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Five steps to completing great group projects

Group projects can be incredibly rewarding -- and incredibly frustrating. School is coming up, and with it the prospect of working on big group projects for the first time. Here are some tips to help make them work.

Teamwork can be vital for large projects, but it's rare for any group to instinctively know how to carry one from start to finish. Whether you're working on your first big group project for school or you just need inspiration to make your work team collaborate better, it's good to start from the basics and build your way up from there based on what you need. Here are some tips and tools to make it all go more smoothly:

  • Understand your assignment. This seems almost trivial, but it may be the most important step on this list. Have everyone on your team read over the assignment from your instructor or boss and jot down what they see as the most important elements to deliver. You're sure to find some discrepancies, but talking them over can bring everyone together and ensures that everybody shares the same goals. An hour or two spent hashing this out repays itself many times over. Hang on to the original assignment and your group's restatements; your understanding may evolve as the project goes on, and it may be handy to revisit this at the halfway point.
  • Plan your work. This can feel like a waste of time, but it is sure to help keep you all focused and efficient as you progress. Choose roles and tasks early on based on interest and skills; make sure to include someone whose job it is to check individuals' progress, and that everyone feels the distribution of work is fair. Agree on tools (see below), timelines, and how to handle slackers or procrastinators. Of course, that last part is more important for school projects than for work, which typically has built-in systems for handling those who refuse to pull their weight. Students may have to resort to public shaming (which can be quite effective, actually).
  • Choose file-sharing tools. This may or may not be an issue, but for reviewing and editing drafts or sections, it can be handy to draw from one pool of files instead of maintaining individual folders and trying to pass files along over e-mail or IM. This guide can help you sort through some of the more popular options, but there are new ones popping up all the time. 
  • Set up scheduling and online collaboration. Trello is a great, free online tool to help keep your group on task and communicating about every step of the process. Like file sharing, there are plenty of other tools out there, so you may want to experiment to find one that is perfect for your group. 
    Collaborate online with Trello.
    Collaborate online with Trello. Rob Lightner/CNET
  • Put it all together. In the end, you all have to deliver one paper or set of files. While everyone needs to contribute, it may be best for one person to take the lead on assembling the final product. This may include pressuring slower team members to produce, making copies, merging files and plenty of other mundane tasks, so it's probably best left to your team's most detail-oriented person. Once they're done with it, you can all relax and accept your praise together.