Working on Teams (Tue Sep 12, lecture 4)

Homework due for today

  1. Monkey: Read the article Management Time: Who’s got the monkey. It’s a classic of personal and team effectiveness. Think about it and your gut reaction to it. Do you understand it from your own experience? Have you tried to put the monkey on someone else? Has a peer or manager or professor tried to put a monkey on your back. Do you think the perspective of this article is constructive or manipulative? Deliverable: Submit your response.
  2. Working in Teams Read the “Working In Teams” section, right below this. Last time I got feedback from the teams that they would have liked more help in being effective as a team. I would like your personal feedback on what I wrote. Is this all common sense? Have you already had lots of experience working in teams? Did you see anything that you really disagreed with? Name one or two things that you would like to learn more about, didn’t understand, or found particularly interesting. Are you prepared to use these techniques? Deliverable: Brief response to the writeup addressing these or other questions.

Working in Teams

NB You're not trying to become best friends with your teammates. You're trying to get something done!

In all my courses I ask students to form teams to work on projects together. I have seen them succeed and have seen them struggle. These notes are based on this hard won experience with student run teams.


A key challenge is to establish the “norms” or the “culture” of your team. In a college course, which runs only 13 weeks, this happens at an unnaturally accelerated pace. This means that everyone needs to pitch in to it a fun and useful experience for everyone. Here are some tips:

  • One of the big challenges is to find time to meet, so try to be flexible.
  • As a team, choose a fixed time and place to meet every week. Be flexible.
  • Your first meeting is very important.
  • Each member honestly say what your personal goals are for this course:
    • This course is my most important, I really care and will do anything to be successful
    • Or, I have a heavy courseload, I will do what I can but I have to balance
    • Or, I am perfectly happy with a “B”, don’t expect intensity from me.
  • If everyone knows each other’s perspective this will set expectations
  • Each member of the team is responsible for their own work and for the welbeing of the team
  • Talk about how you will make decisions:
    • Democratic vote
    • Decide or chose a leader to have final say
    • Divide up the domain (front end/back end/ etc) and assign it to people.


Desipite everyone’s best intention and good will, there is usually some small amount of disagreement or conflict. This is totally normal and to be expected. In fact when you see it happening you can think to yourself: “Aha, there it is, I was expecting this and I can roll with it.” But very occasionally things can suddenly become really challenging. Here are some tips:

  • Working in teams can suddenly become CHALLENGING
  • There is a non-zero probability that you will not get along with someone in your team
  • Be ready for this and take it in stride. “Whoops, there it is!”
  • You are not married, you are not best friends, you are just working on this project, now
  • Don’t try to resolve the conflict in email, it never works!
  • Fight the reluctance to have to sit with someone and talk about an awkward subject.


I will often assign you to meet for 1 or 2 hours with your teammates to work on your product, or brainstorm your product, or decide on a direction. I have observed the team mates sitting around, very motivated to have a good meeting but not knowing really where to start or what to talk about. Here are some tips:

  • Ask each other to articulate their understanding of the product. This is called “getting alignment”. You will be surprised to know that it is a very common mistake for a team not to realize that one or half the team is thinking of a totally different (or at least, significantly differnt) concept than the others. “I never thought of this as a free service”, “I thought we agreed that this product is specifically for parents with children” or “I heard the user interviews and no one ever said that they would be willing to pay for this product!”.

  • Do not sweep lack of alignment under the rug. If you detect that one or more team members are thinking differently, bring that up and discuss it. Do the hard (and sometimes a little awkward) work of trying to reconcile the difference, or persuading, or letting yourself be persuaded. It will really pay off with a better result.

  • It is not unusual and quite healthy if one of the team members volunteers to kind of lead the meeting. Perhaps that person will write notes on the whiteboard, or encourage members who are quiet to speak up, or even to try to divvy up the work by asking for example, “John, would you be able to design the survey?” and so on. You can be that person or you can be supportive of whoever takes on that role. Don’t force it, it often happens by itself.

  • Keeping time: A meeting often begins with a few minutes of social talk, and that’s fine. But remember that everyone in the meeting has a lot of other obligations and so everyone must contribute to keeping the meeting on track. It is very useful to begin the meeting with a summary of why you are meeting

Here are some totally made up random examples of meeting starters
  • “We are going to look over our current list of trello stories and try to reprioritize if necessary, and have each person sign up for some so everyone can know who is doing what”

  • “We are going to look over the notes we took at our last converation with users and together see what we want to change as a result of that”

  • “We have 2 weeks to go. We are going to review exactly what tasks are left to make sure they are all covered.””

  • “We are not really happy with the product idea we have so far. Lets take 30 minutes to brainstorm. First let’s summarize what we have right now. What other variations or ideas do we have?”

(cocktail-free) cocktail party

What's the point? Just a quick, noisy, way to find out something about your classmates, interesting peope and maybe future teammates!

Here we go!

  • Go outside, line up into two rows of 20, sitting on the floor, facing another student
  • You will have been provided an email with a series of numbered questions
  • There will be a timekeeper calling out question number
  • Introduce yourself to the person opposite to you and talk for 2 minutes about your answers to the numbered question
  • When the time keeper calls time, one row of people shift left, and the person on the end runs to the other end.

Typical Questions

  • “What do you remember most clearly about the house lived in when you were 1 year old”
  • “Which of your ancestors would you most like to meet”
  • Stuff like that!

Next Class