12 Groups and Problem Solving

Introductory Exercises

  1. Contact two people who work in different parts of your college or university and ask them what problems they consider to be most significant in their immediate office or work area.  What similarities and differences do you see between the two groups of problems?
  2. Ask a family member to describe a problem he or she has solved recently.  Describe the steps the person took in reaching the solution and identify the one(s) that you feel were most important in contributing to the solution.  Which of the steps would you be most likely to take in a similar situation?
  3. Identify two or three aspects of a course you’re taking or have recently taken that you feel could be improved (e.g., grading, course policies, nature of reading materials, etc.).  Describe the steps you might take with a group of fellow students to respond to those elements of the course.
  4. What decision have you made in the last 2–3 years that you’re proudest of?  What lessons or advice do you think someone else could draw from the way you reached that decision?

12.1 Group Problem Solving

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify and describe how to implement seven steps for group problem- solving.

No matter who you are or where you live, problems are an inevitable part of life. This is true for groups as well as for individuals. Some groups—especially work teams—are formed specifically to solve problems. Other groups encounter problems for a wide variety of reasons. Within a family group, a problem might be that a daughter or son wants to get married and the parents do not approve of the marriage partner. In a work group, a problem might be that some workers are putting in more effort than others, yet achieving poorer results. Regardless of the problem, having the resources of a group can be an advantage, as different people can contribute different ideas for how to reach a satisfactory solution.

Once a group encounters a problem, the questions that come up range from “Where do we start?” to “How do we solve it?” While there are many ways to approach a problem, the American educational philosopher John Dewey’s reflective thinking sequence has stood the test of time. This seven step process[1]has produced positive results and serves as a handy organizational structure. If you are member of a group that needs to solve a problem and don’t know where to start, consider these seven simple steps [2]:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Analyze the problem.
  3. Establish criteria.
  4. Consider possible solutions.
  5. Decide on a solution.
  6. Implement the solution.
  7. Follow up on the solution.
Define the Problem

If you don’t know what the problem is, how can you know you’ve solved it? Defining the problem allows the group to set boundaries of what the problem is and what it is not; and begin to formalize a description or definition of the scope, size, or extent of the challenge the group will address. A problem that is too broadly defined can overwhelm the group. If the problem is too narrowly defined, important information will be missed or ignored.

In the following example, we have a web-based company called Favorites which needs to increase its customer base and ultimately sales. A problem-solving group has been formed, and they start by formulating a working definition of the problem.

  • Too Broad: “Sales are off, our numbers are down, and we need more customers.”
  • More Precise: “Sales have been slipping incrementally for 6 of the past 9 months and are significantly lower than a seasonally adjusted comparison to last year. Overall this loss represents a 4.5% reduction in sales from the same time last year. However, when we break it down by product category, sales of our non-edible products have seen a modest but steady increase, while sales of edibles account for the drop off and we need to halt the decline.”
Analyze the Problem

Now the group analyzes the problem, trying to gather information and learn more. The problem is complex and requires more than one area of expertise. Why do non- edible products continue selling well? What is it about the edibles that is turning customers off? Let’s meet our problem-solvers at Favorites.

Kevin is responsible for customer resource management. He is involved with the customer from the point of initial contact through purchase and delivery. Most of the interface is automated in the form of an online “basket model,” where photographs and product descriptions are accompanied by “Buy It” buttons. He is available during normal working business hours for live chat and voice interface if needed, and customers are invited to request additional information. Most Favorites customers do not access this service, but Kevin is kept quite busy, as he also handles returns and complaints. Because Kevin believes that superior service retains customers while attracting new ones, he is always interested in better ways to serve the customer. Looking at edibles and non-edibles, he will study the cycle of customer service and see if there are any common points, from the main webpage through the catalog to the purchase process to returns, at which customers abandon the sale. He has existing customer feedback loops with end-of-sale surveys, but most customers decline to take the survey and there is currently no incentive to participate.

Mariah is responsible for products and purchasing. She wants to offer the best products at the lowest price, and to offer new products that are unusual, rare, or exotic. She regularly adds new products to the Favorites catalog and culls underperformers. Right now she has the data on every product and its sales history, but it is a challenge to represent it. She will analyze current sales data and produce a report that specifically identifies how each product, edible and non-edible, is performing. She wants to highlight “winners” and “losers” but also recognizes that today’s “losers” may be the hit of tomorrow. It is hard to predict constantly changing tastes and preferences, but that is part of her job. It’s not all science, and it’s not all art. She has to have an eye for what will catch on tomorrow while continuing to provide what is hot today.

Suri is responsible for data management at Favorites. She gathers, analyzes, and presents information gathered from the supply chain, sales, and marketing. She works with vendors to make sure products are available when needed, makes sales predictions based on past sales history, and assesses the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.

The problem-solving group members already have certain information on hand. They know that customer retention is one contributing factor. Attracting new customers is a constant goal, but they are aware of the well-known principle that it takes more effort to attract new customers than to keep existing ones. Thus, it is important to insure a quality customer service experience for existing customers and encourage them to refer friends. The group needs to determine how to promote this favorable customer behavior.

Another contributing factor seems to be that customers often abandon the shopping cart before completing a purchase, especially when purchasing edibles. The group members need to learn more about why this is happening.

Establish Criteria

Establishing the criteria for a solution is the next step. At this point, information is coming in from diverse perspectives, and each group member has contributed information from their perspective, even though there may be several points of overlap.

Kevin: Customers who complete the post-sale survey indicate that they want to know 1) what is the estimated time of delivery, 2) why a specific item was not in stock and when it will be, and 3) why their order sometimes arrives with less than a complete order, with some items back-ordered, without prior notification.

He notes that a very small percentage of customers complete the post-sale survey, and the results are far from scientific. He also notes that it appears the interface is not capable of cross-checking inventory to provide immediate information concerning back orders, so that the customer “buys it” only to learn several days later that it was not in stock. This seems to be especially problematic for edible products, because people may tend to order them for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. But we don’t really know this for sure because of the low participation in the post-sale survey.

Mariah: There are four edible products that frequently sell out. So far, we haven’t been able to boost the appeal of other edibles so that people would order them as a second choice when these sales leaders aren’t available. We also have several rare, exotic products that are slow movers. They have potential, but currently are underperformers.

Suri: We know from a zip code analysis that most of our customers are from a few specific geographic areas associated with above-average incomes. We have very few credit cards declined, and the average sale is over $100.

Shipping costs represent on average 8% of the total sales cost. We do not have sufficient information to produce a customer profile. There is no specific point in the purchase process where basket abandonment tends to happen; it happens fairly uniformly at all steps.

Consider Possible Solutions to the Problem

 The group has listened to each other and now starts to brainstorm ways to address the challenges they have addressed while focusing resources on those solutions that are more likely to produce results.

Kevin: Is it possible for our programmers to create a cross-index feature, linking the product desired with a report of how many are in stock? I’d like the customer to know right away whether it is in stock, or how long they may have to wait. As another idea, is it possible to add incentives to the purchase cycle that won’t negatively impact our overall profit? I’m thinking a small volume discount on multiple items, or perhaps free shipping over a specific dollar amount.

Mariah: I recommend we hold a focus group where customers can sample our edible products and tell us what they like best and why. When the best sellers are sold out, could we offer a discount on related products to provide an instant alternative? We might also cull the underperforming products with a liquidation sale to generate interest.

Suri: If we want to know more about our customers, we need to give them an incentive to complete the post-sale survey. How about a five percent off coupon code for the next purchase, to get them to return and to help us better identify our customer base? We may also want to build in a customer referral rewards program, but it all takes better data in to get results out. We should also explore the supply side of the business and see if we can get a more reliable supply of the leading products, and try to get more advantageous discounts from our suppliers, especially in the edible category.

Decide on a Solution

Kevin, Mariah, and Suri may want to implement all of the solution strategies, but they do not have the resources to do them all. They’ll complete a cost/benefit analysis, which ranks each solution according to its probable impact. The analysis is shown in Table 11.1 “Cost/Benefit Analysis”.

Source Proposed Solution Cost Benefit Comment
Kevin Integrate the cross-index feature High High Many of our competitors already have this feature
Kevin Volume discount Low Medium May increase sales slightly
Kevin Free shipping Low Low This has a downside in making customers more aware of shipping costs if their order doesn’t qualify for free shipping
Mariah Hold a focus group to taste edible products High Medium Difficult to select participants representative of our customer base
Mariah Search for alternative products to high performers Medium Medium We can’t know for sure which products customers will like best
Mariah Liquidate underperformers Low Low Might create a “bargain basement” impression inconsistent with our brand
Source Proposed Solution Cost Benefit Comment
Suri Incentive for post-sale survey completion Low Medium Make sure the incentive process is easy for the customer
Suri Incentive for customer referrals Low Medium People may feel uncomfortable referring friends if it is seen as putting them in a marketing role
Suri Find a more reliable supply of top-selling edibles Medium High We already know customers want these products
Suri Negotiate better discounts from vendors Low High If we can do this without alienating our best vendors, it will be a win-win

Now that the options have been presented with their costs and benefits, it is easier for the group to decide which courses of action are likely to yield the best outcomes. The analysis helps the group members to see beyond the immediate cost of implementing a given solution. For example, Kevin’s suggestion of offering free shipping won’t cost Favorites much money, but it also may not pay off in customer goodwill. And even though Mariah’s suggestion of having a focus group might sound like a good idea, it will be expensive and its benefits are questionable.

A careful reading of the analysis indicates that Kevin’s best suggestion is to integrate the cross-index feature in the ordering process so that customers can know immediately whether an item is in stock or on back order. Of Mariah’s suggestions, searching for alternative products is probably the most likely to benefit Favorites. And Suri’s two supply-side suggestions are likely to result in positive outcomes.

Implement the Solution

Kevin is faced with the challenge of designing the computer interface without incurring unacceptable costs. He strongly believes that the interface will pay for itself within the first year—or, to put if more bluntly, that Favorites’ declining sales will get worse if the website does not soon have this feature. He asks to meet with top management to get budget approval and secures their agreement, on one condition: He must negotiate a compensation schedule with the Information Technology consultants that includes delayed compensation in the form of bonuses after the feature has been up and running successfully for six months.

Mariah knows that searching for alternative products is a never-ending process, but it takes time and the company needs results. She decides to invest time evaluating products that competing companies currently offer, especially in the edible category, on the theory that customers who find their desired items sold out on the Favorites website may have been buying alternative products elsewhere instead of choosing an alternative from Favorites’ product lines.

Suri decides to approach the vendors of the four frequently sold-out products and ask point blank: “What would it take to get you to produce these items more reliably in greater quantities?” By opening the channel of communication with these vendors, she is able to motivate them to make modifications that will improve the reliability and quantity. She also approaches the vendors of the less popular products with a request for better discounts in return for cooperation in developing and test-marketing new products.

Follow up on the Solution
Kevin: After several beta tests, the cross-index feature was implemented and has been in place for 30 days. Now customers see either “In stock” or “Available [mo/da/yr]” in the shopping basket. As expected, Kevin notes a decrease in the number of chat and phone inquiries to the effect of, “Will this item arrive before my wife’s birthday?” However, he notes an increase in inquiries asking “Why isn’t this item in stock?” It is difficult to tell whether customer satisfaction is higher overall.
Mariah: In exploring the merchandise available from competing merchants, she got several ideas for modifying Favorites’ product line to offer more flavors and other variations on popular edibles. Working with vendors, she found that these modifications cost very little. Within the first 30 days of adding these items to the product line, sales are up. Mariah believes these additions also serve to enhance the Favorites brand identity, but she has no data to back this up.
Suri: So far, the vendors supplying the four top-selling edibles have fulfilled their promise of increasing quantity and reliability. However, three of the four items have still sold out, raising the question of whether Favorites needs to bring in one or more additional vendors to produce these items. Of the vendors with which Favorites asked to negotiate better discounts, some refused, and two of these were “stolen” by a competing merchant so that they no longer sell to Favorites. In addition, one of the vendors that agreed to give a better discount was unexpectedly forced to cease operations for several weeks because of a fire.

This scenario allows us to see the problem may have many dimensions, and may have several solutions, but resources can be limited and not every solution is successful. Even though the problem is not immediately resolved, the group problem-solving pattern serves as a useful guide through the problem-solving process.

Key Takeaways

Group problem-solving can be an orderly process when it is broken down into seven specific stages.


  1. Think of a problem encountered in the past by a group of which you are a member.  How did the group solve the problem?  How satisfactory was the solution? Discuss your results with your classmates.
  2. Consider again the problem you described in Exercise #1. In view of the seven-step framework, which steps did the group utilize?  Would following the full seven-step framework have been helpful? Discuss your opinion with a classmate.
  3. Research one business that you would like to know more about and see if you can learn about how they communicate in groups and teams  Compare your results with those of classmates.
  4. Think of a decision you will be making some time in the near future.  Apply the cost/benefit analysis framework to your decision.  Do you find this method helpful?  Discuss your results with classmates.

12.2 Group Decision-Making

Learning Objectives

  1. Define decision-making and distinguish between decision-making and problem-solving.
  2. Describe five methods of group decision-making.
  3. Identify six guidelines for consensus decision-making.
  4. Define autocratic, democratic, and participative decision-making styles and place them within the Tannenbaum-Schmidt continuum.

Life is the sum of all your choices.

–  Albert Camus

Simply put, decision-making is the process of choosing among options and arriving at a position, judgment, or action. It usually answers a “wh-” question—i.e., what, who, where, or when?—or perhaps a “how” question.

A group may, of course, make a decision in order to solve a problem. For instance, a group of students might discover halfway through a project that some of its members are failing to contribute to the required work. They might then decide to develop a written timeline and a set of deadlines for itself if it believes that action will lead them out of their difficulty.

Not every group decision, however, will be in response to a problem. Many decisions relate to routine logistical matters such as when and where to schedule an event or how to reach someone who wasn’t able to make it to a meeting (routine in nature; applicable to fundamental elements and considerations of how an organization or process works).  Thus, decision-making differs from problem-solving.

Any decision-making in a group, even about routine topics, is significant. Why? Because decision-making, like problem-solving, results in a change in a group’s status, posture, or stature. Such change, in turn, requires energy and attention on the part of a group in order for the group to progress easily into a new reality.  Things will be different in the group once a problem has been solved or a decision has been reached, and group members will need to adjust.

Methods of Reaching Decisions

 Research does indicate that groups generate more ideas and make more accurate decisions on matters for which a known preferred  solution  exists,  but  they  also operate more slowly than individuals.  [3]Under  time  pressure  and  other  constraints,  some  group  leaders  exercise  their power to make a decision  unilaterally—alone—because they’re willing to sacrifice a degree of accuracy for the sake of speed. Sometimes this behavior turns out to be wise; sometimes it doesn’t.

Assuming that a group determines that it must reach a  decision  together  on  some matter, rather than deferring to the will of a single person, it can proceed according        to several methods. Parker and Hoffman [4], along with Hartley and Dawson [5], place decision-making procedures in several categories.

Here is a synthesis of their views of how decision-making can take place:

1.  “A plop.”

A group may conduct a discussion in which members express views and identify alternatives but then reach no decision and take no action. When people go their own ways after such a “plop,” things sometimes take care of themselves, and the lack of a decision causes no difficulties. On the other hand, if a group ignores or postpones a decision which really needs attention, its members may confront tougher decisions later—some of which may deal with problems brought about by not addressing a topic when it was at an early stage.

2.  Delegation to an expert.

A group may not be ready to make a decision at a given time, either because it lacks sufficient information or is experiencing unresolved conflict among members with differing views. In such a situation, the group may not want to simply drop the matter and move on. Instead, it may turn to one of its members who everyone feels has the expertise to choose wisely among the alternatives that the group is considering.

The group can either ask the expert to come back later with a final proposal or simply allow the person to make the decision alone after having gathered whatever further information he or she feels is necessary.

3.  Averaging.

Group members may shift their individual stances regarding a question by “splitting the difference” to reach a “middle ground.” This technique tends to work most easily if numbers are involved. For instance, a group trying to decide how much money to spend on a gift for a departing member might ask everyone for a preferred amount and agree to spend whatever is computed by averaging those amounts.

4.  Voting.

If you need to be quick and definitive in making a decision, voting is probably the best method. Everyone in mainstream American society is familiar with the process, for one thing, and its outcome is inherently clear and obvious. A majority vote requires that more than half of a group’s members vote for a proposal, whereas a proposal subject to a two-thirds vote will not pass unless twice as many members show support as those who oppose it.

Voting is essentially a win/lose activity. You can probably remember a time when you or someone else in a group composed part of a strong and passionate minority whose desires were thwarted because of the results of a vote. How much commitment did you feel to support the results of that vote?

Voting does offer a quick and simple way to reach decisions, but it works better in some situations than in others. If the members of a group see no other way to overcome a deadlock, for instance, voting may make sense. Likewise, very large groups and those facing serious time constraints may see advantages to voting. Finally, the efficiency of voting is appealing when it comes to making routine or noncontroversial decisions that need only to be officially approved.

5. Consensus.

In consensus decision-making, group members reach a resolution which all of the members can support as being acceptable as a means of accomplishing some mutual goal even though it may not be the preferred choice for everyone. In common use, “consensus” can range in meaning from unanimity to a simple majority vote. In public policy facilitation and multilateral international negotiations, however, the term refers to a general agreement reached after discussions and consultations, usually without voting. “consensus”. (2002). In [6]

Consensus should not be confused with unanimity, which means only that no one has explicitly stated objections to a proposal or decision.  Although unanimity can certainly convey an accurate perspective of a group’s views at times, groupthink also often leads to unanimous decisions. Therefore, it’s probably wise to be cautious when a group of diverse people seems to have formed a totally unified bloc with respect to choices among controversial alternatives.

When a consensus decision is reached through full interchange of views and is then adopted in good faith by all parties to a discussion, it can energize and motivate a group. Besides avoiding the win/lose elements intrinsic to voting, it converts each member’s investment in a decision into a stake in preserving and promoting the decision after it has been agreed upon.

Guidelines for Seeking Consensus

How can a group actually go about working toward consensus? Here are some guidelines for the process:

First, be sure everyone knows the definition of consensus and is comfortable with observing them. For many group members, this may mean suspending judgment and trying something they’ve never done before. Remind people that consensus requires a joint dedication to moving forward toward improvement in and by the group.

Second, endeavor to solicit participation by every member of the group. Even the naturally quietest person should be actively “polled” from time to time for his or her perspectives. In fact, it’s a good idea to take special pains to ask for varied viewpoints when discussion seems to be stalled or contentious.

Third, listen honestly and openly to each group member’s viewpoints. Attempt to seek and gather information from others. Do your best to subdue your emotions and your tendency to judge and evaluate.

Fourth, be patient. To reach consensus often takes much more time than voting would. A premature “agreement” reached because people give in to speed things up or avoid conflict is likely later to weaken or fall apart.

Fifth, always look for mutually acceptable ways to make it through challenging circumstances. Don’t resort to chance mechanisms like flipping a coin, and don’t trade decisions arbitrarily just so that things come out equally for people who remain committed to opposing views.

Sixth, resolve gridlock earnestly. Stop and ask, “Have we really identified every possible feasible way that our group might act?” If members of a group simply can’t agree on one alternative, see if they can all find and accept a next-best option. Then be sure to request an explicit statement from them that they are prepared to genuinely commit themselves to that option.

One variation on consensus decision-making calls upon a group’s leader to ask its members, before initiating a discussion, to agree to a deadline and a “safety valve.” The deadline would be a time by which everyone in the group feels they need to have reached a decision. The “safety valve” would be a statement that any member can veto the will of the rest of the group to act in a certain way, but only if he or she takes responsibility for moving the group forward in some other positive direction.

Although consensus entails full participation and assent within a group, it usually can’t be reached without guidance from a leader. One college president we knew was a master at escorting his executive team to consensus. Without coercing or rushing them, he would regularly involve them all in discussions and lead their conversations to a point at which everyone was nodding in agreement, or at least conveying acceptance of a decision. Rather than leaving things at that point, however, the president would generally say, “We seem to have reached a decision to do XYZ. Is there anyone who objects?” Once people had this last opportunity to add further comments of their own, the group could move forward with a sense that it had a common vision in mind.

Consensus decision-making is easiest within groups whose members know and respect each other, whose authority is more or less evenly distributed, and whose basic values are shared. Some charitable and religious groups meet these conditions and have long been able to use consensus decision-making as a matter of principle. The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, began using consensus as early as the 17th century. Its affiliated international service agency, the American Friends Service Committee, employs the same approach. The Mennonite Church has also long made use of consensus decision-making.

Key Takeaways

Groups may choose among several methods of decision-making, including consensus, depending on their circumstances and the characteristics of their leaders and members. Making decisions which are consistent with the group’s values is of paramount importance.


  1. Think of major decisions made in the last couple of years by two groups you’re a part of. Which method from this section did the groups use in each case? Which of the decisions are you more satisfied with now? Why? To what degree do you feel the decision-making methods the groups used fit the circumstances and the characteristics of the groups themselves?
  2. Tell a classmate about a decision that a group you’re part of needs to make shortly. Ask the classmate for his/her advice on which decision- making method the group should employ.
  3. A major hesitation raised by some people with respect to consensus decision-making is that it requires much more time than voting or other direct methods. In what kind of situation would you be, or have you been, willing to invest “as much time as it takes” to reach consensus in a group?

12.3   Facilitating the Task-Oriented Group

Learning Objectives

  1. Define “group facilitation”
  2. Identify five guidelines for facilitating a task-oriented group
  3. Distinguish between collaboration and “coliberation”


You’ve probably experienced being part of groups that pleased and motivated you. One reason you experienced those positive feelings may have been that the groups planned and executed their tasks so smoothly that you were hardly aware the processes were taking place. In this section we’ll examine ways in which leaders can contribute to such pleasant, easy experiences.

Just as “facile” in English and “fácil” in Spanish mean “easy,” the word “facilitate” itself means “to make something easy” and “group facilitation” consists in easing a group’s growth and progress. Most student, community, and business groups are task-oriented, so we’ll consider here how they can most easily be guided toward accomplishing the tasks they set for themselves. Another section of this book deals specifically with the details of leading meetings, so for now we’ll consider broader questions and principles.

If you’re in a position to facilitate a group, you need to take that position seriously. Just as Pope John XXIII realized with respect to his authority and responsibility in the Catholic Church, it’s best to consider yourself the primary source of direction and the ultimate destination for questions in your group. With those concepts in mind, let’s consider five major guidelines you should probably follow in order to facilitate a group whose purposes include achieving tasks.

  1. Know the group’s members. This means more than just identifying their names and recognizing their faces. If you hope to accomplish anything significant together, you need to be familiar with people’s opinions, their needs, their desires, and their personalities.  Perhaps one member of a group you’re leading is particularly time- conscious, another likes to make jokes, and a third prefers to see concepts represented visually. If you take these propensities into account and respond to them as much as possible, you can draw the best cooperative effort from each of the people. You may want to keep track of who’s done what favors for whom within the group, too. Like it or not, many people operate at least from time to time on the principle that “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
  2. Weigh task and relationship considerations. The word “equilibristic” is sometimes applied to the actions of athletes and musicians. It refers to a capability to balance differing and sometimes conflicting forces so as to maintain continuous movement in a chosen direction.  Although almost any group has some work to do, and all groups comprise people whose welfare needs to be tended to, the effective facilitator realizes that it’s impossible to emphasize both those elements to the same degree all the time. If people are disgruntled or frustrated, they can’t contribute well to accomplishing a task. Likewise, if people are always contented with one another and their group but can’t focus on getting things done, the group will be unable to attain its objectives. To facilitate a group well, thus, requires that you be equilibristic.
  3. Understand and anticipate prevalent features of human psychology. Keep in mind that everyone in a group will perceive what the facilitator does in light of his or her own circumstances and wishes.Recall also  that  everyone  possesses  diverse  and  numerous  capacities for self-justification and self-support. In their book Mistakes were made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Ellion Aronson referred to studies of married couples’ behavior. They indicated that when husbands and  wives are asked what proportion of the housework they perform, the totals always exceed 100 percent by a large margin.  [7] Tavris and Aronson also described the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which presents visitors with interactive exhibits portraying categories of people about whom many of us harbor   negative preconceptions—including ethnic and racial minorities, obese individuals, people with disabilities, and so on. A video attempts to persuade visitors that they possess prejudices, after which two doors   are offered as an exit. One is marked “Prejudiced” and the other is labeled “Unprejudiced.” The second door is locked, to make the point that all of us are indeed subject to prejudice.
  4. Deal well with disruptions. The playwright Paddy Chayevsky wrote that “life is problems.” An effective group facilitator needs to anticipate and skillfully cope with problems as a part of life, whether they’re caused by other people’s behavior or by physical and logistical factors. If you’re an adherent of Theory Y, you probably believe that people enjoy pursuing their goals energetically, in groups or individually. You also probably believe that people prefer to select times and places along the way to relax and recharge. Unfortunately, interruptions often arise in such a way as to make both these aims difficult to achieve. Think about all the unexpected academic, family, and work- related reasons why you and other students you know have found it challenging to “stay the course” toward your personal and collective goals.  A group’s facilitator, thus, needs to make sure that interruptions and disruptions don’t derail it. In fact, he or she might profit from actually celebrating these elements of life, as one Seattle office executive did. According to Dale Turner, the executive’s office had a sign on the wall reading “Don’t be irritated by interruptions. They are your reason for being.” Turner went on to quote the executive as saying “Happily, I have learned how to sit loose in the saddle of life, and I’m not usually disturbed by interruptions. I have made it a habit through the years to leave a stretch factor in my daily schedule. I start early and have tried not to so crowd my day with appointments that I have no time for the unexpected. I have not seen interruptions as an intrusion.” [8]
  5. Keep returning to the task. You’ve probably been part of a group in which the leader or facilitator had what might be called a divergent, rather than a convergent, personality. Perhaps that person had lots of good ideas but seemed to jump around from topic to topic and chore to chore so much that your head spun and you couldn’t keep track of what was going on. Maybe the person “missed the forest for the trees” because of dwelling excessively on minutia—small and insignificant details. Or perhaps each time you met with the group its facilitator led    a discussion of something valuable and important, but every time it    was a different thing.

Another way to think of how a facilitator should keep bringing the group’s attention back to its tasks relates to the process of meditation. Practitioners of meditation know that people’s minds are naturally active and tend to move readily from subject to subject. When someone is meditating, they say, thoughts will naturally pop into his or her mind. The way to deal with this phenomenon is to regard the thoughts as clouds drifting across the sky. Rather than trying to banish them, the better approach is to allow them to pass by and dissipate, and then to return to serene contemplation.  [9]


Above all, a facilitator’s responsibility is to enable members of a group to function together as easily and happily as possible as they pursue their goals. When this happens, the group will achieve a high level of collaboration. In fact, it may rise beyond collaboration to achieve what the author and computer game designer Bernard DeKoven called “[pb_glossary id="573"]coliberation.[/pb_glossary]” In speaking about meetings, he had this to say: “Good meetings aren’t just about work. They’re about fun—keeping people charged up. It’s more than collaboration,  it’s  ‘coliberation’—people  freeing  each other up to think more creatively.”  [10]

Key Takeaways

To facilitate a task-oriented group requires several skills and behaviors and can lead to a state of “coliberation.”


  1. Recall a time when you were in a group whose leader stressed either its task or relationship factors too much.  How did the members of the group react?  Did the leader eventually develop an equilibristic approach?
  2. Do you agree with the business executive who said that interruptions are “your reason for being”?  In your studies and family life, what measures do you take to ensure that interruptions are beneficial rather than destructive? What further steps do you feel you might take in this direction?
  3. Think of someone who effectively facilitated a group you were part of.  Did the person perform the job identified by the Dalai Lama—inspiring faith in the group? If so, how?
  4. What, if anything, do you feel members of most groups need to be “coliberated” from?

12.4 Summary

In this chapter we have explored problem-solving in groups. We have identified steps which groups can use to attack and solve problems, as well as several methods of reaching decisions. We have considered the nature of group creativity and reviewed how brainstorming may contribute to creative problem-solving and decision-making. Finally, we have identified methods which can be used to facilitate the problem-solving and decision-making behavior or task-oriented groups.

Following systematic, sequential processes can help groups communicate in ways which resolve problems and lead to appropriate decisions.

Review Questions

Interpretive Questions

  1. In what 2–3 ways has your view of problem-solving or decision-making changed as a result of reading this chapter?
  2. Under what circumstances, or with what kinds of group members, do you feel brainstorming is most likely to produce better results than other methods of generating creative ideas?

Application Questions

  1. Call the office of a state senator or representative. Ask the person who answers the phone to provide you with a list of five creative ideas the legislator has put forth to solve problems facing his or her constituency. If you wanted to expand on the list, who else would you consult, and what process would you use to generate more ideas?
  2. Pick two historical figures who you believe made it easy for people they lived or worked with to achieve shared goals. Find two or three descriptions of episodes in which those figures took action demonstrating that capacity. Identify someone leading a group of which you’re now a member and share the information about the historical figures with that person. What is the person’s reaction? What do you feel might have made the leader’s response more positive?
  3. Look up the phrase “group decision support system” on line and locate 4–5 software programs meant to assist groups with decisions. List advantages and disadvantages of each and share your conclusions with your classmates.

Additional Resources

http://www.deepfun.com/coliberation/: Bernard “Bernie” De Koven’s blog. A source of provocative ideas on why and how to indulge in creative fun as part of a group.

http://bit.ly/PV635method: A YouTube video describing the “6-3-5 method,” which offers an alternative to traditional brainstorming that attempts to draw and expand upon more ideas from a group of six people.

http://bit.ly/URuMVG: An article in the Minnesota Daily describing how groups of students, faculty members, and community  leaders  envisioned  problems  facing higher education and developed pragmatic proposals for solving them.

http://www.co-intelligence.org/I-decisionmakingwithout.html (“How to Make a Decision Without Making a Decision”): An article describing how guided “non- decision-making” can be used by groups to discover what the author refers to as “big obvious truths.”

http://www.tobe.net/: The website of Dynamic Facilitation Associates, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching groups how to create choices through intentional facilitation. One of the site’s pages, http://www.co-intelligence.org/ dynamicfacilitationGT.html, describes “Co-Counseling” and compassionate communication as further facilitation tools.

Supplemental Videos


  1. Adler, R. (1996).  Communicating at work: principles and practices for business and the professions. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  2. McLean, (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Hoy, W.K., & Miskel, C.G. (1982). Educational administration: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.
  4. Parker, G., & Hoffman, R. (2006). Meeting excellence: 33 tools to lead meetings that get results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Hartley, P., & Dawson, M. (2010). Success in groupwork. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  6. Dictionary of Conflict Resolution, Wiley. Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/wileyconfres/consensus
  7. Tavris, C., &  Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me). Orlando, FL: Harcourt
  8. Turner, D. (1991, March 23). Slaves of habit—we lose when there’s no room for interruptions in our lives. Seattle Times. Retrieved from ProQuest Database.
  9. Rondon, N. (2006, Meditate. Current Health 2 (32), 20–23. Retrieved from ProQuest Database
  10. Matson, E. (1996, April-May). The seven sins of deadly meetings. Fast Company, 122.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Dynamics of Group Communication Copyright © 2021 by Andrea Polites is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book