contributed by Laura C. Busse, KYCID, IIDA [interior designer / color enthusiast / recycling nut]
Group learning at the university level has become more popular due to the fact that working as an individual is a more passive learning experience than working with a team. More often than not, the extra stress of personality clashes, divvying up tasks, and formulating an action plan coaxes groans out of students when confronted by a professor’s group assignment. However, the experience gained by rubbing elbows and butting heads at the university level will provide students an accurate window into of the real world of design and will make them more attractive hires to employers. It really does take a village…
One Is A Lonely Number
The traditional teaching / learning process often makes it difficult to transfer and apply knowledge to real world problems. Due to academic structure, very few universities are able to prepare students to participate in multi-disciplinary teams, allowing for learning only in one’s respective discipline.
As a young designer enters the workforce, many of the projects that he or she encounters require collaboration from a wide array of disciplines. Interior designers, architects, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, contractors, owners, tenants, and clients all must work together to complete even the most basic projects. Progress meetings, conference calls, and email chains are all tangible evidence of group work amongst professionals.
Though college and university programs require predominantly individual exercises, the real world requires one to play nice with differing personalities to achieve business objectives. Team projects within the interior design curriculum are important because there is never just one correct answer exists for design problems. Teams provide the opportunity draw upon many perspectives to find multiple solutions.
Part of the challenge of working in a group relates to personality differences and conflicts. One of my most interesting experiences at the university level involved completing an abbreviated Myers-Brigg test. The instructor used the results to subdivide the class into teams with members of varying personality types.
Identifying the behavioral traits of my team members was quite useful when our collaboration process began. Each team invariably had a mix of introverts, extroverts, people pleasers, task masters, planners, and more spontaneous, last-minute thinkers.
Obviously, some traits are more favorable and beneficial to a group dynamic than others. This experience taught each member of the group how other students – and the rest of the world – perceive and react to certain behaviors. More importantly, it taught each of us how to deal with those reactions and even be proactive when confronted with certain personality types.
Divide & Conquer
One way to have a successful team experience is to approach the activity as if each collaborator is an individual, separate company. In the real world, professionals bring varied experiences and ideas to a project, and the personalities and goals of each contributor will be a little different.
A project team will set parameters and goals, divide responsibilities, create a timeline, and keep minutes of meetings to distribute as follow up to the group. Using this same approach at the university level will facilitate success. Transferring these principles works because, while students and professionals are performing different tasks, the group dynamic is similar.
Meeting deadlines when part of team is taxing since one is required to consider viewpoints different than your own, but some of my most successful group projects incorporated check-in points during the semester and utilized each team member’s strengths.
Two Heads Are Better Than One
The Council for Interior Design Accreditation [CIDA] recognizes the importance of teams and group work. Standard 1 for Curriculum Structure insists “teaching and learning methods MUST incorporate the experience of team approaches to design solutions and experiences that provide interaction with multiple disciplines (for example, code specialists, engineers, architects, artists, behaviorists) representing a variety of points of view and perspectives on design problems”.
Despite resistance from most architectural and interior design students, my experience of collaborating during a senior studio proved to be more closely aligned with actual job scenarios than individual studio projects. An interior design student might be tempted to gloss over these pearls of wisdom, but consider how the experience will make you a more valuable employee upon graduation.
You’ll be ahead of your peers if you take on an active leadership role within a group. Most teams are assigned a project manager or team leader, the perfect role to give a student a taste of management responsibilities. Additionally, group work at the university level affords the opportunity to hone the skills necessary to make effective presentations to an actual audience. Practical learning also occurs when one students explains a process or idea to another student within the group. The ability to disseminate knowledge sharpens a person’s facilitator skills and makes one a more effective communicator.
In 2001, The Journal of Business and Training Education devoted an entire issue to group work and team projects. The overriding theme was best summarized by a CEO: “Group work is an organizational fact of Life. Companies stress group activities to produce higher quality work products. Students who work well in groups many have significant advantages in job performance”. When a new graduate resists participating or contributing to a group project, employers notice.
Don’t Get Lost In Translation
Some students have trouble transitioning from the university setting to the workplace. One of the main challenges is the reward and evaluation systems. As a student, striving for high marks on the transcript or completing papers and exams is most tangible form of evaluation. One’s performance as an employee is often assessed as part of the overall team success of the group. Occasionally, a promotion or raise can result. Team skills acquired in school will provide long term benefits.
A successful team member will be tested in qualitative ways. The ability to resolve issues, solve problems, and overcome barriers is essential. Teams will also require excellent communication skills… Listening, speaking, and expressing disagreements. As a group produces better output, each individual improves his/her interpersonal skills.
Whether at the university or the professional level, teamwork requires relationship building. Participating in a team during school lays the foundation for a cooperative nature or work ethic to future employers. An important lesson: Demonstrating team partnership as student can easily transition to teamwork in the workplace.
Working together as a team often results in success on a grander scale than individual success. Establishing rapport and good relationships with team members make future team activities even better, resulting in higher marks for students and meeting goals in the workplace.
By random chance, I was paired with another student during a second year studio for a small team project. Resistant at first to work with someone polar opposite to my personality, the end result was a thoroughly considered and very effective design for a family in a high-rise apartment. The experience of questioning the problem, working through the design dilemmas, and compromising on a solution proved to be a preview or warm-up for numerous experiences on the job.
Sheer laziness keeps many individuals from experiencing the true benefit of teamwork, yet some of the tensions inherent in the collaboration process can produce amazingly positive results. So the next time you’re assigned to a group, think of it as a warm up for the rigors of the real world. An employee with design knowledge, technical ability, and good team skills is an asset to an organization and an attractive addition to business owners and bosses alike. Pay attention, be a contributor – not a floater – on team assignments. The difference between hearing “You’re hired” and “I’m sorry, we don’t have any opportunities at this time” may depend on it!