How Groups Work

If we think that successful groups just grow like fungus on the bottom of a jam jar we had better wake up and smell the coffee!

A productive and efficient Group is the result of a lot of planning, preparation, nurturing, control and enthusiasm, even when the going gets tough and when pressures for increased performance come along. This does not happen by some miracle or happy accident – it takes skill and determination to make the group you are assembling work.

A key starting point should always be setting down, on paper if necessary, what is the task that needs to be tackled and also in being clear what success actually looks like. Following on from this we then need to be really clear about how the group will function to achieve the desired outcome we have set. To leave this out runs the unnecessary risk of having a disjointed, fractured and highly stressful situation of team members pulling in what they consider to be legitimate, but unconnected, directions. Somehow, someway, there has to be some connectivity amongst the different components in the group. In this way the collective approach is particularly good at combining talents and providing innovative solutions to possible unfamiliar problems; in cases where there is no well-established approach/procedure, the wider skill and knowledge set of the group has a distinct advantage over that of the individual.

A well-managed collective which brings together the combined skills of the constituent parts is a reliable place to place delegated responsibility and where the quality of outcomes will be far superior to the wisdom of any one individual working alone.

How about some basic rules for making the Group work well?

  1. What is the group trying to do?

Set the task so that it is clear what the purpose of the group actually is. Although this sounds obvious any ambiguity or uncertainty at this stage will lead to catastrophic outcomes with the desired outcome b=never being fulfilled.

  1. Provide clarification.

Confusion spreads like a bushfire and is rarely brought under control without some serious effort and application. The more people in the group the greater the need to be crystal clear at every step. This should be recorded and then used as a point of reference as the project is delivered. 

  1. Beware the Silent One.

In any group there will always be a member who is not active, takes little (apparent) interest and who needs to be drawn into the action. Make this a priority not least because others will see this person as having a “free-ride” when everyone else is busy with the task, but also because this person may well morph into the Silent Assassin who will ultimately bring the task to an unsatisfactory conclusion.  The Silent One needs to contribute and become part of the action. Or remove them totally.

  1. The Fog Horn.

In any group, there is always a dominant member whose opinions form a disproportionate share of the discussion. It is the responsibility of each individual to consider whether they are that person. It is the responsibility of the group to ask whether the loud-mouth might like to summarize briefly, and then ask for other views. Or if their “contribution” is getting in the way of others then tone them down or remove them.

  1. The written record.

Often a decision which is not recorded will become clouded and have to be reworked. Make sure there is a means by which key decisions or stages are recorded to ensure the chosen path is followed systematically.

  1. Sorting out the Feedback.

All criticism must be neutral: focused on the task and not the personality. Nobody likes continual and unhelpful criticism but people will take on-board constructive criticism if it is communicated professionally and carefully. Positive suggestions for improvement are usually accepted especially if suggestions for improvement are measured and explained clearly. Use positive feedback well and give praise where it is needed.

  1. What about failure?

There is no point in accepting the failure and then moving on to look at the next stage in the task. Painful though it is failure needs to be explored by the group to see what learning points come out of the experience and how this can then be used to limit or prevent similar failure outcomes from being repeated. Analysing failure should never be about finding someone to blame and if handled well mistakes are actually good things to experience as long as they are not repeated. Who has never made a genuine mistake? 

  1. Stalemate?

If two opposing points of view are held in the group then some action must be taken. Each sub-group could debate from the other sub-group’s view-point in order to better understand it. Common ground could be emphasised, and the differences viewed for a possible middle or alternative strategy. Each could be debated in the light of the original task. But firstly the group should decide how much time the debate actually merits and then guillotine it after that time – then, if the issue is not critical, toss a coin.

  1. Delivering good quality communication.

Communication is the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener. The speaker must actively seek to express the ideas in a clear and concise manner – the listener must actively seek to understand what has been said and to ask for clarification if unsure.

Moving forward.

Groups are like relationships – you have to work at them. They change and evolve in ways that you never expected them to do and they also have the potential to either amaze or frustrate you. The key lies in how you set up the group and how you define the task and expected outcomes. Failure to set out those parameters will only led to failed outcomes.