strangers. But literally, do anything to get to know your teammates or colleagues better before you work with them. Trust me, it makes your work much more engaging and fun when you know your colleagues/teammates.
Some people do like to partner with people that they don’t know to train their discomfort muscle and get themselves out there. Which is great if the project/task is for learning and not for performance. This is my opinion but there’s a difference between choosing discomfort and wasting your time. It just turns into a whole mess when you don’t know your team’s strengths, weaknesses, or names.
Have A Strong Composition
This really depends on the task at hand, but when you are building your team (if you are in this position) try to have a well-rounded team. The smaller the team is, the more well-rounded people will have to be in your team. You can’t have a team only composed of designers and you can’t have a team full of people who can do everything but are mediocre.
You really need to be intentional of the people who are in your team since they directly determine the quality of the work that you put out. Understand everyone's strengths and weaknesses and how people mesh together. But don’t go overboard by doing something like building an application for your team; In my opinion, that’s just stupid.
Build An Unbreakable Culture
Having a strong culture can make or break your team. If you don’t know how that looks like, some key ingredients are:
- Constant constructive criticism
- Willingness to take risks (this leads to innovation)
- Confidence to ask questions
- Everyone knows the “why” they’re doing their work (more on this later)
- Everyone is on their sh*t
This list is non-exhaustive, there are lots and lots of different team cultures for you to follow online. The one that I recommend, and a lot of people point to is Netflix’s lengthy team culture memo. When I interviewed Alex Castillo, founder of Neurosity and former employee at Netflix, he had a lot of good things to say about the company.
Netflix is a company for adults, not children… Managers and supervisors are there to give you context, not permission.
This team culture is likely why Netflix is as successful as it is right now. Although you don’t have to write a full essay on team culture every time you have a group task, setting a team culture at the start of a job/task will help you immensely
Know Your Why
This ties into having a strong culture, but this is important enough to be its own lesson. If you are working on a task for your project, stop and ask yourself
- Why am I doing this?
- What value am I adding to the project?
- Does this make sense
- Can I push this onto my collegue? (this is a joke, I promise)
It’s funny, but often problems nobody expected happen when people aren’t looking for them. Although finding the “why” is more about doing what makes sense, it’s also about weeding out problems before they even pop up (In my opinion).
These questions that you ask yourself are vital to the success of your team and yourself. If you can’t answer these questions quickly, you need to talk to your Project Manager (PM). Either your PM redirects you on the “why,” or you just saved your team a lot of wasted time.
Learn to 80–20
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80–20 rule is a principle which states that 80% of output only results from 20% of all inputs for any given event. The goal for you and your team, is to find that 20% and prioritize it. The Pareto Principle also helps you get rid of the bullsh*t that you don’t really need to work on right now. If you could properly apply The Pareto Principle to your project, you would strike gold; So you better start digging.
If you are strapped for time, ruthlessly cut parts of your project that don’t matter in the end. If you foresee that there are going to be a lot of complications with a certain task, and if you do prioritize it the best you can do is mediocre, drop it. Work on something more worthwhile that will have a bigger impact on your project as a whole.
For example, when I was a part of a 10-day hackathon, my team understood that we wouldn’t have a working AI prototype ready for our presentation so we abandoned it. Instead of trying to make a prototype, we focused on the datasets that our AI would use and how our AI would work with that data. This was far more realistic and had a much better impact on our presentation. Rather than present something that doesn't work, provide a proof of concept that does work and prioritize that.
Self-explanatory, but I can’t stress this enough. Get feedback on your work early. During the hackathon I mentioned earlier, my user interface went through 3 different iterations. Each iteration, I thought that it was perfect and couldn’t be improved. After I got feedback though, I drastically changed my UI to become more user-friendly and better looking. Good feedback is truly the only way to gain exponential growth. It’s something that people will drill into your head, but they do it because its true. Trust me, the impact that good feedback has can be substantial, especially in such a short timeframe.
If I do all of this, then what happens?
Success, hopefully. You can grow your chances of success dramatically if you internalize these lessons, and you will see results. It’s all about how intentional you are about your success and optimizing everything that you can that is under your control.