Group projects are lame, but we sorely need one

I detest group projects.

I’ve hated them for as long as I can remember — probably since the time I first had to do one.

I totally understand the motivation behind them. People need to be able to work together in the “real world” (whatever that means these days) and, in theory at least, multiple people bringing their assorted and varied strengths and ideas to any task should produce a better product.

And on those rare occasions when things go right, that’s exactly what happens.

It’s been my experience, however, that more often than not group projects are only slightly more organized than coaching 4-year-olds in youth soccer. One kid thinks it’s tackle football, another wants to sit and pick dandelions, one kid is convinced he’s the next David Beckham, another cries any time you ask him to play and yet another doesn’t show up at all for 90% of the games.

I’ve been frequently assigned group projects — throughout my years in education and in the workplace. I can think of a handful of positive experiences and a whole lot of bad ones.

Team members don’t share a cohesive vision. One person (or more) never shows up to the group meetings or can’t possibly manage to have his or her portions completed on time. Everybody wants to be the group leader, or nobody does. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s challenging to take the work of multiple people, with different visions, competing communication styles, varied or even contradictory goals, etc., and produce a polished and finished product.

Getting people to cooperate, coordinate and collaborate, even under deadlines and when the outcomes are of vital importance, seems to be an exercise in futility the majority of the time.

This is true when the groups are small and even more applicable when dealing with larger groups. In fact, the larger they get, the more difficult finding consensus and working together seems to be.

Effective collective action is a rare thing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over recent months, when our ability to find consensus and work together on a great many things has never seemed more important. Or more elusive.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage with devastating results, many of us seem simply incapable of working together to take steps that can quite literally mean life or death.

We’re being asked, collectively, to practice good hygiene, stay home when sick and wear masks and distance ourselves when around those outside of our immediate household. None of these are particularly difficult. Yet, so many people seem incapable — and unwilling — to even try to take these basic measures.

It’s baffling.

What’s even more baffling is that we’re apparently wholly incapable of taking the massive collective action needed to save lives, and the past nine months have shown the tragic consequences of the lack of teamwork across state lines and a cohesive national strategy for combatting the pandemic, but some still continue to perpetuate the most nonsensical notions about the entire COVID-19 nightmare.

We couldn’t, and still can’t, get organized enough to offer broad testing to all Americans, to provide adequate personal protective equipment to all healthcare workers, to ensure the smooth rollout of a vaccine or treatments, but somehow people (namely Barack Obama and Bill Gates, based on the social media posts I’ve seen) were able to organize a vast global conspiracy to create the virus — the same virus that either doesn’t really exist or is no worse than the flu, depending on whom you ask and the day of the week, apparently. Then they were apparently able to circulate it around the globe, get government officials of all political persuasions in all countries of the world to cooperate, get both Democratic and Republican governors across the country to institute health orders to “deprive people of their liberty,” and more, so that Gates can have us all injected with a microchipped vaccine?

Wow. Folks who believe that must have very little experience with group projects.

Call me crazy, but having a disastrous response to a pandemic because of a lack of organization and coordination — too many kids picking dandelions, refusing to play, or playing the wrong game — makes a lot more sense, and sounds a lot more probable, than a masterminded and perfectly executed global plan that would have to involve thousands, or tens of thousands, of players.

The sad, and frustrating, part is that we desperately need actual collective action right now. We need people to do their part — the small things we’ve all been asked to do — to save all of us from a lot of misery. For months, public health and other officials have asked us to do so, repeatedly.

Some have taken that to heart and set an example for others to follow.

I was delighted when all trustees were masked during the most recent school board meeting of Uinta County School District No. 1. I was particularly impressed by the comments I heard from board members, noting mask wearing and distancing aren’t political and are being done to save lives and keep kids in school.

I’ve never hesitated to make it known when I disagree with decisions of the board and I won’t hesitate to make it known how much I appreciate those actions and statements now. My kudos to all of them.

It was quite a different scene and refreshing change from another meeting of public officials I witnessed last week, when one person wore a mask, one did not and the third played with his like a kid who’s waiting to see what the other cool kids do before he makes a decision.

School district activities director Bubba O’Neill also deserves a round of applause. For months, O’Neill has been the “fall guy,” making spectators and participants mask up and follow the guidelines set by the Wyoming Department of Health, Department of Education, and Wyoming High School Activities Association to help ensure our students get to compete, and hopefully stay healthy, this school year.

Doing the right thing, even when under immense pressure to do otherwise, is one of the attributes of leadership.

Speaking of doing the right thing in the face of immense pressure, Uinta County Public Health Officer Dr. Mike Adams did just that when he instituted a countywide mask mandate just over two weeks ago. I’m certain Adams didn’t relish making that decision and felt compelled to do so based on expertise in his field and our failure to do the right thing when encouraged and asked repeatedly.

Collective action is the only thing that can get the coronavirus under control, whether that’s mask wearing, distancing, staying home when sick or receiving a vaccine when it’s available. When we refuse to take that collective action when asked, we leave leaders, like Adams or Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, with no other choice but to mandate it. I frequently disagree with Gordon’s policies, but I won’t hesitate now to voice my support for the statewide mask mandate and other health orders. 

We all want our lives back. We want to watch our kids compete, ditch the masks, hug our friends and family, eat dinner in our favorite restaurants, grab a drink … and the list goes on. But the truth is that we’re not going to get any of those things back until we all pitch in to make it happen.

We don’t need this to be the preschool soccer team, where each player is doing his own thing and does so every single game.

We need this to be the time we pull together, even after our repeated fails, and try yet again to get the group project right.


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