Regardless of the program in which you enroll, or the types of classes you choose to take, group project work will be an inevitable part of your business school experience.
On the one hand, this is a great thing – as the old adage goes, “Many hands make light work.” Tackling a Net Present Value calculation using the Free Cash Flow to Equity method and adding the Terminal Value after unlevering the beta is just as painful in practice as it sounds. When you’re alongside others who are also trying to muddle their way through this sort of stuff, your pain level is mitigated significantly.
On the other hand, however, group work will be an inevitable source of misunderstandings, scheduling difficulties, and enough all-around difficulty to make you wonder from time to time if it would just be easier and more efficient to tackle assignments by yourself.
Still, in many classes, the “solo option” isn’t an option at all. You’re going to have to play nicely with others, like it or not. And ultimately, your experience and study skills will be better for it – when you put a former consultant, a banker, a military officer, a teacher, and a Chilean entrepreneur in one room, lots of ideas flow from lots of directions, and the final product is far better than whatever any one of them could have done on his or her own.
When you wind up on a specific group, whether by choice or by professorial fiat, remember to:
(1) Stop and take stock of the situation first. Feel out the group dynamic around you – what are everyone’s priorities? Who is absolutely obsessed with maxing out her GPA, and who is just trying to race home every night to see his kids? Who is stressing all the time about full-time job offers, and who is daydreaming about a side gig doing academic tutoring in Boston? Who is the strong personality who needs to be the loudest voice in the room, and who is just going to ‘go along to get along?’ Once you feel like you’ve got a good grasp of the personalities and skill sets around you, the next important step is:
(2) Find out where you can add value, and then execute. If you’re the Excel ninja on your team, see if someone needs help dragging formulas across the different sheets on the spreadsheet. If everyone is too fixated on the numbers in your case, see if you can handle the qualitative parts of the write-up. If everyone is just sort of drifting, and no one seems sure who is going to hand in the hard copy at the start of class, or take lead role in the discussion, offer to take on a role as a coordinator. This will test your managerial abilities – can you delegate effectively, or will you just take everything on yourself and claim martyrdom? Can you use deadlines to keep the team on a track, and enforce a quorum rule for meetings? Once you’ve found your niche, remember to:
(3) Relax and stop worrying if someone on your team isn’t pulling his or her weight. Now, if you’re on a VERY small team (i.e. just you and a partner) this advice would not apply. But if you are part of a three, four, or even five-person group, and one member just completely flakes, it’s not the end of the world. Really. I’ve seen people waste more time and energy thinking, complaining, or cajoling an errant project member than they would have spent just covering down on the missing piece of the project by themselves. (Now, if this were a long-term work situation, I would never give this ‘see no evil’ sort of counsel, but in a temporary situation, it’s not worth the aggravation). And lastly,
(4) Find time for a little bit of group bonding outside of the work routine. Just because this is business school, this doesn’t have to be some sort of cheesy corporate retreat with trust falls and ropes courses. It might just be a trip to a Starbucks or a Dunkin Donuts now and again to talk about anything other than academics. For instance, my Advanced Corporate Finance group scheduled occasional lunches together throughout the semester, and it was a great way for us to unwind and get to know one another in a context that didn’t involve equity valuations or case write-ups. This sort of social gathering not only made our experience more fun, but it also led to even better group dynamics and results for each of us in class.