In my little corner of the world, students are getting ready to head back to school this week. The stores are packed with parents who are desperately trying to leave the school supply aisle with some semblance of a paycheck remaining, while their children employ either manipulation or tantrums in an effort to get everything on the shelf into their parent’s cart. Even though I have been out of school for a number of years, I have still spent more years of my life in school than I have outside of it, and I still feel the energy build-up that most kids feel just before heading back to school. Not every kid feels that way, but if the child is like me is spends the summer desperately missing their Scholastic book order forms that come once a month when you are in school, then the summer can be rough if you aren’t well supplied with reading materials!
With the joys of returning to school comes the joys of group projects. Did you sense the eye roll? Students the world over have the same reaction when it comes to group projects, and it’s usually somewhere on a continuum from “This is going to be a gigantic waste of my time” to “Can’t I just do the project myself?” One of the little lies they tell you when you are in school (and believe me, there are MANY of them), is that with rare exceptions, the group projects will finish when you graduate. It doesn’t take you too much exposure to the working world to know that just like high school never ends, group projects never end.
Only group projects in the working world tend to be slightly worse than the group projects in school. What could possibly accomplish that feat you ask? When you are in school, you don’t have to deal with group identity issues. You are a group because the teacher decided to make you a group, and like it or not you’ve got to find a way to finish the project. That may mean everyone puts in some effort, or it may mean that everyone agrees to let one person do all of the work and then submit it, but there isn’t a ton of room for conflict. You don’t have to think too much about the people in your group, because there isn’t a way to change them.
But in the working world, things are vastly different. Groups are composed of different types of people, everyone from brainiacs to introverts to the office fame-seeker to the head of the rumor mill. A lot of times the members of the group will come and go as the group shifts priorities and projects, so then you are dealing with an “unknown element” in the new person. Group members can get very territorial, impeding communication and eventually causing conflict. And rather than the boss telling you to get it done because your grade depends on it (as teachers do), they might send you to *gulp* team building retreats.
I have nightmares about team building retreats. They are making some people a lot of money running the retreats, but I remain unconvinced of their effectiveness. Spending time away from the office in the company of people I may or may not like, doing exercises like trust falls or human knots is sort of like trying to wallpaper over a crack in the wall. It’s pretty on the surface and will hide some problems for a while, but all it really does is force underlying conflict issues to retreat into a dark corner while the group participants attempt to merely survive the retreat with their sanity in tact. The fact that group members were willing to catch me (and thus avoid a workman’s comp claim) isn’t going to mean much in three months when we’re under pressure to meet a deadline and there are issues with the project’s progression.
I recently read a white paper from Herrmann International (full disclosure – they are in the group building business) which makes the case for an often over-looked aspect of teams. The supposed strength of teams is their diversity; different people think differently and see things from different points of view, and the team approach is supposed to harness that ability to come up with dynamic solutions to problems. But this diversity in thinking is precisely where conflict often arises, and what is the typical response? Send the team away to a retreat to teach them how to modify their behavior. Remind them to be sensitive to others and respectful of opinions. But moderating or changing behavior wasn’t the root cause of the problem…it was the diversity of thought.
Herrmann International champions what it calls the Whole Brain approach to group problem solving. Essentially, it divides everyone into one of four different cognitive styles: Logical, Detailed, People-Oriented and Conceptual. The goal is to recognize that everyone thinks differently, even from project to project a single person might shift into a new mindset. Once this is recognized and acknowledge, both within the group and by the boss, conflict is reduced to a minimum. Items which would have caused group conflict can instead be seen within the frame of a different perspective of a unified whole. This also means that tasks can be allocated to group members who are best suited for them, thus leading to higher productivity. From the managerial perspective, this a great tool to reduce the Group Think phenomenon. If a group seems to be unable to meet its goals, take a look at the people in the group. You might need to get some new perspectives in there.
This idea seems like a much better and more effective way to get at the root of the problem causing group conflict, and thus encourage progress. You can download the whitepaper here and see what you think about its ideas.