Overcoming Obstacles to Group Problem Solving
One of the advantages of group problem solving is pulling in experiences, ideas, and strategies from a variety of sources. For that to happen, the group has to achieve a certain level of trust in each other and the ability to communicate clearly.
However, assuming the group does trust its members and are able to communicate, the steps in group problem solving follow the steps in individual problem solving: defining and analyzing the problem, establishing criteria for solutions, generating solutions, selecting the best solution, and then implementing the solution.
So why is group problem solving so much more difficult?
Obstacles to Group Problem Solving
A study of 760 students, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the optimum size for a problem solving group is three to five people. But even in an optimum group, obstacles to group problem solving arise, including:
- Poorly defined problem
- Lack of interest in the problem
- Unequal participation by members of the group
- Lack of criteria for establishing potential solutions and selecting the best solution
- Inadequate expertise or resources in the group
- Inability to get buy-in from stakeholders who were not part of the group
- Failure to move on to implementation.
Addressing the Obstacles
Several different methods have been proposed by various researchers for overcoming the obstacles. Any group involved in problem solving should meet the following criteria:
- Information: To address a poorly defined problem, the group should focus on gathering and analyzing information; the group needs to know why the problem is important, why it should receive priority, and why should it be turned over to this group.
- Meaningfulness: To address lack of interest, the group leader should show why this problem is meaningful to the group; for example, how it directly affects the group’s mission, values, or goals or how it contributes to helping others.
- Fairness: To address unequal participation, the group leader might ask each member to research or define the problem separately—or to work on solutions separately—and then come together for discussion; in addition, the group should uphold the basic rules of communication.
- Help and support: To address inadequate expertise or resources, the group should be expanded and supported to acquire what it is missing; an outside expert might be called in or resources might be allocated from another project.
- Influencing: To address the inability to get buy-in, the techniques in group decision making come into play, as well as the techniques for influencing decisions, in this case the decision to accept the offered solution.
- Diversity: To address the failure to move on to implementation, the group may benefit from increased diversity, that is, from including individuals who see themselves and perform as implementers.
Evaluating Group Problem Solving
Once the problem has been solved and appropriate action has been taken, the group should turn to evaluation, to find out how the problem solving process can be improved. The group now has experience in a type of problem, group interaction, and solution that may be applicable or related to other problems faced by the organization. That wealth of knowledge should be captured to help prevent recurring obstacles.
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