How to Conquer Dysfunction with Team Projects

    by John Clark
    July 7, 2015
    The first several days in the Reese News Lab are as much about teamwork as they are about research and development. Image provided by Pixabay.

    People matter. I have witnessed the power of that simple truth all my life. People make things happen. In the Lab, the students’ success is my success. That’s exactly how it should be.

    When I became General Manager of WRAL.com, Jim Goodmon, Capitol Broadcasting Company’s President and CEO, gave me two pieces of advice for working with my team of nearly 40 people:

    "Everyone wants the team succeed because there is a slow realization the team’s success is their success."
    • Offer support, resources and guidance
    • Create a culture of recognition

    It’s advice I still follow today.


    I’m supposed to lead groups of people through a somewhat ambiguous learning experience in order to develop an idea for a desirable, feasible and viable media product. I would be fooling myself if I thought I was the “sage on the stage” filling students’ minds with information.

    My job is largely a management job. It’s all about helping people succeed in teams.

    Teamwork and Dysfunction

    Many students I know hate team projects in school. Teammates don’t do what they say they’re going to do. One student takes over because it’s easier to just do the work rather than work problems out. Trust is lacking. I think those are all just symptoms of a lack of support from someone helping people function in their team. Rubrics help teachers evaluate, but they don’t help teams work together.


    The first several days in the Reese News Lab are as much about teamwork as they are about research and development. Exercises in brainstorming, building paper airplanes, and even the mini-sprint all have expected by-products; people get to know one another.

    After teams are officially formed, they work for two weeks before we start talking about how to work well together. We use Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, as a guide. A few people actually read the book, and we go into great detail about each dysfunction.

    Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 9.53.05 AMIt’s not surprising to see that many of the standard, group projects students are accustomed to have 4-5 of the dysfunctions. It’s why the experience sucks. Students realize it, too. They also begin to realize that the most important dysfunction is an absence of trust. It’s more than just trusting one another to do their work. Everyone must trust that their teammates always have the best interest of the team in mind.

    My example is that I trust them with the success of the Lab. Again, the students’ success is my success. No pressure.

    The list of dysfunctions provides language and structure when teams address concerns. After a couple of weeks, most teams need a little help navigating team concerns. After all, most of these students have only known each other for three weeks.

    Each person has a one-on-one meeting with me. These generally last 15-20 minutes, and it’s a quick way to check in with the personal well-being of each team member. Nothing said is shared with anyone else. Rather, I use it as a way to uncover any blind spots for me personally regarding the emotional status of the team.

    Team Facilitation

    Next, there is a much longer team meeting with the Lab directors. This meeting’s focus is not on their idea; it’s about the cohesive unit. We use the dysfunctions to create safety in the room for each person to address concerns. We write down everything on a white board (to be erased at the end of the meeting). We look for connections among the concerns, thoughts and examples.

    Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 9.52.56 AMIt’s hard for a team to escape issues because everyone knows that everyone else knows the issues. Additionally, having a Lab director facilitate the discussion helps tremendously. It’s never about one individual. The priority is the well-being of the team and how each person contributes to the team’s health. That is the starting point of building trust. Everyone wants the team succeed because there is a slow realization the team’s success is their success.

    Is it uncomfortable? At times, yes.

    Is it necessary? Absolutely.

    People matter, and we must do everything possible to help people succeed together.

    John Clark (@johnclark) has directed the Reese News Lab since July 2011 and leads courses in entrepreneurship for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as UNC’s minor in entrepreneurship program. Clark has extensive experience as a leader, programmer, research and development manager and startup founder. He is the former general manager of WRAL.com, led the early development of the nation’s first local television news application on mobile phones and co-founded News Over Wireless, now StepLeader Inc. Clark also spearheaded the development of an experimental datacasting service to deliver news and information through digital television subchannels. In 2001, he co-founded appcomm, inc. a local Internet services company. Clark has served on the North Carolina State University Student Media Advisory Board and was an adjunct lecturer of communication at Campbell University for eight years before returning to school for an M.B.A.

    reese2This post originally appeared on Reese News Lab. Reese News Lab is an experimental news and research project based at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The lab was established in 2010 with a gift from the estate of journalism school alum Reese Felts. The Lab develops and tests new ideas for the media industry in the form of a “pre-startup.” Teams of students research ideas for media products by answering three questions: Can it be done? Does anyone actually need this? Could it sustain itself financially? To answer these questions, students create prototypes, interview and survey potential customers, and develop business strategies for their products. Students document their recommendations on whether they believe a product will work and then present their ideas to the public.

    Tagged: facilitation leadership reese news lab team building team projects teamwork unc

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