Problem Solving and Ineffective Problem Solving

Problem Solving in Groups

Research shows that groups follow many different approaches to problem solving. Some groups move linearly through a series of steps to reach consensus and some move in a spiral pattern in which they refine, accept, reject, modify and combine ideas as they go along. Whether groups move in something approximating an orderly pattern or go in fits and starts, those groups that arrive at high quality decisions are likely to accomplish certain tasks during their deliberations. These tasks include identifying a specific problem, analyzing the problem arriving at criteria that an effective solution must meet, identifying possible alternative solutions to the problem, comparing the alternatives to the criteria and determining the best solution or combination of solutions.

Defining the Problem

Much wheel spinning takes place during the early stages of group discussion as a result of members not understanding their specific goal. It is the duty of the person, agency or parent group that forms a particular work group to give the group a charge, such as “work out a new way of selecting people for merit pay increases.” However, rarely will the charge be stated in such a way that the group does not need to do some clarification of its own. Even when the charge seems clear, effective groups will want to make sure they are focusing on the real problem and not just symptoms of the problem. Let’s look again at the charge “work out a new way of selecting people for merit pay increases.” What is wrong with this as a problem definition? “Work out a new way of selecting” is too general to be meaningful. A clearer question would be “What are the most important criteria for selecting people for merit pay increases?”

As early as possible, the group should formally state the problem in writing. Unless the group can agree on a formal definition of the problem, there is little likelihood of the group’s being able to work together toward a solution.

Effective problem definitions have these four characteristics.

1. They are stated as questions. Problem solving groups begin from the assumption that solutions are not yet known, so problems should be stated as questions to be answered. For example, the merit pay committee might define the problem it will solve as follows: What are the most important criteria for determining merit pay increases? Phrasing the group’s problem as a question furthers the spirit or inquiry.

2. They contain only one central idea. If the charge includes two questions “Should the college abolish its foreign language and social studies requirements?” the group should break it down into two separate questions: Should the college abolish its foreign language requirement? Should the college abolish its social studies requirement?

3. They use specific and precise language to describe the problem. For instance, the problem definition “What should the department do about courses that aren’t getting the job done?” may be well intentioned and participants may have at least some idea about their goal, but such vague wording as “getting the job done” can lead to problems later. Notice how this revision makes the intent much clearer: “What should the department do about courses that receive low scores on student evaluations?”

4. They can be identified as a question of fact, value or policy. How we organize our problem solving discussion will depend on the kind of question we are addressing: a question of fact, value or policy.

Questions of fact are concerned with discovering what is true or to what extent something is true. Implied in such questions is the possibility of determining truth through the process of examining facts by way of directly observed, spoken or recorded evidence. For instance, “Did Smith steal equipment from the warehouse?” “Did Mary’s report follow the written guidelines for the assignment?” and “Do the data from our experiment support our hypothesis?” are all questions of fact. The group will discuss the validity of the evidence it has to determine what is true.

Questions of value concern subjective judgments of what is right, moral, good or just. Questions of value can be recognized because they often contain evaluative words such as good, reliable, effective, or worthy. For instance, the program development team for a TV sitcom aimed at young teens may discuss, “Is the level of violence in the scripts we have developed appropriate for programs designed to appeal to children?” or “Is the proposed series of ads too sexually provocative?”

Although we can establish criteria for “too sexually provocative” and “effectively” and measure material against those criteria, the criteria we choose and the evidence we accept depend on our judgment. A different group of people using different values might come to a different decision.

Questions of policy concern what courses of action should be taken or what rules should be adopted to solve a problem. “Should the university support international workers rights?” and “Where should the new landfill be built?” are both questions of policy. The inclusion of the word should in questions of policy makes them the easiest to recognize and the easiest to phrase of all problem statements.

Analyzing the Problem

Analysis of a problem entails finding out as much as possible about the problem and determining the criteria that must be met to find an acceptable solution. Three types of information can be helpful in analyzing problems. Most groups begin by sharing the information individual members have acquired through their experience. This is a good starting place, but groups that limit their information gathering to the existing knowledge of members often make decisions based on incomplete or faulty information.

A second source of information that should be examined includes published materials available through libraries, electronic databases and the Internet. From these sources, a group can access information about the problem that has been collected, analyzed and interpreted by others. Just because information is published, however, does not mean that it is accurate or valid. Accuracy and validity are especially an issue when the information comes from an Internet source and the group will also have to evaluate the relevance and usefulness of the information.

A third source of information about a problem can be gleaned from other people. At times, the group may want to consult experts for their ideas about a problem or conduct a survey to gather information from a particular target group. “Doing Research.”

Once group members have gathered information, it must be shared with other members. It is important for group members to share new information to fulfill the ethical responsibility that comes with group discussion. To overcome this tendency, groups need to ask each member to discuss the information he or she has uncovered that seems to contradict his or her personal beliefs about the issue. When addressing a complex issue, separate information sharing from decision making by holding separate meetings spaced far enough apart to enable members to think through their information.

Determining Solution Criteria

Once a group understands the nature of the problem, it is in a position to determine what tests a solution must pass in order to solve the problem. The criteria become the decisive factors in determining whether a particular solution will solve the problem. The criteria that are selected should be ones that the information gathered has suggested are critical to successfully solving the problem.

The criteria that the group decides on will be used to screen alternative solutions. Solutions that do not meet the test of all criteria are eliminated from further consideration. For example, a local citizens committee is charged with selecting a site for a new county jail. The group arrives at the following phrasing for the problem: “Where should the new jail be located?” After the group agrees on this wording, they can then ask the question, “What are the criteria for a good site for a new jail?”

In that discussion, suppose members contribute information related to the county’s budget, the need for inmates to maintain family contact, concerns about proximity to schools and parks and space needs. After considering this kind of information, the group might then select the following criteria for selecting a site:

Maximum cost of $500,000 for purchasing the land.
A location no more than three blocks from public transportation.
A location that is one mile or more from any school, daycare center, playground or youth center.
A lot size of at least ten acres.

When groups discuss and decide on criteria before they think about specific solutions, Kathryn Young and her colleagues (2000) suggest that groups increase the likelihood that they will be able to avoid becoming polarized and will be more likely to come to a decision that all members can accept.

Identifying Possible Solutions

For most policy questions, many possible solutions are possible. The trick is to tap the creative thinking of group members so that many ideas are generated. At this stage of discussion, the goal is not to worry about whether a particular solution fits all the criteria but to come up with a large list of ideas.

One way to identify potential solutions is to brainstorm for ideas, Brainstorming is a free association procedure generating as many ideas as possible by being creative, suspending judgment and combining or adapting the ideas of others. It involves verbalizing your ideas as they come to mind without stopping to evaluate their merits. Members are encouraged, however, to build on the ideas presented by others. In a ten or fifteen minute brainstorming session, a group may come up with twenty or more possible solutions depending on the nature of the problem. For instance, the group working on the jail site question might mention ten or more in just a few minutes of brainstorming, such as sites that individual members have thought of or that they have heard others mention.

Evaluating Solutions

Once the group has a list of possible solutions, it needs to compare each solution alternative to the criteria that it developed. During this phase, the group must determine whether each criterion is equally important or whether certain criteria should be given more weight in evaluating alternative solutions. Whether a group weighs certain criteria more heavily or not, it should use a process that ensures that each alternative solution is thoroughly assessed against all of the criteria.

Research by Randy Hirokawa (1987) confirmed that high quality decisions are made by groups that are “careful, thoughtful and systematic” in evaluating their options (p. 10). In another study, Hirokawa (1988) noted that it is common for groups to begin by eliminating solutions that clearly do not meet important criteria and then to compare the positive features of solutions that remain.


A group brought together for problem solving mayor may not be responsible for making the actual decision, but it is responsible for presenting its recommendation. Decision making is the process of choosing among alternatives. The following five methods differ in the extent to which they require that all members agree with the decision and the amount of time it takes to reach a decision.

1. The expert opinion method. Once the group has eliminated those alternatives that do not meet the criteria, the group asks the member who has the most expertise to select the final choice. This method is quick and it is useful when one member is much more knowledgeable about the issues or has a greater stake in implementation of the decision.

2. The average group opinion method. When using this approach, each member of the group ranks the alternatives that meet all the criteria. These rankings are then averaged and the alternative receiving the highest average ranking becomes the choice. This method is useful for routine decisions or when a decision needs to be made quickly. It can also be used as an intermediate straw poll to enable the group to eliminate low scoring alternatives before moving to a different process for making the final decision.

3. The majority rule method. When using this method, the group votes on each alternative and the one that receives the majority of votes (50 percent + 1) is selected. Although this method is considered democratic, it can create problems for implementation. If the majority voting for an alternative is slight, then there may be nearly as many members who do not support the choice as there are those that do. If these minority members object strongly to the choice, they may sabotage implementation of the solution either through active or passive means.

4. The unanimous decision method. In this method, the group must continue deliberation until every member of the group believes the same solution is the best. As you would expect, it is very difficult to arrive at truly unanimous decisions and to do so takes a lot of time. When a group reaches unanimity, however, it can expect that each member of the group will be fully committed to selling the decision to others and to helping implement the decision.

5. The consensus method. This method is an alternative to the unanimous decision method. In consensus, the group continues deliberation until all members of the group find an acceptable variation, one they can support and are committed to helping implement. Members of a consensus group may believe there is a better solution than the one that has been chosen, but they feel they can support and help implement the one they have agreed to. Although easier to achieve than reaching unanimity, arriving at a consensus is still difficult. Although the majority rule method is widely used, selecting the consensus method is a wise investment if the group needs everyone’s support to implement the decision successfully.

Constraints on Effective Decision Making

Following a structured problem solving process should help groups be more effective, but groups may still face cognitive, affiliative and social constrains that can be interface with constructive decision making (Gouran & Hirokawa, 1996; Janis, 1989.)

Cognitive constraints occur when a group feels under pressure as a result of a difficult task, a shortage of information or limited time. Signs of cognitive constraints are comments like “How do they expect us to get this done in a week?” or “We’ve got it ton of material to sift through.” Overcoming these constraints requires a group to assure itself that the task is important enough to give the necessary time and compensate for the difficulty. For instance, overhauling the method of producing a product will take more time than most would like to spend, but if the overhaul is a necessity to keep a company above water, then the time is well spent.

Egocentric constraints occur when members of the group have high needs for control or are driven by other personal needs. These people see issues in terms of a “win lose.” They feel that by getting the group to accept their position they “win.” If the group chooses another alternative, they have suffered a personal loss. What drives egocentric individuals is not necessarily a strong preference for one alternative but the need to be “right.” Statements like “Well, I know that most of you are new to the commission and have lots of ideas, but I have served in this capacity for the past five years and so I know what won’t work” are sure signs of egocentrism. Egocentric constraints are difficult to overcome, but egocentric individuals are not incapable of rational thinking. Inviting them to verbalize the information upon which they are basing their conclusions can sometimes help them to modify their position and move into problem solving.

Summary (Participating in Group Communication)

Effective groups meet several criteria: They develop clearly defined goals, have an optimum number of diverse members, work to develop cohesiveness, establish norms and establish a good working environment.

Once groups have assembled, they tend to move through five stages of development: forming, getting people come to feel valued and accepted so that they identify with the group; storming, clarifying goals while determining the roles each member will have in the group power structure; norming, solidifying rules for behavior; performing, overcoming obstacles and meeting goals successfully and adjourning, assigning meaning to what they have done and determining how to end or maintain interpersonal relations they have developed.

Once the group has reached the performing stage, they begin to move through a series of steps of problem solving, including defining the problem as a question of fact, value or policy; analyzing the problem; determining solution criteria; identifying possible solutions; evaluating solutions and deciding.

Throughout the problem solving process, members need to deal with the cognitive, affiliative and egocentric constraints that groups encounter.