Starting with first principles and the scientific method
America First Books
Featuring ebooks that find a truer path in uncertain times


Effective Group Problem Solving Cover Contents Preface Chapter One
  Chapter Two Index Catalog Page


Effective Group Problem Solving describes what you can gain by using participative problem solving in your regular work group, committee, or volunteer group. It discusses the impressive achievements of participation-based programs in industry and elsewhere and provides fair warning to organizations about the disadvantages they may face if they fail to understand and learn from these programs. Of greater importance, it presents a process — the Improved Nominal Group Technique (INGT) — that consists of research-based rules and procedures that minimize or eliminate the many problems associated with conventional group procedures.

Challenge to Tradition

In America today we are witnessing a movement away from traditional authoritarian relationships toward high employee involvement in decision-making. This movement was given a special boost at a White House conference on productivity in 1983. Most speakers strongly endorsed employee participation as an effective means for increasing productivity. Representatives of government, industry, and higher education pointed to various specialized groups, such as labor-management committees and quality circles, as being particularly useful (Guzzo, 1984).

This view echoes the findings of Peters and Waterman, who investigated excellence in America's leading firms. They reported that "excellent companies treat the rank and file as the root source of quality and productivity gain. They do not foster we/they labor attitudes" (1982, p. 14). And Lawrence and Dyer (1983) report the results of an in-depth study of the recent history of notable firms in seven basic U.S. industries (automobile manufacturers, steel, hospitals, agriculture, residential construction, coal, and telecommunications) that have been confronted by dramatic changes in their operating environments. They conclude that "although organizations can get by for a time being only efficient or only innovative, over the long term there must be a simultaneous achievement of both efficiency and innovation … Member involvement is essential to the simultaneous achievement of both efficiency and innovation" (p. 267).

Effective Group Problem Solving will reveal how improved group problem-solving procedures can contribute significantly to achieving high employee involvement, increasing productivity, and encouraging innovation.

In the larger community in which we live, both citizens and responsible officials have been frustrated by the inadequacies of conventional means for gathering and using informed public opinion on the social needs and complex problems confronting us. The kind of informed involvement that characterized our best town meetings of the past has become a casualty of modern, complex society. Today, large public meetings often succumb to dominant oratory, or degenerate into shouting matches, or simply flounder in the common frustration of many would-be contributors confronting too-little time. We are losing what Susan Mohrman (1979) calls political access: the ability to raise issues and the ability to seriously attend to those issues. This is a significant social problem because most people value having real opportunities to influence decision-making when they want them more than participation in and of itself.

Effective Group Problem Solving will describe how viable, consultative democracy can be introduced and sustained in both the workplace and in the larger community. We will observe the paradox of anonymity strengthening democracy by enhancing our

individuality and see how we can be more productive by understanding the limits of our objectivity and the specific measures we can take to compensate for these limits.

Overview of the Contents

Chapter One explains why we should encourage participative problem solving. Chapter Two details problems commonly associated with conventional approaches to encouraging participation, and Chapter Three presents the nine principles underlying the rules and procedures of INGT and the reasons for their importance.

The next seven chapters provide details concerning the implementation of these improved rules and procedures and explain how they relate to the following objectives: identifying and prioritizing problems, positions, or options; solving a particular problem (when no standard solution is available); and debugging or refining a written proposal or other document.

Chapters Four and Five deal with setting the stage for full participation. They explain the importance of anonymity, of defining purpose realistically, and of a permanent display record, and they describe how to save valuable meeting time by using important pre-meeting preparation.

Chapter Six discusses how a meeting should be conducted. It stresses the pitfalls of premature evaluation or criticism of ideas and the advantages of providing real opportunities for discussion. It shows how to keep discussions on track by controlling personal conflict and chronic time wasting, without undermining full participation. Chapter Seven presents several useful ways to handle voting.

Chapter Eight presents the special characteristics and uses of the document review meeting, which is designed for debugging or refining a written proposal or other document. Chapter Nine traces the steps involved in implementing successful community-wide or organization-wide program planning, including an explanation of how to meld the output of two or more groups. Chapter Ten provides a summary and review of the entire INGT process.

Chapter Eleven explores key problem areas of management by objectives programs and shows how INGT can be used to deal with them. Chapters Twelve and Thirteen show how to gain the greatest advantages for the problem-identification and problem-solving activities of autonomous work groups, employee-employer boards, quality circles, survey feedback meetings, bargaining teams, confrontation meeting committees, project teams, volunteer venture teams, job-redesign teams, and Scanlon, Rucker, Improshare, and multiple-management plan committees.

Chapter Fourteen on organization development lists the basic requirements for successful collaborative diagnosis and problem-solving efforts and shows how INGT uniquely satisfies these requirements. Chapter Fifteen shows how to apply INGT to enhance the effectiveness of audio, video, and computer teleconferences, and Chapter Sixteen explores two other areas that may benefit from the principles and procedures of INGT: international relations and one-on-one relationships.

The book concludes with suggestions for preparing to lead your first meeting and a test for checking your understanding of the key rules and procedures of INGT.

The procedures outlined in this book differ significantly from everyday practice. Some of them may seem strange at first, but each plays an important role, for reasons that will be explained. Most participants who have tried them like them and prefer them over their present procedures. Have your group try them out on a matter of importance without omitting or changing anything. I believe that the results will speak for themselves quite positively.


The important role that process plays in group problem solving was first brought home to me by Norman R. F. Maier. He was deeply interested in the constructive sharing of influence, and I was fortunate enough to be a student of his at the University of Michigan. Because of his influence, the topic of my doctoral dissertation was "An Experimental Study of Group Reaction to Two Types of Conference Leadership."

I have received invaluable assistance in developing this manuscript. Among those who have read it and then provided encouragement and many useful suggestions are Chris Argyris of Harvard University, Nancy Badore of Ford's Organization Development and Management Training Division, Alan Filley of the University of Wisconsin, Sud Ingle of Quality Circle Services, Tapas Sen of AT&T's Human Resources Division, and James Showkeir of TRW's training and development staff.

I am particularly indebted to Eric Trist, who has contributed so much to the quality of work-life worldwide, and to Richard Mason of Southern Methodist University for challenging me to make more of this undertaking than I otherwise would have and for pointing the way. I would also like to thank Marlene Baccala, who kept the word processor humming. Last, but in no way least, my wife, Else, has been a constant helpmate and an inspiration.

William M. Fox

Gainesville, Florida
January 1987


Effective Group Problem Solving Cover Contents Preface Chapter One
  Chapter Two Index Catalog Page