Solving Problems using a group - advantages and disadvantages

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by Gary Hadler

During our study and work life we will often be expected to work as a part of a group.  Group work often leaves many feeling frustrated.  I have at many times heard the complaint "It would have been quicker if I had just done it myself".  So when should we use a group to address a particular problem and what are the major advantages and disadvantages of using groups to solve a problem..

A large amount of problem solving takes place in group settings. Meetings and informal discussions are often used to air different ideas and points of view to help solve problems for which the participants have either shared responsibility or a contribution to make.

However, most of the time we do not take full advantage of these situations.

Used at the right time and in the right way, group problem solving can be the most effective way of solving some problems.

Group decision making

When to use group problem solving

Although there are very definite advantages to solving certain problems as a group, others can be solved more effectively by an individual. It's important to know whenand when not to work in a group.

Use this checklist to decide when to use group problem solving:

  • Can the problem be defined in many different ways?

  • Is information from many different sources required?

  •  Is it a very specialised problem, where the expert' might be biased or not see the wider implications?

  • Does the problem have implications for many people?

  • Are there likely to be many possible solutions?

  •  Is it a complex problem with many different aspects?

  • Will a solution need to be agreed by others before it can be implemented?

    The more questions you answer 'yes', the more appropriate it is to use group problem solving. However, the deciding question is always: 'Are suitable and relevant people available to work together in solving this problem'.

Decision making

When people are working together it's inevitable that they will be influenced by each other. This can have a significant effect on the efficiency of group problem solving.

Advantages and disadvantages of using a group to solve a problem:

The disadvantages of group problem solving can include:- 

Competition

Most people working in a group unconsciously perceive the situation as competitive. This generates behaviour which is destructive and drains the creative energy of the group. For example, we often perceive disagreement with our ideas as a put-down. The natural reaction is to regain our self-esteem, often by trying to sabotage the ideas of those who disagreed with us. Instead of looking for ways to improve on their ideas we choose to destroy them.

Eager to express our own ideas, we may totally ignore what others are suggesting. Power-seekers may use ploys such as highlighting flaws in others' arguments, barbed questions and displays of expertise to show their supremacy. These types of behaviour create an atmosphere which is incompatible with effective problem solving.

Conformity

There is a strong tendency for individuals in a group to want to conform to the consensus. This can be for a variety of reasons, including the need to feel liked, valued or respected, and tends to make people censor their ideas accordingly. The comparative status of the individuals present also has an important influence. Senior members often want to maintain their image of being knowledgeable, while junior members want to avoid appearing the inexperienced 'upstart'. Because agreement on ideas can be gained quickly in a group setting, groups tend to select and approve solutions quickly, without exploring all the possibilities.

Lack of objective direction

Most traditional meetings and group discussions convened to solve problems are ineffectively directed. Sometimes there is no effective leader to give direction to the discussion, with the result that it wanders aimlessly. Even when there is strong leadership, the group leader or chairman often exerts undue pressure on the direction and content of the discussion. In addition, the ideas aired during a meeting are not usually recorded, apart from the minutes and individual note-taking, with the result that many ideas are forgotten and cannot act as a constant stimulus to the discussion.

Time constraints

Group problem solving is a relatively slow process compared with working alone. It requires individuals to come together at an agreed time, usually for about one hour, and this can cause organisational problems as well as impatience amongst participants to 'get it over with' as quickly as possible.

The advantages of group problem solving can include:

Greater output

Simply because of the number of people involved, each with differing experience, knowledge, points of view and values, a larger number and variety of ideas for solving a problem can be produced.    

Cross fertilisation

The exchange of ideas can act as a stimulus to the imagination, encouraging individuals to explore ideas they would not otherwise consider.

Reduced bias

The shared responsibility of a group in arriving at decisions can. encourage individuals to explore seemingly unrealistic ideas and to challenge accepted ways of doing things. Individual biases and prejudices can be challenged by the ,group, forcing the individual to recognise them. Group pressure can also encourage individuals to accept that change is needed.

Increased risk taking

Shared responsibility makes individuals more willing to take risks. The discussion of different points of view also helps the group to be more realistic in assessing the risks associated with particular courses of action.

Higher commitment

When goals are agreed it gives a common purpose to the group, within which individuals can gain a feeling of self-determination and recognition through their contri­bution. Individuals who have contributed to finding a solution feel a greater commitment to its successful implementation.

Improved communication

When .people who are affected by a problem or who will be involved in implementation are involved in finding a solution, they will know how and why that particular solution was chosen. Also, people with knowledge relevant to the problem can communicate that knowledge directly if they participate in solving the problem.

Better solutions

Groups of individuals can bring a broad range of ideas, knowledge and skills to bear on a problem. This creates a stimulating interaction of diverse ideas which results in a wider range and better quality of solutions.

Read the next article: The ‘unlucky’ list to bad decision making

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