Want to Help Me Create a Protocol for How and When to Collaborate, How and When to Work Alone?


groupwork the relaxed way jacob botter cc Want to Help Me Create a Protocol for How and When to Collaborate, How and When to Work Alone?Well, that’s a mouthful of a blogpost title, but let me explain.

Recently, I ran a couple of posts asking for your views on group-work and collaboration. You responded with great passion, and great ideas.

Then, last week, I gave a couple of speeches on introversion, one to a business audience and another to a group of school administrators. I talked about introverts’ capacity to work alone and how this aids in creativity; I discussed the current fad for group work. But I talked about a lot of other things too.

Yet I noticed that during the Q and A, it was this question of creativity, solitude, and collaboration that people kept coming back to. The topic pushed people’s buttons. As it always does.

Some of these people were extroverts, and they seemed to agree that our society has gone a little mad in its love for group work. They were hungry for new ideas. They wanted guidance on how to structure workplaces and classrooms to get the best of everyone’s brain, and to stimulate everyone’s creative muscles. They didn’t want to abandon group work, and I don’t think they should; but they wanted to know how much was too much, and how to structure it well.

So I want to design a protocol that teachers and business leaders can follow — guidelines that will help them structure and balance individual and group work in a sane way. My goal is to distribute this protocol on my website, at my speaking engagements, and beyond.

We have the ability to make a real difference in children’s and employees’ lives.

So: Do you have any ideas? Any guidelines you’d want to see included? Any guiding principles? All ideas welcome, no matter how wacky or contrarian. We’re still at the embryonic first draft stage here. THANK YOU!


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  1. Darren on 04.11.2011 at 06:04 (Reply)

    Some initial thoughts Susan;

    A chairperson should be appointed by the teacher or facilitator - not elected by the group. Otherwise the risk is that the most extrovert person will get themselves appointed and take over. Over the course of a semester, everyone should have a shot at chairing a group.

    Chair is given clear responsibilities, including:

    • Setting the format in which work happens and is reported. For example subdividing into pairs would suit many people better and be more productive – introverts often work better on a one-to-one basis, even (or sometimes especially) if paired with an extrovert. Everyone gets chance to comment on the format – Introverts can then give themselves a safety net by asking/suggesting working in pairs. Each pair then feeds their work back to the group and the group work presented as a whole.

    • I hate being asked to ‘choose a partner’ so this pairing should be done either by the chair or randomly.

    • Everyone gets a chance to speak. Chair is responsible for ensuring people are asked for their contributions in turn and can speak without interruption.

    • In summing up before presentation – everyone is again asked for their opinions on the conclusions drawn. If the bossier members have taken over during the session, the quieter ones now have a chance to redress the balance.

  2. Grace on 04.11.2011 at 08:46 (Reply)

    In a classroom setting, I am a big fan of having group members submit a short response stating what their contribution to the group was and what the others in the group did. I also believe that there should be some aspect of the grade that is linked to individual contributions and work. This (in my experience) helps to prevent some slacking and also makes kids who are antsy about grades (like me) feel a little bit more in control without having to take control of the whole group.

  3. Mary on 04.11.2011 at 10:25 (Reply)

    I work in a liberal arts college & we have way too much group work in our department. I hate it! It is dominated by extroverts and they of course are thrilled to talk non-stop and then to present the groups ideas. Introverts (although we are in the minority) are completely shut out.
    I would prefer advance notice of the topic of discussion and a chance to work alone or in very small groups (2 or 3 people not 10). Also, extroverts are frequently thanked by other extroverts for their great efforts. I know I sound resentful because I am, it’s very frustrating.
    I love the idea of individuals bringing their ideas to the group after advance notice - even a chance to present to the whole group.

    1. Susan Cain on 04.11.2011 at 11:32 (Reply)

      Thx much, Mary.

      And two follow-up questions:

      1. Are people really made to work in groups of TEN? Doesn’t everyone find that unwieldy?

      2. You say you work in a liberal arts department. So are the groups you refer to groups that you, the people who work there, participate in, or are you referring to groupwork for students? If the former, would be curious to hear specific examples of what kinds of things you do in a group.

  4. Szarka on 04.11.2011 at 12:58 (Reply)

    Susan, the software development project team that I work on has about twenty members, though we flex down to numerous sub-groups as needed. I’m told by my IS graduate school classmates that teams of 50 aren’t rare.

    You may want to look at Agile Development, and one of its subsets, eXtreme Programming, for some protocols being used by the software development world. There’s a quick video presenting the basics of Agile, “Scrum Master in Under Ten Minutes”.

    I like the aspect of eXtreme Programming where programmers work in teams of two, taking turns typing and directing, but problem-solving together. Back when I was a construction architect, we’d fall into this pattern when solving other kinds of complex problems, because although two minds are usually better than one, and can drive each other farther, faster, and with fewer distractions from both the worker mind and the rest of the office.

  5. Zia Khan on 04.11.2011 at 16:25 (Reply)

    For best outcomes you have to have both - group activity and separately, individual effort. In the design process, problem-solving or idea generation entails a non-linear approach where individuals contribute independently developed divergent ideas, group gathers to share, build upon each others ideas and generate more; some time for individual reflection; group edits with a view towards convergence to the best and then prototype to decide on the right one. I believe Edward de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats may have something to say about working in groups.

  6. EJ on 04.11.2011 at 18:25 (Reply)

    I personally prefer always having the option to work alone, though I welcome the chance to meet with others to discuss my work (though it can be scary too, especially if it’s “too early” in the ideas process, or if there’s no advanced notice of a meeting). When you work alone the problems that can come up are 1. failure to notice errors, 2. disconnection from the broader view of the project, or 3. missing out on another person’s potentially good idea. So, for me, and probably for a lot of introverts, the ideal working situation is one where you do your own work but come together to give and receive feedback. These meetings would be best as casual affairs, where people are not required to present if their work is not “stuck” or if it’s not developed enough yet (though I realize that this could lead to problems…I guess it’s just the casual and playful nature of the ideal meeting that I want to stress). I also have no problem with some people working together, and then the groups and individuals can come together to share feedback-I actually think that could be interesting, because then the individuals could learn to appreciate what groups can accomplish, and groups can learn to appreciate what individuals can accomplish.

    Something I’d like to stress is the need for plenty of notice for meetings and deadlines, and for these to be respected as much as possible (last-minute switches should be kept to a minimum, and regular schedules are appreciated). If issues come up at a none-meeting time, I’d prefer an email or phone call to see if we can resolve the issue without a meeting.

    If I am going to be part of a group, I want clearly defined roles, or at least clearly defined primary roles (I’m definitely open to helping each other out as the project progresses and as certain people’s strengths are needed in different areas of the project). As an architecture graduate student, I am constantly in undefined groups, and a group full of equal designers doesn’t work well for introverts. Extroverts seem to fair better, but almost every group ends up having serious issues. I don’t think pairs is necessarily better than a slighty larger group (except for scheduling purposes), but if pairs is the only choice, then I find it so much easier to be paired with a fellow introvert, because we tend to structure our schedules so that we do some work on our own and then come together to discuss it. We also tend to both want some processing and thinking time after meetings before we jump back into things.

    This probably goes along with the wish for clearly defined roles, but in a group (especially a larger group) I want some aspect of the project that is mine. I just won’t care about the project if I don’t feel ownership over some part of it.

    I know these points are a bit all over the place, but hopefully you can sort through them to find something useful for the draft. Good luck, I’m excited about it! Hopefully you can share it with us at some point.

  7. EJ on 04.11.2011 at 18:30 (Reply)

    One more thing: I actually love meetings with people who are experts in a different field from my own. Collaboration seems so much more useful when it’s for the purpose of bringing together knowledge that no single person shares. I don’t know how to turn that into a guideline, but maybe you’ll see how.

  8. K.M. on 05.11.2011 at 00:22 (Reply)

    (Apologies in advance for the length of this; I’m sort of working it out for myself as I go along.)

    I’m a grad student in philosophy, and while obviously a lot of what we do goes on in our own heads, it’s easy for non-philosophers to overlook that Western philosophy as we know it can be said to have started with a bunch of awkward conversations in an outdoor Athenian marketplace. Philosophy might be one of the most introvert-friendly disciplines in the academy, but you can’t really do it alone, at least not well. And a lot of what professional philosophers do now is go to conferences to bounce their ideas off each other. I’m given to understand that too often this really just devolves into a lot of combative posturing, but still, the point is to be shown things you didn’t see, and to show others what they’ve missed.

    So I think I’m just reiterating something EJ said. Maybe you need to be able to go into group work ready to ask questions about your own work, and ready to maybe hear things you’d rather not. The most fulfilling “group work” I’ve done as a student has never been stuff like preparing a poster presentation in a group or writing a paper as a group or doing busy work exercises as a group, but stuff like fiction writing workshops where each person has a turn being the focus of everyone else’s attention, and hopefully there’s some investment in being kind to others so that others are inclined to be kind to you — but of course that has to go hand in hand with honesty, because that’s how everyone is able to walk away having gained something.

    EJ’s point about clearly defined roles makes me think of the most extroverted thing I did as an undergrad, which was to audition for a play for the first time in my life — in my second to last semester. I was taking a playwriting class at the time, and we had just been told that a serious theater artist should at least dabble in the stuff s/he doesn’t specialize in. An actor should learn her way around lights and set construction. A writer should know what it’s like to have to bring someone else’s words to life. Despite what I’m certain was one of the most awkward auditions ever (I had the combined blessing and curse of auditioning opposite two staggeringly beautiful women who also happened to be arguably the best actors at our college), I ended up in the play, partly because I was a fencer and the director decided he wanted to cover scene changes with sword fights.

    Between being in that play (Much Ado About Nothing) and later seeing a 10-minute play I wrote acted out with costumes and fancily-lit backdrops and all, I decided that one of the most fun, most fulfilling things in the world was to get a bunch of people who specialize in different things together and give them a shared goal. Your feeling of having contributed something to the greater good can depend in large part on knowing that only you could have made the particular contribution you did. If you put a bunch of high school freshmen together who probably don’t know what they’re best at yet, and you don’t bother to help them figure that out and just tell them in vague terms that they all have to pitch in “equally” to a dry report, then of course you’re not going to get interesting results and of course they’re not going to like it.

    I don’t think you can just throw people into group work and tell them to build something from the ground up. I think it only works well when people already have some idea of what they’re bringing to the table, whether the intent is for those contributions to be combined in a specific way, as in theater, or for everyone to take turns examining everyone else’s contributions with a critical eye in the name of mutual improvement, as in philosophy conferences or creative writing classes.

    I don’t know if any of that is useful, but I’m glad you asked the question. I’ve never really articulated all of this before. It’s always interesting to be made aware that I had certain thoughts that I didn’t know I had. Thanks, Susan!

  9. Susan Cain on 05.11.2011 at 14:54 (Reply)

    These are SUCH helpful responses — thank you! I’m going to pool them together with the comments to the previous posts on group work and use them to develop a draft guideline. As soon as I have something, I’ll post it here for your comments. (In the meantime, if you have any additional ideas, just post them here. I will see them all regardless of when you post them.) THANKS again.

  10. Elaine on 05.11.2011 at 20:26 (Reply)

    I think you begin with what the students are to learn and then determine whether or not group work is the most effective way for them to do so.

  11. Shanon on 06.11.2011 at 22:01 (Reply)

    I have to agree with K.M… not even those of us who prefer to work alone can work in a vacuum… I enjoy hearing what others think, and it makes my work that much richer in content…

    However, I do struggle with group work a lot…

    I like the idea of a shared leadership role… in my workplace, we rotate chairing duties of our team, so everyone gets the chance to take on some leadership…

    The most important thing for me to feel comfortable is time to prepare my thoughts… advance notice of meetings is great…

    My most productive thinking comes from quiet contemplation and consideration of many facts and points of view after a lively session of brainstorming and/or discussion, which is usually led by extroverts… therefore, my extrovert co-workers tend to think I have nothing to contribute in the moment of the meeting… I’d like to see a structure that would enable introverts to think and contribute after the meeting… I really enjoy forum-type environments like this… some workplaces (unfortunately, mine doesn’t yet, but they are working on it) have forums where employees can discuss certain topics, keep the momentum of the meeting going, and invite introverts to feel more involved and valued…

    I especially dislike “facilitated group work”… meetings that last all day with a facilitator where everyone shouts out their ideas and they are written down on a flipchart… or acted out in a skit… these day-long sessions leave me feeling overwhelmed especially when you are with unfamiliar people in a new setting which may be uncomfortable… the energy I need just to get through the day doesn’t leave much for critical thinking and I end up feeling unable to contribute very much…

    In terms of a facilitated day, small breaks throughout the day help a lot… I can take a few minutes in the bathroom or hall to process ideas… I would like to see more individual thinking within the group setting, for example, introduce a problem or question and invite individuals to take a few minutes to jot down their thoughts… a lot of the exercises created for days like these (skits, shout-out-the-answer systems, group-led discussions) seem to focus on extroverted strengths…

    I am very fortunate to have an introverted boss… she is very understanding of the different strengths that we can bring to the table and often is willing to consider alternative work arrangements, such as working from home, or teleconferencing to a meeting (it’s nice to sit in your comfy home office wearing fuzzy slippers to a teleconference)…

    Thanks for the great question, Susan!

  12. Dan on 16.12.2011 at 16:56 (Reply)

    I would add (unless I missed it) that I really enjoy brainstorming but primarily as a stimulation. I don’t like being required to contribute, though I frequently do, or to have to make a decision in the session. In typical Introvert fashion, I like to retreat to solitude after the session and then process it all. That’s when I come up with my best ideas; not during the session.

    Infrequent, short group meetings are useful for coordinating work and setting direction. Members can then touch base with other members as required to keep things moving. Other than that, heads down actually doing work seems to get the job done. This of course assumes that the actual work is not social (Software Engineer here) in nature.

    What works best for social oriented work? I wouldn’t have a clue. I just know that I would hate it ;-) A former boss of mine always said, “if you not typing or talking, you’re not working”. So much for just thinking. He worked a lot..including occasional typing.

  13. HB on 05.02.2012 at 02:06 (Reply)

    Dear Susan, How would you suggest a high school structure class room participation that values participation so highly it lowers the quiet persons grades. What would you say to a school that stresses classroom participation without teaching the students classroom etiquette? The school is a private “Progressive” school that highly values individuality, diversity, and originality. FYI, I gave your book to the Upper School Dean of Academics. If you are conducting teacher seminars, can you privately send me your contract terms? Thank you, HB

  14. Elaine on 05.02.2012 at 14:28 (Reply)

    Students should address each other with the same level of respect that is given to the teacher. High school classrooms should not become places where the loudest or rudest person rules.

    I hope a teacher has better things to do than count the number of times a students speaks. It is what is said that matters.

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