Stuck in a group

1024px-Allegorie_op_visserij (2)_edited-2The people making decisions at your place of work have bought into the concept of group synergy, the belief that combined abilities of people in groups produce equals more creative ideas than individuals working alone. Despite the fact that most research points in the opposite direction, your assignment is to work with a group to come up with brilliant new solutions. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?

First, it helps to understand some of the human characteristic that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge so others can build on their ideas.  It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of the group disseminating what they know with the others without the pressure to come up new ideas or commit to any new plan of action.  Clearly defining why we know what we know is another hurdle that may be nearly impossible to overcome.  People base knowledge on various underlying assumptions of which they are often unaware. Have the group take the time to locate and provide sources for the information each one contributes. Without exception  group members should be able to pinpoint the outlook that colors their knowledge.

Then, realize why people fear loss of status if they share their knowledge and creativity. This is a legitimate concern and there is no easy solution to this problem. However, skillful facilitation helps.  A facilitator needs to refrain from making own contributions while openly acknowledging the contribution of others. Skill in mediating a discussion also enables  a more equitable contribution from various members. How often have you been in a group discussion in which one of two people spend most of the time talking?  Take a timer and explain the time limits. After people have used up their allotted minutes, they must be silent and listen to others. This spreads the contribution made by various members and forces them to consider the importance of what they are actually saying.

Finally, choose a variety of activities to get out of the rut of group brainstorming sessions. Tell the group that they should try to push the limits in their attempt to come up with creative solutions. Let them question and critique each other’s work (but not each other as people.) Alternate between group and individual activities, with individual activities taking place away from the presence of the group. Simply having others around, possibly looking over your shoulder, tends to limit on the job creativity. Try improvisational tasks that do not require collaboration with others, such as design of a facility, coordination of an activity, or explanation of a theory. Alter the required mode of output so that group members produce results that are verbal, visual, constructed, active, quantitative and qualitative.

By now you should realize that it takes far more time for a group to produce creative ideas than an individual. However, the bonus to this method is the sense of is community and connectedness. You also have more viewpoints for promoting the acceptance of the creative ideas, if and when the group actually produces them.

Artwork based on painting attributed to Willem Eversdijck (circa 1620–1671)

Nemeth, Charlan J., Personnaz, Bernard,. Personnaz, Marie., and Goncalo, Jack A. (2004) The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, Issue 4, 365–374.
Oltra, Victor and Newell, Sue.(2006)  Knowledge Management Projects and the Learning Cycle: Synergy or Fallacy?  OLKC 2006 Conference at the University of Warwick
Sawyer, Keith.  (2008) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration , Basic Books
Shalley, C. E. (1995) Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 483-503.
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