BioPerspectives

Apr 25, 2013

Science Leadership: Project Teams—Group Dynamics and Team Failures

This first part of a four-part series describes the shifts in focus needed to address project teams’ failures.

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    It’s only when individuals work in groups that concepts can move forward, develop, and grow. [© auremar - Fotolia.com]

    Q1. Which root cause of bad decisions do science project teams most typically neglect?
    Q2. What key source of problem solving errors do project teams most frequently ignore?
    Q3. What major factor in drug recalls and new product failures does the industry most overlook?
    A to all questions: Group dynamics

    Ineffective group dynamics significantly undermine science project team performance but largely go unnoticed. This post, part 1 of 4, describes the shifts in focus needed to address project teams’ failures.

  • Group Dynamics: Unnoticed Culprit

    When most scientists make mistakes we take responsibility. We own up to our computation errors, confess our inadequate analyses, and repair our failures of judgment. We go back, review, make adjustments and corrections, and move forward. Yet working hard to address our mistakes, we often overlook one of the most significant, recurring culprits undermining performance, productivity, and achievement: group dynamics.

    When a promising project stalls, it’s often not because team members fail to conduct adequate analysis. Rather, a vocal minority dominates the team’s discussions, crowding out introverted team members who possess key insights. When a review board approves a flawed project, it’s often not because board members lack intelligence or objectivity. Rather, board members’ quick agreement fogged their awareness of the need to look more closely at the data they possessed.

    Scientists may prefer to work alone, but we use groups extensively. We use groups to engage the multiple, diverse disciplines necessary to grow a concept into a product. We use groups to tackle projects, solve specific problems, and explore opportunities. We use groups to provide feedback, insight, and perspective to individuals. We use groups to review the work of other groups. It’s only when individuals work in groups that concepts can move forward, develop, and grow. Yet our understanding of and skills with groups both lag far behind our individual efforts.

  • Learning from the Airline Industry

    Some industries already perform admirably, addressing the significant problems group dynamics cause. For more than a decade, the airline industry has required cockpit crews to participate in CRM (crew resource management) training to reduce pilot / crew errors in problem solving and decision-making. The industry initiated that training following intense scrutiny of post-crash black box recorded conversations documenting crew members’ failure to effectively express, respond to, and intelligently engage crucial factual information.

    Reviewing transcripts of those conversations conjures up both grim events and striking parallels to a wide range of other business situations. Reflecting on the navigator’s too-subtle comment, “I think we’re losing altitude,” we hear echoes of a statistician too quietly reminding the project team that the sample size isn’t big enough. Reading about the pilot’s ignoring the co-pilot’s observation that the ice on the wings seems extreme, we see the project leader clinician not quite picking up the quality professional’s contention that the group is interpreting the quality data incorrectly.

    Other industries have applied the core principles and practices of crew resource management to improve their own project and group communications shortcomings. Maritime, firefighting, and maintenance have made significant strides developing similar programs to improve group and project communications and performance. It’s time all project teams, review boards, committees, and groups followed suit.

  • Four Focus Shifts Clarify Group Problems

    Industries that have made progress addressing group and team communications problems began by shifting focus in four ways:

    1. From individuals to group dynamics. When groups make a mistake, we immediately demand to know “Who’s to blame?” We focus on individuals—their words, emotions, motivations, and intentions. It’s also useful to focus on group dynamics. Individuals participate in and influence groups but don’t, and can’t, control them. Focusing on individuals, we miss the larger problems. We neglect the recurring, predictable problems of group dynamics that create a dysfunctional environment that brings out every member’s worst thinking.
    2. From processes of conflict to processes of agreement. When we initially look for group and team problems we focus on conflict, disagreement, and discord. Some groups do fail because they argue too much, and often, over things that don’t matter. Often, however, groups make the most egregious errors in an atmosphere of camaraderie and harmony. Psychologist Irving Janis’ studies of groupthink in the military’s tragically flawed 1960’s decision to invade Cuba’s Bay of Pigs show how groups’ relatively quick, efficient agreement masked their neglect of useful intelligence data. A drive to reach consensus and be a “good team citizen” can make it extremely difficult for group members to surface important information.
    3. From leaders to people who don’t participate. When we first debrief a group’s actions, we often focus on its leaders’ comments and sentiments—the dominant, prevailing views most people expressed. We take these to be the views of all the group members. We don’t realize that the silence of some group members reflects more their introversion than their agreement with the majority opinion. Often, it’s the people who did not participate who possess the key, valuable information that can lead the group to better solutions and more informed decisions.
    4. From what groups do to how they do it. Assessing our groups, meetings, committees, review boards, task forces, and departments, we usually focus on what they’ve done. We want to know what they decided, concluded, and reported. Focusing on group process means that we also look into how they reached their decisions, formed their conclusions, and wrote their reports.

    Focusing on group dynamics asks us to improve our understanding of something that is intangible and often elusive. It’s understandable and easy to focus on who’s to blame, who dominated, and what a group decided. It will take some effort to better understand the patterns of group communications, the sources of team members’ flawed agreements, and roots of nonparticipation. But it’s quite also possible, and completely necessary.

    Be sure to check out parts 2, 3, and 4, which will explore strategies, skills, and teambuilding that improve project group dynamics.


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