Power Tools for Technical Communication: Team Story

Read the following story about four people taking a technical-writing course in which one of the assignments is to write a technical report as a team:
  1. Write a set of policies and procedures (or a simple list of rules) that would reduce or eliminate the problems this team experienced.
  2. Put your name, Team Policies and Procedures, and the date on this document, and print it out for your instructor.

Team Story

Many technical-writing courses feature team writing projects (often called "collaboration" in the academic world). Three or four students form a team and write a report together. Here's the story of one of those teams—let's call them the Mighty Cobras.

First, the instructor chose the teams, trying to balance technophiles with technophobes, reticent types with outgoing types, better writers with weaker writers, and workaholics with slackers. In class, the instructor announced the teams, went over a list of due dates, and reviewed some guidelines and suggestions. No class meetings were to be given for teamwork so it all had to happen outside of class; each team member would get the same grade for the team project, regardless of who worked the most or the least.

To begin with, one of the team members, Lyla, objected bitterly to being on the same team as B.J., whom she called a slacker and a groper. Another team member, Grover, held down a full-time job and lived in a small farming community about twenty miles away from campus. The fourth team member, Jeannie, lived on campus and had no complications in her life, at least of the sort the others had.

For a time nothing happened; the team did not meet even though interim due dates were coming up fast. Finally, after a talk with the instructor, Jeannie asked the other three to meet with her after class. Grover had almost no time during which he could get together with the team: he'd rush to class then rush to his job. Lyla had other concerns. But the team did meet, sans Grover, and picked a topic, to which Grover objected at the next team meeting a week later. B.J. suggested the team name should be the "Mighty Cobras" because they had been mighty late in rising up to the task but were dangerous nonetheless.

The first milestone for the team was to develop a brief proposal addressed to the instructor: it was to contain information about the team report project: topic, purpose, audience, type of report, outline, and situation in which the report was to be written. Getting these decisions made was a nightmare; Jeannie, for some reason carrying the ball, had to contend with the mostly sulky, silent Lyla, the arrogant but indolent B.J., and with the unavailable Grover. Ultimately, she pulled something like a consensus together by means of a patchwork of hurried exchanges between classes, phone calls late at night, e-mail, and just her own ideas. She wrote the memo all by herself late at night before it was due. As she did, she swore she would not do this again and would let the team fall on its face, even if her own grade suffered.

However, when the other team members saw what a nice job she had done on the memo, they came out of their uncooperative shells somewhat but seemed to view her as the leader and main workhorse. "Not hardly," she informed them on the way out of class. She would do her fair share but that was it. B.J. expressed surprise that she was upset: he didn't think writing that dinky little memo was that big of a deal; how much time could it take? Although not about to respond to B.J., Jeannie had worked so hard and frantically she could not even begin to guess how many hours that memo took her.

But good honest Grover realized the situation and offered to conduct the next meeting as a conference call from his office, at which time they would try to plan the project better. Lyla did not show up for the conference call, but otherwise things went okay. They divided up the sections of the outline, each member taking what seemed like a fair share. And despite some sarcasm, they apportioned what they believed was a fair share to Lyla.

The plan now was to read, research, take notes, and start drafting the sections of the report. At the same conference-call meeting, the team agreed to meet twice a week in "this cool" chatroom that B.J. was going to write. As might have been expected, it was almost two weeks before the chatroom was ready. In the meantime, Jeannie had grown to feel that "it" was happening to her all over again: her section which had seemed so innocently doable at the beginning had grown into something that could easily take up a whole book! Her stack of meticulously recorded notecards rose high off her desk. At the next face-to-face meeting with the team, she was infuriated at the meager pile of photocopied pages B.J. had collected, the nonwork of Lyla, and the otherwise respectable stack of notes Grover had collected. As they compared their notes and findings, they realized that Jeannie and Grover had taken the same notes on certain topics; that Lyla was waiting on a book currently checked out by B.J.; and other such problems.

Jeannie explained the problem of her ballooning topic to the team, and discussion ensued as to how to deal with it. One idea was to slough off Lyla's topic altogether, rework the outline, and give a goodly chunk of Jeannie's work to Lyla. Lyla had no problem with that idea, but B.J. was incensed that half of Jeannie's hard work would be grabbed by Lyla who hadn't done anything yet and would get off scot free. While Grover and Jeannie rolled their eyes heavenward, B.J. and Lyla went at it at some length. Finally, Jeannie said she'd had enough and that Lyla could have her whole topic for all she cared. But then Grover soothed the matter by getting the group to agree to the original plan of dumping Lyla's topic and dividing Jeannie's topic with Lyla.

For the next meeting, the plan was to exchange rough drafts and start the final phase of completing the report. But putting the sections together produced a total shock for all. While Lyla had not produced a draft of her section at all, everything that could be different about the existing drafts—well, was. Headings, writing style, paragraphing, tables, figures, source referencing—everything was almost comically different. What was supposed to be a quick, cordial exchange of drafts turned into yet another heated argument. Moreover, Grover's draft was shocking riddled with bad writing, typos, grammar errors, and bizarre punctuation. In fact, Grover conceded that he was not all that good at the "writing thing" and welcomed anyone's help in fixing his draft. Jeannie, as could have been expected, had produced more pages than the rest of the team put together and demanded that the others go back and develop their sections more fully and follow her style and format. B.J., who fancied himself something of the graphic designer, refused: he found much to disagree with in Jeannie's format and style. For all her dislike of B.J., Lyla could not help but agree with him concerning his observations. "All right, fine!" said Jeannie; she was pulling out of the team and turning her part into a report of its own that she'd hand in separately. "Phooey!"

Arguments about italics versus bold, lowercase versus uppercase, 10-point versus 12-point type, numbers versus words, abbreviations versus written-out values, Arial versus Times New Roman, table titles above versus below tables, bulleted versus numbered lists, left alignment versus centered alignment of table columns, APA versus MLA documentation style—these debates could have gone on until the end of the next semester. But this report was due in less than two weeks, and that fact helped resolve a number of issues, however entrenched their promoters. And this was a group grade; everybody would get the same exact grade, regardless.

At this point, Lyla came to the rescue. She acknowledged that she had not contributed much to the project and that she was ready to lead in the final push. She directed the other team members to put their files on disk and give them to her; she'd resolve the format and style inconsistencies. She asked Jeannie to take hold of Grover's draft and fix it, "just fix it." And she directed B.J. to go put more effort into his draft. Perhaps the general fatigue, panic and frustration enabled Lyla to get away with this coup d'etat; but all were relieved. She even offered to host an all-night work party at her place that weekend, that is, if Jeannie would stick by her at all times.

The whole team expressed anxiety over how much time this project was taking away from their work on other projects and from their studies for exams due here at the end of the semester. "They shouldn't make us do teamwork," opined B.J. "We shoulda planned everything from the beginning!" proclaimed Grover. "You shoulda let the women run this show, boys," Jeannie grimly stated. Lyla believed she had said enough.

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