ALICIA WALLACE: Working with strangers on a group project (and no internet) - what could go wrong?

Group work is one of the most dreaded parts of high school and university for anyone who cares about earning good grades and fair share of input. I remember complaining about group work and how it would affect my grades, emphasizing my preference for being solely responsible for my academic outcomes.

My father, who I generally thought of as fully invested in my success, was less sympathetic than I expected, insisting that group work would never stop and it was helping me to develop skills necessary for the work world. I thought it an unfair assessment, completely irrelevant to the case at hand and an indication of the need for change in the way we assign, do and reward work. Today, I am just as annoyed by the people who put minimal effort into group work, but now have greater appreciation for multiple perspectives, inputs and even the process of team formation, decision-making, ideation and follow-through. I still believe the way we assign, do and reward work is tremendously flawed, but see the value in putting resources into the development of strong, effective teams.

I have spent the past week participating in an innovation lab that brought 1,000 young people together from 162 countries to work in teams of up to six people. Never having met before, it was difficult to organize ourselves solely based on shared interest in one of eight Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) covered here. We all arrived with our own ideas, some of us more flexible and open to new ideas than others.

While some teams worked together almost seamlessly, others struggled to complete the simplest of tasks and at least one team has completely fallen apart. Most of the team conflicts seemed to be due to inability or unwillingness to put personal projects or ideas aside in order to work on something new. The innovation process demanded we put ego and personal interest aside in order to maximize team buy-in at the beginning in order to work together on a problem that is inspiring enough to drive the team through the entire innovation process, resulting in a solution and, if lucky, funding.

The innovation process typically takes months and requires a cohesive team, so it is quite ambitious to try to get from the problem-framing stage through ideation, prototyping and testing in one week with two to five other people. The members of my group of four were from four different countries, speak three different first languages, have four different religious affiliations or perspectives, and work in four different fields. We struggled to work together from the very beginning and three of us would say the fourth person was the primary problem. One group member constantly tried to make peace and force the rest of us to get along while two of us wanted to get on with the work at hand and not intentionally put time or attention into interpersonal conflicts. Both options seem to have been a waste of time because not only is team cohesion is necessary for every step of the process, but the time constraint discouraged us from addressing root issues. This meant the tension remained and there was little room for creative thinking, brainstorming and sharing.

It was interesting to see the widely varied team dynamics within our SDG track of 25 teams. Some were completely happy to be together, even having their meals together every day. Other groups came together only during work hours. Most groups seemed to fall somewhere in the middle, working together during the day and sometimes spending more time together to work through challenges in the process or share light moments. During the pitching session – an opportunity for two of the teams to progress to the Dragons’ Den - it was easy to see which had developed good relationships outside of the work. It clearly resulted in better pitch performances, but did not necessarily mean they were able to develop the best solutions relative to less cohesive teams.

At the end, my team was able to frame a problem multiple times, explore three ideas, and pitch a reasonably inspired solution. We did not have a good time together, but all had an appreciation for the process and the skills we gained along the way. We might have done much better with healthier team dynamics, but our success may be that we did not give up, nor did we get left behind by the other teams in our track. We have no doubt we would have had greater success had we been able to have more productive conversations and make better use of the many hours we had to work together.

The Great Firewall of China

Beyond being in an intense innovation lab where emotions ran as high as passion for the work, limited internet was a stress point. There is nothing quite like traveling to the other side of the world and experiencing another culture, a language barrier, lack of sleep and high work demands while unable to use the usual channels to keep in touch with loved ones and up to date on national, regional and international news.

Without a properly functioning VPN, it is not possible to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, or any Google product including Gmail. Most participants struggled to keep up with university assignments and work tasks due to the inability to send or receive messages or access the most frequently used platforms. What used to be readily available at the touch of button and with little thought suddenly required creative thinking and assistance from multiple people.

Throughout this experience, it has been great to see how willing people are to help others, whether they know them or not. Upon learning that I wanted to go to the grocery store for a few things, my Chinese roommate wrote a series of phrases that I could show to the staff. For example, “Does this have meat?” was an important one as many Chinese products do not appear to have meat, but they do. I learned this at a group dinner where someone announced that the tofu had pork in it.

I did not ask my roommate to create this translation tool for me, but she knew I intended to go on my own while she was out meeting a friend, so she took the initiative to list important phrases as well as questions with “yes” or “no” so people could point to the answer for me. She was also helpful in navigating the city of Shenzhen which, unlike Beijing or Hong Kong, does not have many English speakers or signs.

I observed that Chinese people typically do their best to accommodate non-Mandarin speakers, even when they do not speak English. They present laminated menus with photos and encourage customers to point to what they want. Many use translation apps on their personal mobile phones to facilitate communication. In a few cases, people have helped me to access wifi by entering their phone numbers and giving me the passcode they receive via text message. The language barrier can feel impossible to surpass, but the kindness and determination of people who want to help has proven that we do not need to speak the same language to understand or demonstrate care for one another. No one has expressed frustration with any of us for not speaking the language, nor has anyone dismissed us or given up on finding a way to help.

A technological firewall has proven much easier navigate and overcome than the interpersonal conflicts that are created by our unwillingness to work around differences. There are many things that feel impossible in China, but the difficulties here less pronounced when people are willing to help.

The innovation lab and experiences in navigating Shenzhen have proven that human connection and empathy are critical and have no replacement. They cannot be reserved for a particular class, and they must not be withheld as a weapon against those perceived to be outsiders. They have to be cultivated and consistently practiced to become a part of the culture of a people or a place. Who and what we are is reflected in this.


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