Road Signs For Success

By Sondra Whitt

A common practice on college campuses is to ask professors to think about their life and what matters most to them in light of their approaching death and to then impart what they’ve learned in a “last lecture.” A professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Randy Pausch was asked to give one such lecture. Dr. Pausch was different than the other speakers in that he knew this actually could be his last lecture because he had pancreatic cancer. Although his lecture was video-taped, he wanted to continue it to include a lot more life-lessons for the sake of his children, which he did in the form of a book: The Last Lecture.

Pausch’s specialty is human-computer interaction and he created a course called Building Virtual Worlds that was open to fifty undergraduates from all departments of the university — actors, English majors and sculptors were mixed with engineers, math majors and computer geeks. Pausch didn’t allow students to stay in their comfort zone with others in their field but randomly assigned them to teams of four creating “unlikely partners” which resulted in “forcing them to do together what they couldn’t do alone.”

The teams stayed together for projects lasting two weeks and then they were mixed up again for another two-week project. Their only instructions were to build a virtual world and the only rules were no shooting violence and no pornography. “I issued that decree mostly because those things have been done in computer games only about a zillion times, and I was looking for original thinking,” wrote Pausch. “You’d be amazed at how many nineteen-year-old boys are completely out of ideas when you take sex and violence off the table.”

Although Pausch talked about the fantastically creative models students came up with, what stood out to me was what he said about the teams. “On presentation day, I always knew which projects would be the best. I could tell by the body language. If students in a particular group were standing close together, I knew they had bonded, and that the virtual world they created would be something worth seeing. What I loved about all of this was that teamwork was so central to its success. How far could these students go? I had no idea. Could they fulfill their dreams? The only sure answer I had for that one was, ‘In this course, you can’t do it alone.’”

This made me think of an American Idol episode where the show’s participants were required to form groups of three or four. These participants, who up until now had been competitors, now had to perform as a group. Some groups became amazingly synchronized teams in the short time they had to work together. They were creative, choreographed their movements, harmonized their voices, had fun, and seemed to genuinely like and support each other. Others were a disaster. You could tell they had never gelled as a team but instead were still competing with each other. Their lack of commitment to their team and support for one another led to lousy performances. At the end of one of these performances, a judge even questioned, “You don’t like each other very much, do you?”

All of us can learn some lessons in teamwork from Pausch’s classroom and American Idol. The successful teams exhibited characteristics that resulted in great performances under pressure — clear expectations, commitment to the team, a clearly defined role for each member, freedom to use creativity to accomplish the goal, constant communication and give and take of ideas from all members. One of the most important attributes was not letting personal ego get in the way of the team’s success. These are the things that enabled them to “do together what they couldn’t do alone.”

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