Case method schools often assign students to discussion groups of about 6 people to analyze cases before class. A good discussion group can really make your MBA experience by helping you make better comments in class, figure out challenging concepts, and work smarter so you can spend more time on networking or recruiting. Members of a well-functioning discussion group often also become close friends, share useful perspectives from their previous work experience, and can help one another in their respective job searches. Conversely, a bad discussion group is terrible. Imagine having to sacrifice an hour or more of sleep every day to sit with people who you don’t like and who aren’t helping you.
So what habits separate good discussion groups from bad ones? How can you make the most out of your discussion group?
1. Launch your team at the bar.
You are going to spend an hour of quality time every day with the members of your discussion group every morning. That’s often more than you’ll spend talking with any other friend you’ll have at school! The most effective discussion groups recognize that above all else they are social groups and treat one another as friends – attending each other’s parties, grabbing lunch together, and supporting one another at their club events. Therefore, before you get down to business, get to know each other first. Take turns going over each other’s life stories – and not just the resume bullets. For maximum effect, do so over a pint.
2. Set norms.
What time are you going to meet each morning? Where are you going to meet? Will you expect that everyone has thoroughly read the case, or are you okay if people skim it during the discussion? Will you communicate over email, GroupMe, or Slack? Having different answers to these questions is a recipe for tension. So make everything explicit! As you launch your discussion group, agree upon and write down the norms your group will use to operate. Perhaps the easiest way to arrive at these norms is to go around and discuss the teams each of you have worked on and what made them work well or poorly. You can also have a frank conversation about what behaviors piss each of you off.
3. Enforce norms.
People are going to be late to discussion group. So what are you going to do about it when it happens? If your discussion group does nothing you’ll create a new norm that it’s okay to be late. Soon people will be arriving so late that it impacts your work as a discussion group while others might stop coming all together. While it may seem like the nice thing to do is to shrug off infractions, the respectful thing is to enforce them. As you get your group norms, set norms about how to enforce them. Maybe you could have a norm that late people get their name written on a white board or that they have to bring donuts next time. Whatever it is, make sure everyone knows that when others are relying upon you, it is not okay to drop the ball.
4. Be open about goals and weaknesses.
Your discussion group will likely be curated to have a diverse set of skills between the lot of you. Take inventory of what those skills are and manage your conversations to bring those diverse perspectives in. Groups that don’t do this often isolate their conversations to the area of shared experience (see picture below). Rather than assume that the finance guys will lead all of those case conversations, ask if someone else wants to learn this skill and try taking the lead.
5. Use “Case Captains”.
More on this in another post (stay tuned!), but in short, divide and conquer the work. With constant demands on your time from a million sources, you need to look for every way to work smarter, and not harder.
6. Facilitate to expose diverse perspectives.
Pause every so often to note whose perspectives have been missing from the discussion. Did they see things in a different way? Constantly challenge what others are saying and look for weak points in your analysis. It is so easy to speak from common views and experiences, but when you do your analysis loses so much depth. Look at the graph at the right. When we speak about what we have in common, we only cover the tiny overlapping area. When you manage your discussion group to take advantage of its diversity, you get the insights from the entire footprint.