CONFERENCE FLASHBACK: The problem with problems … in a group!

By Tony Faast, Supreme Commander, Cascade Outreach Group, Trout Lake, Wash.

We’ve all had to try and solve problems with others – colleagues at work, partners, spouses, neighbors, kids, dogs, etc. These interactions all have their own trials and tribulations, some successful … while some … probably not so much. We’ve also had our share of task groups, advisory committees, collaboratives, self-directed teams, blue ribbon panels, endless committee assignments, etc. … all essentially a group of well-meaning folks trying to solve a problem or complete a project.

In this article, (and in the spirit of David Letterman) … we will briefly discuss:

“The Top Ten reasons groups can’t solve problems!”

#10. They never agree on the problem in the first place!

Groups assemble, some willingly … some not … to solve a problem or accomplish a task. Members are often selected for their varied perspective, knowledge, and experience. It should be no surprise, therefore, when each of the participants argue passionately for the solution to their version of the problem!

When assigned to a group of Biologists to facilitate their deliberations on an issue, I asked them “so…what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” One of ‘em irritatingly said, “everybody knows what the problem is!” I replied, “oh really … so what is it, hot shot … I’ll write it down”. I didn’t get halfway through the first sentence before somebody said, “hey, that’s not the problem!” As a group, we worked for the next 90 minutes crafting a problem statement all could agree on.

Even if the problem is stated or delivered to the collaborative group, take a few minutes up front to confirm with everyone, the wording of the problem statement, or the goal of the project. As noted, it will actually take more than a few minutes … but it is time well spent.

#9. Decide how to decide … before you have to decide.

You can’t decide the rules in the middle of a fight! First of all it’s not fair, and second, the person who’s breaking the rules thinks you are making up new rules just because they are winning the argument of the moment! Then you’ve got an argument going about that!

Set the rules in play about how decisions will be made, with group agreement, at least one meeting prior to making those decisions, if not at the very first meeting as part of “Rules of Engagement” for the group. These rules are for the important, substantive stuff.

The nickel/dime decisions all groups make along the way can be handled by the facilitator. Phrases like: “I’m sensing agreement on this point – can someone capture it on a chart so we can all see it?” …“it sounds as though this idea won’t fly right now – let’s move on”… or … “unless there is a serious objection, we’ll go with what we’ve written.” These are known as ‘presumptive close’ statements in facilitation lingo.  

Have a few phrases of your own on hand before you start.

#8. People love a good fight!

Really … they do! For “Type A” personalities, it’s their interactive method of choice!

Remember, participants are together as a group for different reasons & purposes. For some, no action is a win for them, so arguing long and hard on every issue delays group decisions. If there are no decisions, then no one is a winner … or a loser.

Some are actually not there to solve a problem – they just need to do battle w/opponents. That is what their organization does. They are not interested in the dreaded word “compromise”.   Even when the group makes decisions they are not happy with, they can say – “well, at least we went down fighting”!   Give them that chance … and no more!

#7. Groups often take on more responsibility than they are given.

It always amazed me that as hard as it was for a group to decide on anything, they often try to take on more stuff to wrangle about! One Citizen task force I worked with had a huge struggle to come up with Angling Regulation recommendations. Yet when that was accomplished, they felt the need to start debating the Fish Division budget, staffing, and Agency priorities as well!

While it’s always fun to decide somebody else’s spending priorities and who gets hired for what, in this instance that was simply … not their call!

I reminded them of the task (agreed upon earlier), reviewed their group decisions on those issues, thanked them for their time, and ended the session! They had done the job they had been asked to do. Enough already!

#6. “More is always better …”

“We need more time … more data … more money … more input … more/different experts” – Horse Feathers!   With rare exception, most relevant info and data has been assembled for the group by their convener. Participants walk into the room with all the information they need to solve the problem (with the possible exception of money).                                                            

The real problem is not being able, as a group, to AGREE on the solution. It is commonly assumed that the more members, the more data, more info, etc. … the more likely it is to solve the problem. We have rarely found this to be true. BTW – the Feds call this “analysis paralysis”.

A couple more variables to consider:                                                                                              

Group size – a minimum of twelve participants and and a maximum of sixteen is recommended for working group size.

Participation – always ask “who else needs to be here to solve this?” Only one representative from each interest group, but make sure all groups are represented. Time – any lasting solution or product takes about 4-6 months. If the process lasts for a year or more … forget it! Time is being wasted. People start to drop out, run out of gas, get tired of arguing, look for other ways to solve the problem (i.e. lawsuit), etc. Set a realistic deadline and stick to it!

The “we need more” syndrome is a stall tactic – don’t fall for it.  

#5. “Groups are fundamentally incapable of closure on their own!” — Sue Diciple, World Class Facilitator                                                                                                

Closure on an issue means finality, subjugation of a position, win/lose, group ownership of the solution [which may put some professional oppositionists in an awkward position]. Not all of these actions are seen by participants as a positive thing. They often don’t want to close on an issues because all the things they want – prestige, battle opportunities, position defending, good lunches, etc. are present in the group process. They simply don’t want to quit!

As a participant in a hatchery/wild fisheries task group (always a hot topic in the fish business), we met one full day each month… for 10 months! People loved it! All that time essentially one-on-one with the Fish Division Chief and Staff, at the comfortable Agency Headquarters, great catered lunches, free parking, lots of time for all to passionately plead their case (ad nauseam), lots of heated debate – what’s not to like?

When we finally met as a group … post-decision (whew!) … the Fish Chief innocently asked the group “what’s our next step”? Many wanted to continue meeting (note benefits above). I raised my hand and said “I think we should disband! You asked for my organization’s participation (American Fisheries Society), and you got it. The Commission has publicly acted on our group recommendations – we’re done!” Others glared their disapproval at me … as they just wanted to “keep meeting like this”!  [Note: The Fish Chief thanked me after the meeting!]

#4.   Groups fail to realize the power of writing stuff down!

Even cryptic written and posted notes can be a critical factor in group solutions.

One task group of 23 Agency Staff (I know, a few too many… but I didn’t pick ‘em) was struggling with their day-long assignment to revise an Agency policy. At 2:00 that afternoon one of the members blurted out, “hey, there it is!” We all snapped a look out the window… but he continued, ”no! no! … there it is on that chart” pointing to one where we had tried out some language earlier that day, got stalled out, and moved on. (Of course, it was posted, because I always post group work where we can see it). He continued … “if we take what Sally just said, and add it to that stuff we did earlier … that’s it!” He was right. We combined the two ideas, vetted it for group agreement, and called it good. We were headed home by 2:30 with the job well done – hours ahead of schedule.

If it’s worth writing down … it’s worth posting! Facilitators call it giving dignity to the process.

#3. “Time…time…time…time is on my side – yes it is!”   Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones

Sorry Mick, time is not always on your side … and things often tend to get rushed at the end!

Have a FIRM deadline! If your group doesn’t have one, it will be extremely difficult to get them to closure. In most cases, groups will only close on an issue just prior to a deadline. We call it the “term paper syndrome” (like in college, when you finished that paper just after midnite, for an 8:00 AM class – right?) Or, you can observe the same phenomenon by watching the nightly news: a looming National fiscal crisis deadline approaching … with CNN news announcers adding drama to the story … with a countdown clock running in the background … waiting for Congress to act!

Not a great way to do any business, but it’s how groups tend to function.

Another contributing factor in the failure to achieve closure occurs when bureaucrats use the phrase “as long as they’re still talking” … (also see #5). Meaning no Agency action need be taken or policy changed, as long as the Citizen Task Force is still bumbling along … meeting … after meeting … after meeting! Ever hear the phrase, “if the Government does it – it will take forever”?

Remember: twice as long is NEVER twice as good!

#2. 80% rule

Any group can agree on about 80% of a solution!   [experienced collective wisdom]  Group process is hard work. A lot of information, data, understanding, and point/counter-point discussions take place! By the time the group gets to the 80% mark (thanks to skillful facilitation) they’ve worked hard, and have given the issue their best shot.

This is the perfect time to asses group progress by asking, “have we done all we can do?”    It’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ to keep a group pounding away on that last issue when it is clear that’s the one issue the group probably can’t resolve. There is a reason why this issue is the last one on the list! Be aware of that moment when the group is simply – DONE!

Alternatively, that last issue might look differently after the other issues have been resolved by the group. That last 20% may take a different group, a different direction, or a different decision-making process to resolve. Don’t let that stall at the end of your process negate the good work folks have put in so far. Call it good and go home!

#1. Individuals within a group need to “manage their own disappointment! ”

The word compromise has gotten a bad rap in the past few years. Hey, in the U.S. State Department, compromise is a goal! Yet, at least in the natural resource business, compromise is a dreaded word – signifying failure to achieve agency or advocate’s perfect solution to usually some pretty pretty tough issues.

We’ve started introducing the phrase “managing your own disappointment” when alluding to the fact that in a collaborative process, not everyone gets everything they want. Adding that phrase to group expectations … up front … acknowledges the reality of collaboration, and makes the many compromises along the way a little easier for folks to accept.

(BTW – you’ll be surprised how often that phrase is used by everyone after it is introduced).

What we also add to that discussion, is the notion that no one group member should have to manage all the disappointment. It wouldn’t be fair, and the whole point of collaboration is to come up with a collective resolution to an issue, plan, or problem. Everyone should have enough comfort with the group decision that they can support it … without dissent!  [No whiners, please.] You don’t have to love the end result … we’re simply asking you not to trash it!


So now you know the Top Ten Reasons Groups Can’t Solve Problems. There are probably a few more, but if you can resolve these 10, you are well on your way to successful collaboration! Next time your group stalls out … run down the list for some potential fixes.      


OK, one more bit of advice:

When it’s over … it’s over! Get clear direction … have a reasonable timeline … stick to it … do the best the group can do… then say: “thank you” … “good bye” – and move on!                    

Good luck!  


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