How Well Do You Know Your Classmates? is a data-driven article about the incoming freshmen at Cornell, published by The Cornell Daily Sun. As Editor-in-Chief and project director, my goal was to help people discover more about matriculating students by debunking or confirming freshmen stereotypes, and sharing insights on general demographics of each entering class.
The project reached over 16,000 users on social media and had over 4000 engagements. Despite the positive reception, our creative process was quite nonlinear and challenging to navigate. I will be reviewing parts of the project, but the broader focus of this case study is on effective communication, structure and clarity, and empathy within teams.
This undertaking was significant because we emerged with knowledge about communicating more effectively and understanding pain points across teams, and a framework that we could apply and continuously improve for future endeavors.
Over the summer, we distributed our survey via social media channels and emailing lists to incoming freshmen. We received 1141 responses by the end of August, which was our cutoff date to ensure that freshmen took the survey before they started living on campus.
Before we started working on the project, we teamed up with Cornell Data Science, who would be helping us clean, process, and interpret the data, and recruited a few members who would serve as our UX designer, our frontend developer and our backend developer. And with that, we were on our way to making some neat things…
Racing against time 💣
We wanted to keep the goal publication date relatively close to the start of the semester to maximize the project’s relevance, giving us a few weeks to bring it to completion. Ideally, we would have all the time we wanted within that time frame to execute — however, our personal, academic, and editor responsibilities weren’t going to sit around and wait. Additionally, Cornell Data Science had their own projects and timelines that we respected.
First time = No past workflows to serve as a model 🤔
In the past, The Sun never successfully completed these types of projects because we lacked not only people with the technical expertise but also a leader who could connect all the dots. Because I had a technical, design, and editorial background, I had a vision of how everything would tie together, but the biggest challenge was how to structure our approach.
There were no past procedures that we could use as a framework, and we had no time to waste, so our initial roadmap was heavily based on our online & print publication workflow.
We started off on a high note, following a workflow similar to the one we use to put the paper together, wherein the project lead communicates individually with a member of each subteam and serves as the center of knowledge and task delegation. Our team meetings served as in-person status reports (similar to sun editorial board meetings), where we would go over what we each had been working on, what we completed, and what there was still left to do.
As a leader, I was a middleman for inter-team communication, making it my responsibility to oversee the status of each subteam’s tasks and relaying relevant parts of that knowledge to other individuals.
Problems stockpiled when recruitment cycles, club fest, and other project timelines for organizations kickstarted. Meeting subteam leads in person became harder, so members only got a partial picture of other subteams’ successes and bottlenecks. Since I wasn’t working under any subteam, I couldn’t communicate fully on their behalf, which sometimes caused frustrations to be unintentionally directed at me.
In one situation, there was misunderstanding between two subteams, where editorial frustratedly said they could not understand why the data was processed in a certain way. Although I did my best to communicate the data science team’s intentions, I felt a bit targeted (although I knew that wasn’t the case) and like my explanation wasn’t an adequate reflection of their rationale.
We had to prune certain ideas from our master plan, and our UX designer created mockups that remained unused because the amount of data left after processing was insufficient for certain features. Time was wasted on explorations that couldn’t be fleshed out due to new, unforeseen constraints, which cast doubt over the general direction and success of the project.
For the sake of team cohesion and my own mental health as a leader, I knew that things had to change.
I first wanted to recognize the constraints we could not budge:
All busy people — can’t meet in person very often
Limited time left to implement
New project scope
I separated our new game plan into two parts: What we could do now, and what we could do in the future to prevent the same issues we were running into.
We had to make the meetings we could all attend count. Only going over progress and future tasks during sync-ups wasn’t enough to drive us forward, so team meetings had to be more than just status reports.
Based on what I observed during the first half of our work session, most of the issues stemmed from a lack of direct communication between subteams, leading to a) a lack of empathy between different members, causing resentment and doubt to build up, and b) confusion over the general creative direction of the project.
My goal was to go from the model on the left, to the model on the right (creating channels of communication between all subteams).
I planned to achieve this by using our limited meeting time to:
Create a space for honest, constructive feedback
Asking people to share subteam-specific roadblocks while everyone is present allows members to express their concerns and provide constructive feedback for others. Regularly practicing this facilitates listening and understanding (as opposed to mindlessly hearing updates) and allows everyone to propose solutions and next steps.
Acknowledging work done while evaluating constraints
Unused explorations are costly in a time-pressured situation, but they are inevitable. It is still important to acknowledge and appreciate those efforts while reminding the entire team of the constraints that we face, so we can move on and move quickly.
Align members on overarching goals
When the team is feeling pressured from changes in project scope and the work it creates, or when tensions arise due to disagreements over certain methodologies, it becomes crucial to remind everyone of our overarching goals and that we all want the team to be successful. This will allow us to see past our differences, compromise, and overcome any biases towards one thing we may unconsciously acquire.
We successfully published the project and team morale was instantly boosted as soon as the reactions rolled in and we saw all of our hard work paying off. But our work wasn’t done yet.
I gathered everyone for a postmortem meeting to reflect on what worked and what didn’t so we could approach future projects with takeaways from this experience and renewed confidence.
We admitted that our initial workflow was not very adaptable towards these interdisciplinary projects. The stories on our online and physical publication can be mostly written and edited in isolation, whereas a higher level of coordination is required between members of a project such as this. Others brought up that there were not enough opportunities to meet, or that they were not very aware of other people’s progress at any given time.
Based on our discussion during the meeting and feedback I received, I created an iterative framework for executing these types of projects. It clarifies constraints, boundaries and expectations earlier and on paper, so that members of the team can easily refer back to it. It is a living document that should be completed before work starts, but can be adjusted throughout the project lifecycle.
The main components include:
Project Overview and Goals
Members and Roles
Designated Group Meeting Time
Required and Prioritized Features
More details about each section can be read here.
Publishing the project was a particularly proud moment for me because it was an important first step towards revitalizing The Sun’s push towards digital journalism and attracting new talent. This project would signal our ability to break past barriers and motivate more people with relevant skills to join our organization.
It was also an important learning experience for me as a leader. Although difficult, I learned how to see past the complaints to empathize with the people I managed. It was important to me that everyone effectively apply their skills and clearly see how their unique talents would contribute towards the final result.
At the end, we had a sense of unity moving forward and kept the momentum going, and I couldn’t be happier about it.