Like many people around the world, my workweek is now entirely remote. The adjustment hasn’t been extreme for me, as I’ve worked from home for the past 15-years. However, now that nearly everyone is working remotely, I’m having to accommodate the use a variety of meeting tools.
In preparing for a remote meeting, I recently searched for Microsoft Teams on my computer, as it is not a meeting tool I had previously used. To my delight, one of the first search results under “Team” was a paper written by one of my former students, and current CEO of Active Life Scientific, Peter Burks.
Peter wrote the short essay, to help his peers work more effectively in a small group setting. Given the number of people who are currently collaborating in virtual groups, which can be fraught with social loafing and passive aggressive behavior, Peter’s words of wisdom are very timely.
Peter Burks (left) with Active Life Scientific’s Steven Dorfman, Matt Harris and Alex Proctor
The Bot Becomes The Teacher
Peter was an exceptional PhD candidate. He wrote the team optimization paper for the benefit of future students of my Leadership class, which involved an intense group project. Over eight weeks, the students worked in small groups, running a virtual company and competing against each other in a business simulation. The students also competed against a company run by a bot.
Though Peter did well in the class, he wasn’t satisfied with the results his team achieved in the simulation. Despite taking a rigorous course load to complete his doctorate in Chemistry, Peter asked if he could participate in the class the following quarter and act as the bot.
Peter, not surprisingly, won the simulation the second time around. Week after week, the students marveled at how the “bot” seemed to make all the right moves. Ultimately, the students had a more enriching experience than simply competing with a software program, as Peter shared his insights in a presentation at the end of the quarter, explaining the insights he gained over two quarters of manipulating the simulation.
Lessons For A Virtual Team
Though Peter’s paper was intended to guide teams which met in person, his advice is even more relevant to virtual teams which can not leverage the inherent advantages of in-person interactions. I’ve excerpted, and lightly edited, Peter’s paper below.
“Life gives you a syllabus, but the hardest assignment is not on it. In the real world you must constantly work in teams, which prove time and time again to be the most critical part of succeeding after graduation. The Technology Management Program (TMP) at UCSB was developed to help bridge the gap between school and the real world, which means the classes usually include team projects. Learning how to work with others successfully is the most difficult aspect of earning at TMP certificate.
Although it may seem simpler to work in a group because there is less work per person, it is a common misconception. Working in a group and working in a group where your performance is measured are two entirely different concepts. When your success depends on those in your group, the intensity level rises tremendously, and the dynamic of the group is more forward and to the point. To prepare yourself for this wild ride, it is important to listen to those who have come before you, because you will NOT be allowed to choose your own group, it will be assigned to you, and it is up to you to make the best of it. Hopefully, my input can help you structure a team bound for success.”
1. Define Cadence
“It may seem difficult to be stern on the first meeting, but it is imperative to establish when and where future meetings will be held and how the group will communicate through the project.
At this point two things generally happen: 1) everyone agrees to a specific time to meet and it is assigned, or 2) it is realized that the group may have to meet in different segments. If the latter is the case, make sure to assign a person the responsibility of communicating between the two sub-groups. By setting a schedule on the first day, it promotes group accountability and sets a serious tone for how future meetings will go, which will help the group get on task faster and therefore accomplish more.”
2. Establish Leadership
“Within the first few meetings, the group should: establish leadership, promote respect, and seek inclusion.
Establishing leadership is usually natural but can sometimes require electing a leader. Often, there will be a person in the group who has natural leadership abilities, which the rest of the group will sense. These people usually take over the leadership role without the group noticing or caring.
However, this is not always the case, sometimes no one steps up to be a leader and other times the person who does step up is too aggressive for a productive group dynamic. In these cases, the group should elect a leader, who will help run the future meetings. The most important role the leader plays is to mediate between group members, maintain accountability and ensure everyone has a chance to provide input.”
3. Encourage Mutual Respect
“Promoting respect is easier said than done but plays a major in the success of the group. Therefore, respecting each other’s opinions and comments is absolutely mandatory.
Agreeing with the person is completely different from listening to them. Make it clear to the group that respecting what everyone has to say is not negotiable. A high level of respect among the group leads to better ideas, more productive work, and overall success. No one person will always have the best answer, in fact the best answers usually come from a compromise between two differing opinions. That compromise would never be reached if group members did not respect each other’s opinions. Remember, respectful debate generally brings out the best in a group.”
4. Demand Inclusivity
“An extension of respecting your teammates is making sure everyone has a chance to speak, especially in the earlier meetings. As disappointing as it is for those of us who are gregarious extroverts, just because we are the loudest does NOT mean we are the smartest.
I found it incredibly helpful to constantly ask everyone in the group what they thought about each decision and why. After about three meetings I began to realize that some of the group members who we originally tagged as ‘shy or uninterested’ were actually the smartest and most equipped people in the group. Not everyone dives into the pool ‘voice first,’ many people jump in ‘brain first,’ meaning they like to analyze the situation, think it through, and then make a comment.
If you don’t push for everyone to express their opinion, you might overlook the best opinion in the group. Therefore, always ask for each group member’s opinion so that everyone can speak, and the best ideas can then be surfaced and discussed.
By pushing for everyone to speak and respecting their ideas, diversity of thought will blossom within the group. This diversity can become the group’s greatest asset, because it allows many brains to function as one. Respecting and giving serious consideration to the thoughts of everyone in the group will give you a distinct advantage over your competitors.”
Mastering Group Dynamics Is A Core Life Skill
Peter concluded his paper by noting that, “Every group is different and being able to deal with the changes in each group will give you a huge advantage in the professional world some day. The ability to adjust to different group dynamics is not a natural skill, it is a learned one. Take advantage of the opportunities you get to work in groups while still in school because they are a great learning opportunity. The more groups you participate in, the more prepared you will be for the group projects that really matter, like work, relationships, and family.
Each step of the way, please remember to respect your teammates and promote diversity of thought, because the more solutions a group considers, the higher the probability they choose the correct solution.”
Peter is truly an exceptional person. Who takes the time out of their busy studies to write a paper to help their peers get more from their education?
Peter hasn’t stopped doing exceptional things. His company is changing lives with its proprietary nanotech bone health device. For decades, it was thought that bone health was determined by how much bone a person has, or their bone density. Active Life’s research has proven that a protein-based “bone glue” plays a critical role in the strength of bone, despite being “invisible” on a bone density test.
Realizing that there is no clinical measurement of “bone glue,” the company is pioneering a new class of medical devices to measure this previously unavailable information via a simple in-office test.