By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: The paradox of team problem-solving

As I mentioned in my last blog post, we are introducing a bunch of changes in the introductory public management course in the Master of Public Policy program. Partly, this involves moving the course from the spring to the fall. Mainly, though, we are trying to introduce new material, mostly related to "leadership." As a result, I have been spending a significant amount of time this month working on five new classes I will be teaching for the first time in the fall, including reading lots of academic research on the various topics I will be teaching.


One such area is teams. Students will be doing an in-class problem-solving exercise, in which they will first give individual answers and then work on the problem in groups. For this kind of problem -- with a clear answer -- groups almost always do better than individuals. One purpose of the exercise is to counteract a common view among young people that "if you want to do something right, do it yourself" -- students have made it to Harvard because they are strong individual performers.


In preparing for these classes, I've come across an interesting body of experimental research on problem-solving in teams. The literature uncovers a paradox. Teams are brought together to solve problems out of a view that team members can pool and discuss information coming from many sources, that several heads are better than one. However, it has been demonstrated in a number of experiments that team members are considerably more likely to bring up facts relevant to the decision that they all already know rather than facts also relevant to the decision that only a few members of the group know. Furthermore, when widely known facts and lesser-known facts are both brought up, teams tend to give more weight to the widely known facts in making decisions. The paradox is thus that an important value of team decision-making is the ability to consider a wide range of information, but group processes in teams tend to give short shrift to the new information that can come from team deliberations.


Good team leaders should be aware of this tendency and work consciously to counteract it by encouraging unmentioned facts to be brought up in a group discussion.


Steve Kelman




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Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 25, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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