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Best Practices for Group Problem Solving

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Working together as a group, whether at work or at home, presents challenges in scheduling, resources, motivation, and type of experience. The group size, diversity, interdependence, and trust also influence the ability of the group to work together. If you add the need to solve a problem on top of already difficult group dynamics, you now have a series of obstacles that may seem impossible to support. What if we knew how to avoid these obstacles from the beginning so that when a problem does occur, we have the right dynamic to handle it?

Avoiding the Obstacles to Group Problem Solving

As a leader, you must be prepared to take actions to avoid group problem solving, such as;

  • Define the problem: everyone must agree on the definition of the problem, that a problem exists, that it is worth solving, and that a group, not a single person, is necessary to solve it.
  • Set the boundaries of the problem: you don’t want to be drawn into debates that are extraneous to the problem but you don’t want to set up the problem so that only one solution is possible.
  • Provide or enable research into the information needed to solve the problem: the available information, experience, and resources must make a practical solution achievable.
  • Set the rules of the group: respectful discussion should rank high.
  • Decide on the composition of the group: the group should include those motivated to solve the problem and those with the expertise needed to find a solution, without becoming so large that it is unwieldy (three to five people is optimum for moderate problems, according to the latest studies); clearly define roles and expectations for each role.
  • Ensure everyone’s common interest in the problem and willingness to participate: a distracted, resentful, uninterested, or hostile group—or even a single member—will struggle to find a solution.
  • Set the criteria for selecting a solution: perhaps everyone in the group must agree or a simple majority; perhaps the group leader will make the final decision or someone else of higher rank or more expertise.
  • Make sure that action is feasible: a solution that is never acted upon is a waste of time.

TIP: The major obstacles to group problem solving include disagreement over the problem itself, the people chosen to solve it, and the value of the group’s involvement. Make sure those potential obstacles are cleared up as far as possible before the group meets.


Meeting the Requirements for Group Problem Solving

The following four requirements for group problem solving apply whether the group consists of professionals, family members, or social contacts.

Group problem solving requires a leader, even if that leader’s role is confined to facilitation. As the leader, you set the agenda, invite the group, promote communication, keep the group on target, and help to resolve conflicts. Be prepared for different leaders to emerge for each of those roles, depending on who recognized the problem, who has the expertise to solve it, and who has the most to gain or lose.

A group needs commonality, which is not the same as a lack of diversity, but instead focuses on a common goal, experience, or some other similarity, such as family ties or status at work. As one researcher explains, “The individuals watching a movie at a theater or those attending a large lecture class might also be considered simply as individuals who are in the same place at the same time but who are not connected….” As a leader, you need to find that connection, explaining, at the least, how they all will be affected if the solution is or is not found.

Group problem solving also requires adequate time, including time to build trust within the group. Groups that have frequent interaction with each other are better at problem-solving. Gathering individuals, conveying information about the problem, researching, discussing various solutions, seeking out resources, and choosing a course of action all take time. If a decision must be made quickly, then you should likely make it alone, communicating with the fastest technology. If you call together a family or social group for a personal decision, let them know whether you want support only or specific solutions—do not waste anyone’s time on discussions you will resent.

Resentment can be best avoided by fairness, which encompasses everything from how you exert your influence to which people and what information you consider essential. Fairness ensures that the group actually has the power and information needed to develop a solution, that everyone will have an equal chance to participate and will be treated respectfully, and that the group’s work will have an effect and be recognized. A lack of fairness not only alienates that group but any group who is expected to work under the same conditions.

TIP: Every group assumes that everyone in the group is motivated and expert enough to find a solution, the group will have sufficient time and resources, and that fairness will rule.


Building a Highly Functional Group

To start a group that is highly functional in problem-solving, you need (1) a well-defined problem; (2) a common goal; (3) agreement on the rules, including who will lead and how solutions will be evaluated; (4) adequate information and resources; (5) a pool of people with an appropriate range of expertise or investment in the problem; and (6) the ability and will to implement the solution.

Effective group leadership depends on your ability to:

  • Communicate
  • See an opportunity where others see only obstacles
  • Break down silos that prevent information exchange and collaboration
  • Model open-mindedness and assertiveness
  • Think strategically

If you find that your group is lacking in problem-solving skills, you may have to change the group’s culture to one in which:

  • A structure for problem-solving is in place which avoids the obstacles and meets the criteria previously listed.
  • Everyone has the obligation and right to contribute to a solution—and to act if the problem is too immediate for a group meeting.
  • Mistakes are allowed and acknowledged but finger-pointing is prohibited.
  • Small victories are celebrated as well as large ones.
  • You regularly demonstrate trust in the group’s ability and avoid micromanaging.
  • Training, coaching, and other outside help is available.

Key Takeaways

Whether you are the leader of a group or a participant, you should insist on a clear definition of the problem, resources to solve the problem, and a mandate to take action. As the leader, you are responsible for creating a structure that encourages participation, fairness, and growth of the group’s trust and problem-solving skills.

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