There are two main reasons for assembling a problem solving team:
- The scope of the project requires more manpower.
- The complexity of the project requires group creativity.
The resource requirements for finding and implementing a solution will of course depend on the scope of the problem, and you will need to first identify your project’s likely tasks before you can gauge your resource requirements. If your project comprises a number of simple tasks where each on depends on the completion of the one before it, a team will probably not give you any resource benefit. However, when you can break tasks down into work packages that can be delivered at the same time, then the more people you have on your team, the better.
However, you should not only consider assembling a team for a large problem solving project; most problems will benefit from a team’s ability to see the problem from multiple perspectives. Whilst there are tools that an individual can use to make this easier, a team comes ready-made with the ability. The key to exploiting it is to manage conflict within the team in a productive way.
If you can’t assemble a team, at least pull in a colleague or friend to get their input and pick their brains about the problem. Not only will other human beings give you ideas and perspectives you had not thought of, the process of articulating your thoughts to another human will sharpen your thinking. I often find that, in explaining a problem to someone who has nothing to do with it, a solution comes to mind that I never would have considered otherwise.
When to assemble a problem solving team?
Some problems are solved more effectively in a group. The more of the following questions you answer “yes” to, the more valuable you will find a team in tackling the problem.
- Is there too much work for one person to do within the allocated time frame?
- Can the project be broken down into a number of parallel work packages?
- Can the problem be defined in many different ways?
- Is information from many different sources required?
- Are there likely to be many possible solutions?
- Is it a complex problem with many different aspects?
Choosing your Team
The problem solving team that we’re discussing here is not the group of primary stakeholders who have a vested interest in solving the problem; this team is a group specifically assembled to generate possible solutions and possibly get involved in the implementation too.
“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth, US baseball player, 1895-1948.
You need to first decide the qualities that you want in your team members, because the team is not just about creativity, it’s about getting the project solved.
Where possible, choose team players, self starters and people with identifiable strengths in their field of expertise. Choose people who are open and willing to learn rather than arrogant, opinionated experts. The former will be more open to trying new ideas and looking at the problem in new ways than the latter.
Ultimately, in assembling your team, it is also vital that you select people who you can work with. The most knowledge and the best expertise will amount to nothing if productivity is destroyed by friction within the team.
Finally, how many people does your team need? Enough to get the job done within the time constraints.
Managing your Team
A problem solving team is not the same as an operational team in a business. There will be no performance reviews, no team building days and no vying for promotion. Yours is a single purpose team that will be disbanded as soon as a solution is successfully implemented. Therefore, each problem solving team is different and must be managed differently. Too much conflict must be managed to ensure the team maintains its creative output, and too much harmony must be managed to ensure it doesn’t hinder the generation of new ideas.
For example, if there is too much harmony, you can find that suggestions are very similar, with lots of agreements and supportive comments. An element of conflict causes people to take opposing ’sides’, which forces opinions to differ, even if they didn’t originally.
Any side issues or political behaviour must be dealt with immediately. If a particular person is causing a problem and hindering progress, remove them from the team. Being in the team is not a privilege or a reward, and personal politics will lead to delays that you can’t afford. When you focus on the team’s output and behave decisively, you will further enhance your reputation as someone with excellent leadership qualities who gets the job done.
Five Stages of Team Development
Bruce Tuckman developed a theory about the stages of group development, stages that are not just necessary but inevitable for a team to grow, face new challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and finally deliver results.
Simply put, the Tuckman model describes how teams develop over a period of time and can be used to pin point aspects that are crucial for creating and developing small groups.
It is important to note that this is not a theoretical series of steps which you must consciously lead a team through; it is a series of patterns which emerge when a group forms naturally. By understanding and anticipating those steps, you will be able to more effectively manage and even accelerated group or team development.
The five stages of group development are as follows:
This is the period when the team is first formed. In this stage, a team member is driven by the want to be accepted by others in the team and avoid any conflict arising from sharing serious issues and feelings. Team members are absorbing impressions and information about each other, noticing similarities and differences. This could later form the basis for sub-grouping. In this stage team members orient themselves to the tasks as well as to each other. At this stage, your approach should be directive.
Once the members of the group have become more comfortable with each other, their need to avoid conflict reduces and you will see the Storming stage, where different ideas are presented for consideration, and direct questions are asked, such as what problems are to be solved? How will team members function independently and together? What model of leadership is expected? Perspectives and ideas are shared among the team as members of the team open up to each other. There also emerges clear competition and conflict in the personal relations within the team. Although Storming is necessary for all teams, this stage can be controversial, unpleasant and even painful to certain team members.
One team dynamic that you can observe during the storming stage is different team members competing for what seem like positions in a hierarchy. The less directive and confident you are during the Forming stage, the more likely it is that this competition will take place, and that it will even result in the informal election of a leader who has more authority with the group than you do. You may not see this person taking charge, but you will see other team members deferring to them. Clearly, that person will not have the same motives and objectives as you, and as uncomfortable as it may be, you need to continue to be strong and directive in order to ensure that the team organises itself around the task at hand and not around individual personalities.
Once the relationships within the team have settled down, the team unifies towards one goal and develops a mutual plan for the team to achieve that goal. Here each team member has the ambition and takes responsibility to achieve the team’s goal and make the team successful. Individuals in the team are prepared to give up or adjust their preconceived ideas or opinions based on facts that are presented by other members. Leadership is shared and members begin to have a sense of belonging to the group. However, the group members may start to resist any change as they begin to fear the breakup of the group in the future.
Very few teams get to Tuckman’s performing stage. Members are able to work independently, in subgroups, or as a unit with equal ease, finding ways to complete the task smoothly and without inappropriate conflict. These teams also require no or very little external supervision. Supervisors in this stage are usually participative. By the time the team is at this stage its members are motivated, knowledgeable, interdependent, competent, autonomous and need no supervision to handle the decision-making process. Teams might go through the first four stages of team development many times as they adjust to changing circumstances, for example a change of membership could push the team back to the storming stage.
This stage refers to the conclusion or end of a team’s collective activities. If this conclusion is planned then it could include credit for participation and achievement plus a chance for members to say goodbye to each other.
This stage of the process is important in maintaining good relationships with your team and stakeholders. If you successfully solve the problem then it is more than likely you will need these peoples’ support again in the future.
Groupthink is the name given to a psychological phenomenon which occurs when a group of people have to come up with a quality decision. The group will try and minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without doing any critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.
The original work on groupthink was done by Irving Janis of Yale University who defined the phenomenon as: “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.
Historic Examples of Groupthink
Example 1: The Bay of Pigs invasion plan was thought up by the Eisenhower administration; however when the Kennedy administration took over, the Bay of Pigs plan was uncritically accepted, even after the plan was leaked. Overall the Kennedy group remained extremely optimistic. When some members of the team objected to the plan, they were ignored. The fiasco that took place at the end may have been avoided if groupthink had been prevented.
Example 2: In December, 1941, despite having intercepted Japanese messages that indicated that the Japanese were preparing for war, the U.S. officers stationed at Pearl Harbour still didn’t take the warnings seriously. The reason for this was due to shared illusions and rationalizations including:
- The Japanese would never attack because they knew that it would lead to all-out war which they could never win.
- The Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbour was a major deterrent to any Japanese naval attack.
Furthermore, even officers who suspected a problem succumbed to social pressures and didn’t speak up.
Symptoms of Groupthink
The symptoms of groupthink are:
- Direct pressure – pressure applied on any group member who questions the group’s thinking and he/she is made to feel disloyal.
- Illusions of invulnerability – having excessive optimism.
- Illusions of unanimity – silence amongst group members taken as agreement.
- Mind guards – self-appointed members who shield the rest from any dissenting information.
- Pressures of uniformity.
- Rationalizing – rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
- Self-censorship – individuals are reluctant to voice any ideas contrary to the group.
- Stereotyping – all who are opposed to the group are considered deviant, stupid, evil, etc.
- Unquestioning belief – e.g. in the morality of the group, thus members ignore the consequences of their actions.
Results of Groupthink
Group thinking often results in:
- Failure to consider risks.
- Failure to re-evaluate previously rejected ideas.
- Failure to think about contingency plans.
- Incomplete analysis of alternative ideas.
- Incomplete analysis of objectives.
- Poor information search.
- Selection bias when collecting information.
Just as in the case of the Bay of Pigs or Pearl Harbour examples, when any company becomes overly confident in its business strategy and, despite clear warning signs, refuses to consider any objections or disagreements, then this could well be groupthink at work, potentially leading the company towards dangerous times.
Janis suggested the following methods for minimizing the chances of groupthink:
- Leaders should assign each member of the group the role of ‘critical thinker’; which gives each member the freedom to think and voice their concerns.
- Managers should not express their opinion when assigning subordinates a task.
- The organization should assign the same task to two or more independent groups.
- All effective alternatives must be studied.
- Each member should be encouraged to discuss the group’s ideas with independent people outside the group.
- Outside experts should be invited into group meetings.
- At least one member of the group should be the assigned ‘Devil’s advocate’. The person should be changed each time.
The Six Unofficial Stages of a Project
Whilst the following is humorous, it is, regretfully true in some organisations:
- Search for the Guilty
- Punishment of the Innocent
- Praise for the Uninvolved