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


Chapter Two

Shortcomings of
Conventional Procedures
in Gaining Participation

The gains made by participation through conventional procedures (documented in Chapter One) are particularly impressive when we consider the frustrations and costs that conventional procedures impose upon us. We will now examine these limitations in detail, so that we can more fully appreciate the need for, and the potential savings that can be realized from, the research-based, field-tested approaches presented in this book.

Procedural Problems

Inviting a free-for-all is obviously not the way to run a meeting. It is just as important to coordinate group problem-solving activity as it is any other kind of work activity, but how can this be done without straitjacketing creative effort?

The problem is bigger for the new chairperson or supervisor who must put a group to work before having time to be accepted. He or she can take charge right away and be damned for "acting like a boss," or she or he can get into bigger trouble by asking: "Any ideas about how we should proceed?" Often, rather than productive participation, the response will be indifference, confusion, or open competition for the leadership role.

What we want, of course, is the kind of group climate that will bring forth all useful ideas without creating anarchy and without wasting time. We want final decisions based on honest and informed assessment of all choices. But these things are much easier said than done, as demonstrated when the following well established procedures are attempted.

First Come, First Served. With this widely used procedure, meeting time and attention are allocated on the basis of the order in which individuals get the floor. Ideas are discussed as they come up, one at a time, until one is acceptable to the group. Common courtesy demands a certain degree of indulgence, whether or not the idea being presented is a good one.

Even if the group puts off making a final decision until everyone has had a chance to speak up, those who come last are often rushed. In fact, the group may spend so much time on the ideas first presented that better ones are not even heard.

Clearly, it makes more sense to begin by identifying all useful ideas, and then allocate group time and attention to them on the basis of their relative value. The chapters that follow will explain how to do this, while assuring equal opportunity for participation at the same time.

Parliamentary Procedure. As the size of a group increases beyond ten to fifteen members, threats of information overload and disorderly process grow. One solution is to be more formal and use parliamentary procedure. However, outside of the large legislative bodies for which it was designed, parliamentary procedure often creates more problems than it solves.

It uses a first come, first served approach, so we still have the problems discussed above. In addition, we face some new ones. A seconded motion can force people to evaluate and accept or reject a position before they are ready. They cannot evaluate the position relative to all useful possibilities. And, those who politely wait for the "right" time to present their ideas often find themselves out of luck.

Consequently, the climate created by parliamentary procedure is more suggestive of "You should pass this unless you can

find serious fault with it" than of "Let us search for the best solution we can find." When balloting is public, a proposal's sponsor often looks around to see how people are voting, clearly implying that "a vote against my proposal is a vote against me."

With parliamentary procedure, a well-organized minority can impose its will on a group by exploiting what is called the bandwagon effect. Several members, by prior arrangement, make a quick succession of positive statements in support of a desired motion. Then, they call for a vote.

One study shows that the first proposal that gets fifteen more positive than negative comments is adopted 85 percent of the time, regardless of its quality; and, that when a higher quality solution is presented later in the meeting, it has little chance of replacing the poorer one (Maier, 1967).

In line with these observations, a study of the use of parliamentary procedure by a number of groups found that most of the time it did not facilitate movement toward genuine consensus (Guetzkow and Gyr, 1954).

"There must be a better way," we think. Fortunately, there is. This book shows how to avoid these problems while maintaining productive control, with a single group or multiple groups of up to twenty members each.

Subversive Influences

Even when we have better conventional procedures, we can be left with difficulties at the interpersonal level, as the following examples demonstrate.

Hidden Agenda. Participants are driven by needs and purposes which have little to do with the business at hand. Compulsive talkers, for instance, waste group time outrageously, yet, we usually do not

want to be or cannot afford to be rude to them. Hostile individuals produce conflict by promoting themselves at the expense of others, as when masters of the put-down make others look bad or appear wrong. Whatever the technique, they create a climate of intimidation that plays havoc with productive participation. Still others come with closed minds and

an overriding need to defend their turf from real or imagined threats. They try to sandbag progress by raising procedural technicalities; or, they refuse to participate, later claiming that they were denied a fair chance to present their objections.

Status over Quality. When there are important status differences among group members, the quality of an idea often plays second fiddle. This is illustrated by a study in which sixty-two permanent aircraft crews were presented with a test problem. Only 6 percent of the higher status pilots failed to obtain crew acceptance of their solutions; whereas, 20 percent of the lower status navigators failed. This, despite the fact that 50 percent of the navigators had the correct solution in comparison to only 31 percent of the pilots (Torrance, 1955).

In another study, seventy five-member groups used conventional discussion procedures to deal with a common problem of judgment. The average group did not include the best ideas of its members in its final solution. Rather, subgroups formed to "sell" the rightness of a given solution, and individual dominance was quite evident (Tuckman and Lorge, 1962).

As a result of being largely ignored, lower status group members learn to withhold contributions with a "What's the use?" attitude. A survey of numerous discussion group studies bears this out. Unless lower status members are protected and encouraged, they will hold back (Hare, 1976). An additional problem, of course, is that the ignored lower status members are not likely to give their enthusiastic support to the group's decisions.

Even when we have status in the group, we may be reluctant to contribute if more able and experienced experts are present, not wanting to appear presumptuous. On the other hand, if we happen to be the most knowledgeable members present, we may withhold useful contributions to avoid the risk of monopolizing group time. Whatever the case, a group often ends up with a decision that is inferior to what it could have produced, had these restraints been eliminated or minimized.

Maintaining Control. Group leaders may believe that the only hope for avoiding loss of control of a meeting is to maintain

a tight, personal rein on everything that happens. Their credo becomes "Give them an inch, and things will start to get out of hand." Unfortunately, more times than not, this will effectively prevent anything of value from happening. In addition, it may cause group members to view a leader as autocratic and egocentric.

Leader apprehension about losing control increases when group members represent competing groups or organizational units. It increases, also, when group members are able individuals from highly diverse backgrounds and the group has not yet reached a mature state of development. Under these conditions, there is a tendency for interpersonal competition to displace objective problem solving.

Conventional procedures do not facilitate dealing with such situations in a relaxed and constructive way. Their failure to provide an adequate impersonal basis for control may nudge a group leader toward undue reliance on personal status or formal position. The result is, despite the best intentions, we fail to realize the richness of group outcomes that a collection of able individuals has the potential to deliver. Unfortunately, after repeated failure to tap this potential, we may give up on the idea by forming safer, more homogeneous groups which have admittedly less problem-solving power.

Absenteeism and Tardiness. "Sorry I'm late," or "Wish I could have made the last meeting," the group member says. "Please fill me in on what has happened."

This is a tough request to deal with, especially if it comes from a key participant. It is easy to report any decisions that have been made, but how can we replay the thinking behind them without postponing or unduly delaying the present meeting? Yet, if we do not, the person's ability to contribute will be seriously handicapped.

Fear. Of all the factors that undermine productive participation, fear is probably the most common and may exist in many forms: fear of being punished for opposing the ideas of a boss or other powerful person; fear of hurting someone's feelings; fear of being embarrassed for putting forth what others may see as a

foolish or questionable idea; or fear of rejection by the group for not sounding like a loyal "team player."

Apparently, such fears played a key part in the planning fiascoes behind the Bay of Pigs invasion and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The President's chief advisers were perceptive and experienced individuals; but, collectively, they failed to deal with many dangers and uncertainties (Janis, 1972).

Furthermore, escalating commitment to a questionable course of action can be further strengthened when a leader manipulates data, such as focusing upon vivid anecdotal information rather than objective facts (Schwenk, 1986).

The procedures presented in this book show how to avoid or minimize the kinds of subversive influences we have discussed. They make it possible to establish and maintain effective control on an impersonal, non-inhibitive basis. Their use eliminates uncertainty about whether or not a collaborative, creative process will be permitted to occur. In addition, their use in a group problem-solving setting fosters the view of the leader as a facilitator rather than boss.

Outside Experts

Can we increase the likelihood that the use of an outside consultant will be cost effective? A consultant often requires many days of study, at a high fee per day plus expenses, before he or she knows enough about a situation to be able to make useful contributions. Is there some way to reduce this cost without reducing the consultant's value to us?

How can we create a climate in which a consultant's useful ideas will be accepted and inappropriate ones rejected by our staff without alienating the consultant?

Given the resentment of insiders toward a NIH (Not Invented Here) idea, the influence of status on idea evaluation, and a consultant's need to save face, the requirements discussed above are difficult to satisfy. This book presents effective means for satisfying them.

Time Constraints

Participation can consume too much time. Think of the factors we have discussed:

· The first come, first served approach;
· Compulsive talkers;
· Pursuit of personal objectives on group time;
· Time required to brief absentees and latecomers;
· People beating around the bush, afraid to tell it like it is; and
· Time required to brief consultants.

Is it any wonder that we find ourselves saying: "Sure, we'd like to have our people review all of our rules, policies, and procedures on a regular basis," and "Yes, we'd like to permit fuller participation in the meetings we have," but "Have you any idea of the amount of time that would be required? We just don't have it."

How many meetings start out on a participative note only to end on an autocratic one because time runs out? How discouraging it is to observe the railroading of poorly considered decisions at the end of a meeting. We think: "Is this the best we can do? There must be a better way." Well, there is. This book shows how to get more mileage out of meeting time than you may have thought possible, without scrimping on the quality of participation.

In Conclusion

The benefits of participation (demonstrated in Chapter One) are supported by theorists who point up the need for an organization to maintain a balanced combination of the following six pairs of properties if it is to be adaptive: (l) consensus and dissension; (2) contentment and dissatisfaction; (3) affluence and poverty; (4) planning and spontaneity; (5) change and stability; and (6) rationality and wisdom (Hedberg, Nystrom, and Starbuck, 1976).

Effective participation at work is essential to most of these ends. It helps to identify key problems, solve them, and make the

solutions work more effectively. It enhances team spirit, respect for the leader, and our own self-respect.

In addition, it appears to have important implications for our ability to function as productive citizens. Karasek (1981) tracked workers over a period of years and found that those whose jobs had become less demanding, with diminished control over job-related decisions, had become more passive in their leisure and political participation; whereas, those whose jobs had become more demanding, with increased control over job-related decisions, had become more active in their leisure and political participation. Thus, he found a clear link between participation at work and enhanced community activity.

Still, the many headaches we have reviewed in this chapter remain. As an eminent researcher/consultant points out: "My experience is that only a few managers who have grown up with traditional approaches to management can change to be effective in participative systems. There simply seems to be too much to unlearn and too many roadblocks to new learning" (Lawler, 1984, p. 324).

Conventional problem-solving procedures exact a high price in time, frustration, and inefficiency. This book resolves the dilemma. It shows how to lower the price, while improving the benefits.


Effective Group Problem Solving