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Discontent With Process and Content: Part II

We are all familiar with the dark side of working in groups. We may acknowledge the benefits of having a team, but the mental stamina it takes and the helpless feeling of losing time to never-ending aimless discussions (passive-aggressive arguments) really test our patience and ability to persevere. Often, if not most of the time, these problems are the result of poor group process (that is, how things get done, as opposed to what gets done), so if you hope to be a leader (or rather, an effective leader) it is your job to attend to the group’s process and spare your team the painful tedium of unproductive group meetings. In my last post, I introduced group process by telling the story of how I accidentally set up a group for failure. This post tells the story of how I began to set things right.

I began the conversation by asking the group to review and list its norms. It was obvious to me that conflict in the group had moved from task conflict (debate about the content of the work), which can be productive, to relationship conflict, which was having an impact on mutual respect. With that in mind I made sure respect for each other’s opinions was on the list of norms. This was the only norm I insisted on. Other norms to emerge were around timeliness (e.g., arriving at meetings on time), communication (e.g., responding to emails within 24 hours), and listening (e.g., not interrupting while others are speaking). Once the list was finished everyone agreed to abide by those norms, though we acknowledged the list might be incomplete or need to be amended. While explicitly stating group norms does not ensure compliance, it will at least help people reflect on their own behavior without pointing any fingers. And, when the process deteriorates in the future, these norms can be revisited and the group can decide whether or not they are being respected.

Once the group was satisfied with the list of norms, they were excited to start working on content again. This would have to wait a few minutes, however, as we had not yet agreed upon an agenda. Buoyed by the accomplishment of having worked together to get something done (the list of norms), yet discouraged by the new setback (the onerous task of creating an agenda), the group persevered and trudged on. In order to create the agenda, we identified the problem to be addressed and the goals for the meeting. We then listed the relevant decision points, and finally we acknowledged our time boundaries.

The group’s spirits lifted with this new victory, and surely we were ready to move on to the task at hand. Yet, I insisted on slowing the group down once more in order to assign a few roles to help the group function once we did start working on the content. I volunteered to act as the facilitator for the first meeting, and as a process consultant as needed in subsequent meetings, but the group also needed a timekeeper, a scribe, and potentially leaders representing each subgroup (the class was separated into four). I also insisted on a discussion about the authority given to the people who filled those roles, and to each of the sub-groups in the class. This discussion outlined which decisions needed to be vetted by the entire class, and which could be made by subgroups.

While the small victories of agreeing on norms, agenda items, roles, and authority were helping the class feel comfortable working together again, they were getting restless; if we didn’t start working on the content of the project soon, the mutiny I was worried about earlier would surely come. There was one small issue to cover before we could have that discussion, however. What would the process be?

You may be wondering, about now, what I have been rambling on about for two full blog posts if not process. And you would be right. These posts have been all about process. This final piece I am talking about is task-process. How would we take up the actual task? More than anything else the group had decided on to this point, choosing a task-process would determine the nature of our conversation, and would impact the way the group worked together.


Great work Joaquin. You displayed some important leadership, that hopefully will be appreciated by the class. Why is it that we often don't give ourselves credit for doing process work? Without it the class would surely fail in accomplishing its task, yet that restless feeling remains.

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