Working in Groups

Randy introduces an audience participation piece called "Guiding Lights" in 2006

Randy introduces an audience participation piece called "Guiding Lights" in 2006

Mentorship is power. Randy Pausch was a mentor in the truest sense, and lately I’ve been thinking about him often. You might know him from The Last Lecture, a book he wrote while battling cancer. To me, he was a brutally honest teacher, and an overwhelmingly smart guy.

Every time he began teaching a course at Carnegie Mellon, he handed out Tips for Working Successfully in a Group. Lately, I’ve been reaching back to this list:

Make meeting conditions good. Have a large surface to write on, make sure the room is quiet and warm enough, and that there aren’t lots of distractions. Make sure no one is hungry, cold, or tired. Meet over a meal if you can; food softens a meeting. That’s why they “do lunch” in Hollywood.

Let everyone talk. Even if you think what they’re saying is stupid. Cutting someone off is rude, and not worth whatever small time gain you might make. Don’t finish someone’s sentences for him or her; they can do it for themselves. And remember: talking louder or faster doesn’t make your idea any better.

Check your egos at the door. When you discuss ideas, immediately label them and write them down. The labels should be descriptive of the idea, not the originator: “the troll bridge story,” not “Jane’s story.”

Put it in writing. Always write down who is responsible for what, by when. Be concrete. Arrange meetings by email, and establish accountability. Never assume that someone’s roommate will deliver a phone message. Also, remember that “politics is when you have more than 2 people” – with that in mind, always CC (carbon copy) any piece of email within the group, or to me, to all members of the group. This rule should never be violated; don’t try to guess what your group mates might or might not want to hear about.

Phrase alternatives as questions. Instead of “I think we should do A, not B,” try “What if we did A, instead of B?” That allows people to offer comments, rather than defend one choice.

There are other tips Randy wrote. And since grad school I’ve learned a few:

I’ve been reflecting on how obvious these ideas are, but how difficult they are to realize every day, every meeting, every interaction. They’re were written for the world of software. But are invaluable for the advertising world of long hours and small groups.

Check out the full list of Randy’s tips, and let me know if you have some of your own. I’d like to build on this list more with a later post.