Teamwork: What My MPA Capstone Project and the Avengers Have in Common

The Avengers: A Lesson in Teamwork

The Avengers movie was the biggest box office smash this weekend, breaking the all-time opening record. Eager to see all my iconic childhood heroes come alive (still eagerly awaiting the Hawkeye movie), I made my way to the Mazza Gallerie last night to be among the masses.

It is probably a no-brainer that the film was about teamwork, working successfully with others for a common purpose. Six larger-than-life personalities come together to form a crackpot team that must save the World from an alien invasion – to be honest it felt a little bit like my capstone group for my Master of Public Administration program.

Obviously, my MPA capstone group did not come together to save the World from an alien invasion, although there were times that we encountered some elements that were a little foreign to us. Similar to the film, my MPA capstone group was a group of five larger-than-life personalities, coming together to accomplish one goal in a limited time-frame. Like any group project (and the Avengers) there was no group leader – we all had strengths, we all had weaknesses, and we all had to figure out how to deal with each others’ quirks while working towards our ultimate goal. In the case of the Avengers this meant saving the human race, for my capstone group it meant a strategic partnership plan for a small nonprofit.

So while the deliverables were different – closing the wormhole vs. an RFP – our journey to accomplish what we set out to do were incredibly similar. In the beginning there was the assemblage of the group. We were a not-so-likely group that formed last fall. We didn’t really have a common interest, other than we really wanted to work with a nonprofit. There was talk of social policy or education policy – but none of us really had a specific idea of what we really wanted. Like the renowned superheros, we all had other things going on, weren’t exactly super enthused about working on a group project, yet we knew it was necessary. So we came together, person by person, and even had a fifth person join us – somewhat randomly last minute, like Thor did in the film.

The next biggest challenge was how to get a team of people with different interests and working styles to be successful in making this project happen. Like the Avengers, we had a group of people with different strengths. There was an Iron Man: wise cracking, extremely social, and eccentric, who brought the average age up a little bit (me), a Bruce Banner: super smart, analysis guru – sometimes a little too much in his head, a Black Widow: a wizard at communication skills with a knack for keeping the group cohesive, a Captain America: focused and disciplined, wary of unconventional methods, and finally a Thor: an impassioned latecomer who brought great strength we didn’t even know we were missing.

At first this ragtag crew had some issues working together. Everyone had their own ideas of how we should prioritize, which created some tension. There was even a minor heated disagreement, which we were able to get through without irreparable damage. We solved our problem internally, and eventually devised a system that would create a more streamlined, organized effort. This was an important step for us, we all had very specific, very different strengths – in order to capitalize on each, we needed to uniform our effort. We had to conform to an approach and build consensus. Building consensus was tantamount for a group that contained such archetypical leadership personalities. Consensus was the only way for everyone to feel as committed as everyone else. Some group members made concessions, some group members picked their battles, but at the end of the day we did not move forward unless everyone agreed. This resulted in long discussions over one sentence, but it was critical to our success. We spent an exhausting day editing our final paper, nearly as exhausting as the final battle sequence in the Avengers movie, but at the end of it we had a finished project that we were all pleased with and proud of. The Avengers were equally united at the end of the film when they stood their as a team over the fallen Loki. Take that 30 page recommendation with appendices A-F.

It was a war we waged over the tiredness, stress, and “checked out” factors that are all a part of a final semester of graduate school (or even undergraduate school). You have just about reached the finish line, you have other things going on, yet you have one more hurdle to jump before you can actually get there. Its kind of in your way and you wish you could bypass it. Yet you know that you can’t, so you just have to bend your knees and plant your feet. Your time up in the air will seem like an eternity, but when its over you will realize how short it actually was.

After all is said and done, you will have shared an experience with a group of individuals with extraordinary talents, who will continue to do extraordinary things. You may even end up working with them in the future. For now though, you will go your separate ways and wish them well. You can be proud of your end product, whether it is saving the world or recommending a institute of higher education as the most promising partner for a local nonprofit.

The Avengers, my capstone group, or any other team effort is only successful if you can learn how to put personalities aside, capitalize on each others’ strengths, and build a strong alliance based on mutual respect and trust. There might be missteps, disagreements, and little bit of arrow-shooting – but in the end you will have grown better for the experience.

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Josh Nankivel

Great post! I’ve found the best teams I’ve been on have been rather small (less than 7-8 people) with different specialties and strengths/weaknesses, with a good amount of overlap too. So while one person may be the ‘go to guy’ for something, several others can do a great job on it as well. The cross training combined with ownership and pride in their work creates an awesome team culture.