Basic Management Skills

Groups that Work

Groups form a basic unit of work activity throughout engineering and yet the underlying process is poorly managed. This article looks at the basics of group work and suggests ways to accelerate development.

In the beginning, God made an individual – and then he made a pair. The pair formed a group, together they beget others and thus the group grew. Unfortunately, working in a group led to friction, the group disintegrated in conflict settled in the land of Nod – there has been trouble with groups ever since.

When people work in groups, there are two quite separate issues involved. The first is the task and the problems involved in getting the job done. Frequently this is the only issue which the group considers. The second is the process of the group work itself: the mechanisms by which the group acts as a unit and not as a loose rabble. However, without due attention to this process the value of the group can be diminished or even destroyed; yet with a little explicit management of the process, it can enhance the worth of the group to be many times the sum of the worth of its individuals. It is this synergy which makes group work attractive in corporate organization despite the possible problems (and time spent) in group formation.

This article examines the group process and how it can best be utilized. The key is that the group should be viewed as an important resource whose maintenance must be managed just like any other resource and that this management should be undertaken by the group itself so that it forms a normal part of the group’s activities.

What is a Group?
A group of people working in the same room, or even on a common project, does not necessarily invoke the group process. If the group is managed in a totally autocratic manner, there may be little opportunity for interaction relating to the work; if there is factional within the group, the process may never evolve. On the other hand, the group process may be utilized by normally distant individuals working on different projects.

In simple terms, the group process leads to a spirit of cooperation, coordination and commonly understood procedures and mores. If this is present within a group of people, then their performance will be enhanced by their mutual support (both practical and moral). If you think this is a nebulous concept when applied to the world of industry, consider the opposite effect that a self-opinionated, cantankerous loud-mouth would have on your performance and then contrast that to working with a friendly, open, helpful associate.

Why a Group?
Groups are 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.

In general, however, there is an overriding advantage in a group-based work force which makes it attractive to Management: that it engenders a fuller utilization of the work force.

A group can be seen as a self managing unit. The range of skills provided by its members and the self monitoring which each group performs makes it a reasonably safe recipient for delegated responsibility. Even if a problem could be decided by a single person, there are two main benefits in involving the people who will carry out the decision. Firstly, the motivational aspect of participating in the decision will clearly enhance its implementation. Secondly, there may well be factors which the implementer understands better than the single person who could supposedly have decided alone.

More indirectly, if the lowest echelons of the workforce each become trained, through participation in group decision making, in an understanding of the companies objectives and work practices, then each will be better able to solve work-related problems in general. Further, they will also individually become a safe recipient for delegated authority which is exemplified in the celebrated right of Japanese car workers to halt the production line.

From the individual’s point of view, there is the added incentive that through belonging to a group each can participate in achievements well beyond his/her own individual potential. Less idealistically, the group provides an environment where the individual’s self-perceived level of responsibility and authority is enhanced, in an environment where accountability is shared: thus providing a perfect motivator through enhanced self-esteem coupled with low stress.

Finally, a word about the much vaunted “recognition of the worth of the individual” which is often given as the reason for delegating responsibility to groups of subordinates. While I agree with the sentiment, I am dubious that this is a prime motivator – the bottom line is that the individual’s talents are better utilized in a group, not that they are wonderful human beings.