College Group Projects Are Great Life Lessons

Last week’s Courier Herald column:

Most Georgia colleges have completed their spring commencement exercises, with high schools set to award diplomas to new graduates over the next couple of weeks.  It’s a great time of year to both celebrate the achievements earned, while looking forward to new opportunities and challenges ahead.

For those who have just finished college, hopefully you are now better prepared for the “real world” you are about to enter.  Spoiler alert: It’s not that much more real than the everyday problems, obstacles, relationships, and stresses you’ve been dealing with throughout your adolescence and young adult lives.  It’s just the situations are going to change, with the stakes and often the consequences – good and bad – are about to increase.

There was one part of college that introduced me into real-life expectations more than most, and that was the infamous “group project”.  I’m sure we had one or two along the way in high school, but in college, there were several that made up much of a course’s work and grade.  Thus, the stakes and consequences of a class were no longer based on my own studying or recall, but on the cumulative work of others.

By now most of us are familiar with how this too often works.  Or should we say “works”?  Because there always seems to be at least one group member that is willing to test the college version of the prisoners’ dilemma.  One person who refuses to do their work will generally be covered by the others, but if everyone refuses to do the work, everyone fails.

Some people unfortunately used this collegiate experience to learn that you can get by in life with showing up when convenient, talking a good game, disappearing for the hard parts, but reemerging again when it’s time to split the rewards.  Graduates should understand they’re not leaving these folks behind in college.  In fact, they’ll experience them throughout their lives.

We all want to believe that they’ll eventually get what they deserve, but that often is not the case.  It’s quite easy to thrive in modern society by drafting off the efforts of others.

The one group project I remember most from college was in my capstone business class.  We knew from the syllabus that the project would be a major undertaking, and that it would constitute a large portion of our final grade.  We didn’t pick our groups until the semester was well underway, however.

This delay allowed some time to observe the others in the class.  Having suffered through numerous other projects before this one, I was prepared the day the professor instructed us to select our groups.  Three of us had already pre-negotiated that we would join together if it was up to us. 

The only wrinkle was that the professor asked for groups of four.  We quickly agreed upon the 4th and divvied up who would do what.

As fate would have it, that fourth student was overcommitted and having a horrible semester.  She was late on a couple of things and missed a meeting or two with the group.  She did stay in communication, however, and suggested remedies or tradeoffs each time life threw a wrench into her plans.  As such, we didn’t mind at all picking up slack as needed, and she did come through for us as we approached the final presentation with a few things that we hadn’t expected but added overall value.

Our group came up with a decidedly different answer to the question imposed for the exercise than any other group in the class had done.  It was clear that some groups barely understood the assignment or had put any real effort into it.  Most presentations were filled with the popular buzz words of the day.  They were replete with optimistic marketing jargon but devoid of any financial projections or budgetary constraints.

Our presentation – to shut down an entire division of a Fortune 500 company and exit an entire continent – was roundly hated by the class.  It was dark, and somewhat depressing for the outlook of the company.  Real constraints on the company’s financial position as well as external regulations on foreign owned companies in the market we were studying made it impossible to operate at a profit.  Exiting was, unfortunately, the only way to stop the losses.

We got an A.  Many other groups fell well short of that. 

A few lessons were learned that carry with me to this day.  Popular decisions that reflect current group think are often the wrong decisions.  When working in groups, choose your group members carefully whenever possible.  Do your homework, and always check to see if the numbers will back up your ideas.  Pick up others when they’re having a hard time, but make sure you can discern between excuses and actual events.  And when you know you have the right answer, even if it is unpopular, deliver it and execute.  To quote a boss I had many years after that class, “Bad news doesn’t get better with age.”

Congratulations to the collegiate class of 2023.  As you move forward into your next project of life, choose your groups carefully, carry your share of the load, find the right answers, and then execute.

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