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Using Team Operating Rules to foster collaboration

By Jennifer Diamond and Julie Scales, Project Management Certificate (UW Professional & Continuing Education, Continuum College)

Collaborative projects are a key component of many UW courses. But before project work begins, teams need to connect, set ground rules, and articulate norms for shared work and outcomes. For the Certificate in Project Management capstone course, we developed an assignment that models this activity. Our Team Operating Rules assignment devotes an entire class session for students to identify their own team roles, create a schedule of activities, and determine the rules and tools that govern their team collaboration. As a result, when conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, the students first turn to their own norms to resolve conflicts. This emphasis on collaboration helps foster greater accountability for their own learning and work.

The basics

We ask the students to meet with their teams to identify role rotation, schedule team activities, and address the logistics of collaboration (like how to store files and when to use a Slack channel). They also determine interpersonal processes such as conflict resolution and assignment review. In this way, the team builds its own operating model. Project Managers do this with their teams; it reinforces the layers of culture within an organization, a project, and then the team.

The same principles apply to any team that plans to work together for a length of time, whether it’s a one-day workshop or years on a research project. In a Chemistry course, for example, students work together to help each other solve their problems on their weekly quiz section assignments. In an English class, students give each other critical feedback for peer review.

How does this assignment work in an online course?

We’ve adapted this assignment for synchronous, asynchronous, and blended online courses. For synchronous courses, we run the activity using Zoom breakout rooms. For large classes, we pre-assign groups to Zoom breakout rooms and use the groups feature in Canvas (which allows one person to turn in an assignment for the whole team).

If the class doesn’t have a fixed meeting time, we set up a small group discussion in Canvas so that students first schedule a time to meet with each other live. If students are in different time zones, part of what they need to figure out is what time will be acceptable to everyone. This practice is part of conducting business internationally. Like the rest of the assignment, it has professional relevance for students after they earn their certificate/graduate.

Students meet using Zoom or whatever tool they agree to use. While teams could technically complete this assignment offline (e.g., students IM each other to coordinate, they fill in sections of a shared Google or Word doc, or they email back and forth attachments), we want the students to meet each other and co-create group norms so that they are accountable to each other. That negotiation is easier when you establish real-time working relationships with teammates, hearing their voices and seeing their faces.

The benefits

Practicing to articulate team rules and roles reinforces the value of investing upfront as a team before putting that investment to work toward shared outcomes, so any student teams in any program can benefit. And of course, collaboration helps students get to know each other and ultimately improves their teamwork and their learning.

Jennifer Diamond is an instructor with UW Continuum College’s Project Management Certificate Program. She has more than 30 years of organizational, operational, and professional services experience focused on team performance and operational improvements driven by solid organization design and technology.

Julie Scales Sr. instructional designer, UW Continuum CollegeJulie Scales is a senior instructional designer with UW Continuum College where she works on a portfolio of in-person, online, and blended courses, including the Certificate in Project Management. She collaborates to foster active learning experiences that encourage student interaction with the content, other students, and with the instructor.