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Chapter 13 – Page

Chapter 13 - Formal Procedures for Group Decision Making

1. Procedures groups can use to conduct their discussions.

2. The circumstances under which each procedure is most effective.
3. How research has examined these procedures.
4. Computerized versions of these procedures.


As we discussed earlier, it is difficult to judge the performance of a decision-making group. For example, is a new company policy the best one that the group in charge could have created? We have no standard we can use to judge the policy. Instead, the most objective method we can use to evaluate a decision-making group is to look at the procedure, or method, the group uses. We have discussed this idea several times in this book. For instance does the group take into account as many ideas as it can? Does it strive to evaluate these ideas as thoroughly as possible?

Hence, scientists have concentrated on the procedures that decision-making groups use. Even further, researchers have used their observations to make recommendations. They have proposed various formal decision-making procedures that groups can follow. Poole (1990, p. 55) defined these formal procedures as "sets of rules or guidelines which specify how a group should organize its process to achieve a particular goal."

These sets of rules, or guidelines, are the topic of this chapter, and we will be describing a number of them. Before we begin our discussion, we would like to highlight some general ideas about formal procedures.

Advantages of Formal Procedures

Behind the general ideas that we will examine is a unifying concept that formal procedures are helpful. Scientists believe that procedures improve the decision-making performance of groups. In an essay on the topic, Poole (1990) listed a number of reasons for this. All are based on the presumption that natural group discussion, or "free" discussion, is susceptible to serious problems. The purpose of formal procedures is to try to protect groups from these problems. The goal is to help groups avoid difficulties yet still let them take advantage of the potential strengths of group decision making.

We will describe Poole's eight reasons. Each explains why formal procedures can help groups improve their decisions.

Reason 1
First, scientists purposefully design formal procedures so that they are very different from free discussion. This helps groups avoid the dangers of complacency.

Free discussion can be safe and routine because it is the way groups usually make decisions. It follows, then, that formal procedures lead to "unnatural" discussions because groups do not usually use them. "Unnatural" discussions can be uncomfortable and difficult for group members. People who advocate formal procedures see this as a strength. They believe procedures can get group members out of ruts and sloppy habits of thinking. Being forced to act "unnaturally" can make members think more clearly and creatively than they normally do.

Reason 2
Second, formal procedures increase the likelihood that group members think about the same thing at the same time.

In free discussions, coordinating activities may be a problem. One member may be trying to analyze a problem, while a second is proposing a solution, and a third is trying to evaluate earlier proposals. Formal methods, on the other hand, tell members what they should be thinking about at stages of the discussion. This is advantageous because it increases the likelihood that group members stay on the same wavelength.

Reason 3
Third, formal procedures make it difficult for a few talkative members to dominate a group's discussion.

In free discussions one or two people tend to talk a disproportionately large amount of time. This tendency increases as group size increases. The less talkative members get shut out, and the group never hears their ideas. Certain formal procedures, however, can control how much members speak and in which order. These procedures can help ensure that all members have the opportunity to present their ideas. In addition, they make it less likely that a few people can dominate a group's discussion.

Reason 4
Fourth, formal procedures help curb powerful group members.

Powerful members can easily exploit free discussion and use it for their own purposes. This does not happen as easily under the guidelines of formal procedures. Guidelines make it more difficult for powerful members to control what happens during a meeting.

For example, in free discussion a powerful person could set the group rules for what members can and cannot discuss. With a formal procedure, however, the procedure itself determines the group rules. The whims of a powerful member do not have control.

Further, members can reinforce ground rules easier if the group is following a set procedure. Suppose that a group is trying to follow a formal procedure faithfully. Frank makes an inappropriate statement. Dan tries to enforce the procedure and says that Frank's comment was out of line. Frank will know that Dan is using the procedure's group rules as a basis for his judgment and not his own prejudices. Frank is therefore much more likely to accept Dan's judgment.

Reason 5
Fifth, formal procedures help groups deal successfully with conflict.

Without formal group rules, some groups may try to smooth over or ignore conflict. Still other groups may become embroiled in destructive conflict. This destructive conflict can come from power struggles or personality conflicts that have little to do with the substantive issues facing the group.

Procedures help groups deal with conflict in two ways. They force groups to face up to conflict, and they lay out rules as to when and how members can discuss disagreements. As a result, procedures increase the likelihood that groups will manage conflict successfully.

Reason 6
Sixth, formal procedures help give a sense of direction to meetings.

When members have a free discussion, they often feel that their meeting is getting nowhere or going around in circles. This can lead to great frustration. Consequently, members may come to a premature decision because they want to end the discussion quickly.

In contrast, under formal methods groups know at all times where they are in a discussion. They know how far along the decision process they have come and how far they have to go. Each step that members complete helps give them a feeling of accomplishment and progress. This makes it less likely that they will become frustrated and less likely that they will make their decision prematurely. Instead, their decision should be better because they take the time they need.

Reason 7
Seventh, formal methods give groups a basis for judging how well they are proceeding.

With free discussion group members often have no way to judge whether their group is handling its discussion well. Under formal guidelines, however, members can more easily determine whether the group is doing what it ought to be doing.

In addition, a procedure makes it more likely that members will evaluate themselves and examine whether they are doing a good job. The group as a whole can use the procedure as a basis for their evaluation. It can help them discuss and evaluate their discussion. This kind of reflection and self-examination is likely to help the group's future performance.

Reason 8
Eighth, a procedure can empower the group members.

Formal guidelines can give members the feeling that they are in control of their destiny as a group. This happens when members know they have followed a procedure well, managed conflict successfully, given all members an equal opportunity to participate, and as a result have made a good decision. Further, this feeling of control is not false if the members have indeed made a good decision after following the steps of a procedure. They truly are in greater control of their destiny than a free discussion group. A free group discussion allows the whims and prejudices of powerful members to control the decision-making process.

Advantages Can Be Problematic for Some

Given all these advantages, why do groups not jump at the opportunity to use procedures? Poole argued that the answer lies in the advantages themselves. These advantages are not seen as attractive by everybody, and indeed are often the reasons groups are less likely to adopt formal procedures.

Why would this be so? Let us go through some advantages and see how they might cause problems for some group members. The first advantage we noted was that procedures are "unnatural" and require effort. This may discourage less dedicated group members from wanting to try them. Another advantage that would be unattractive to some members is the way that procedures can restrict personal power. Members who wish to use group discussion to advance their pet proposals or personal status will fight any effort to use a procedure that will lessen their power. Similarly, members who just want to talk a lot will feel constrained by procedures that control their talk time. Finally, a procedure that makes conflict more open will threaten members who fear conflict.

Recommendations for Using Procedures

Further, groups are wary of formal procedures for other reasons. A procedure is no panacea for group problems. A formal method will scarcely help group members who lack the skills or motivation to think creatively and critically. Additionally, problems can develop if a group trusts one member to lead it through a method and follows that member blindly. The leader could exploit the procedure for personal benefit as easily as someone could exploit a free discussion. Thus, if a group is going to use a procedure, Poole recommended the following:

1. Train as many members as possible in the procedure.

2. Follow the original design of the procedure. Do not allow members to pressure the group into changing the procedure in a way that would damage its effectiveness. If members want to adapt a procedure, they should do so carefully. They should have knowledge about what they are doing and think about all implications of the changes.

3. If the discussion is particularly "touchy," a neutral facilitator should lead the group through the procedure. This does not absolve the members themselves, however, from learning and understanding the procedure.

4. Evaluate the group's performance after the decision is made. The members then should adopt any improvements that they will need for the next time they make a decision.

Researchers have created various formal group procedures. Some consist of extremely detailed rules; others are little more than general guidelines. Before we move on to the extremely detailed procedures, we will review some of the more general ideas.

Consensus Rules

Hall and Watson (1970) proposed six rules to help groups reach a mutually satisfying consensus. As we have discussed throughout this book, a consensus exists when all group members accept a proposal. The rules that Hall and Watson developed are:

1. Members should avoid arguing for their "pet" proposals.

2. Groups should avoid "us against them" stalemates in which each side in a dispute must either "win" or "lose."
3. Members should not comply with a group majority if they do so only to avoid conflict.
4. Groups should not use rules for decision-making that allow them to avoid conflict, such as a "majority wins" rule.
5. Groups should view differences of opinion among members as natural and helpful.
6. Members should consider that their early, initial agreements are suspect and premature.

Methods to Avoid Premature Decisions

Groups can make decisions prematurely if members do not examine their options sufficiently. General procedures have been proposed to help group members avoid premature decisions. We shall focus on two of these procedures: "devil's advocacy" and "dialectical inquiry." Both are similar to the methods that President Kennedy used to keep groupthink out of his group during the Cuban Missile Crisis (see Chapter 12).

These procedures are similar. They are both based on the idea that faulty assumptions can cause problems for groups. The hypothesis is that one reason that groups often make premature decisions is that their members unwittingly accept the same basic assumptions about their group situation.

For example, an environmental organization is planning its activities for the next year. It must estimate how much money it will have available for activities. Members may all have assumptions about the money that the group can raise, and the organization may accept an estimate without questioning it. In the end, the group could come to a decision that leads it into financial difficulties.

Hence, the goal of both procedures is to help members examine their assumptions.

Another similarity between "devil's advocacy" and "dialectical inquiry" involves the way groups should begin their discussions. In both procedures, the decision-making group splits into two subgroups. One subgroup comes up with a preliminary decision. The members of this subgroup also list the assumptions they used to form their decision.

Beyond these similarities, the two procedures start to differ.

In devil's advocacy, the second subgroup prepares a criticism of the preliminary decision and the assumptions behind it. For example, half the planning group in the environmental organization decides on a list of activities. They also estimate the amount of money the organization can raise to pay for activities. The other half proceeds to criticize this preliminary decision. It may reject the decision on the grounds that the assumptions about the money available are too high. The first subgroup then proposes a second preliminary decision in response to the criticisms from the devil's advocacy group. A second list of assumptions is behind this new proposal. What happens next? The second subgroup again criticizes this new decision and the assumptions behind it. Hence, the devil's advocacy procedure sets up a cycle in which groups go back and forth between proposals and criticisms. This cycle continues until the first subgroup comes up with a decision that the second subgroup can accept.

In dialectical inquiry, the second subgroup does not merely criticize the first subgroup's preliminary decision and assumptions but proposes an alternative, based on a different set of assumptions. In the environmental organization, the second subgroup believes that the first group has assumed a level of available income that is too high. Therefore, the second subgroup proposes fewer planned activities. The two subgroups then come together to compare ideas. They look at the feasibility of both proposals and at the accuracy of each one's underlying assumptions. This discussion continues until the entire group reaches a consensus. They must agree on the most valid set of assumptions. Based on those assumptions, they make a final decision (see Mason, 1969, for a description of both devil's advocacy and dialectical inquiry).

General Methods vs. Detailed Procedures

We have discussed several general procedures, such as the consensus rules that Hall and Watson created and the devil's advocacy and dialectical inquiry methods. These general methods can be valuable aids to group decision making. None of them, however, details a procedure that groups should use to govern their actual decision-making process. The procedures that we will examine next attempt to provide such details.


"Linear" Models

All the methods we will examine are linear models. In other words, the models assume that a sequence of stages is important in any decision-making task. The idea is that groups perform best when they divide discussion into a small number of distinct stages. The stages may be, for example, "idea generation," "idea evaluation," and "choice of the best idea." The group should perform each stage in sequential order and never go back to a previous stage once the group has moved on to the next stage in the discussion.


In general, the procedures we will examine differ in two ways. First, theorists make slightly different claims about the degree to which groups should allow members to speak freely. Most models prefer comcon networks, in which all members can talk to one another freely. One method we will describe, however, leans toward a wheel-like structures, in which communication flows through a central member.

Second, and more important, the procedures assume different views of group members' decision-making capabilities. As we discussed in the last chapter, various theories are concerned with people's capabilities when it comes to making decisions. Some of the models we are about to examine assume that people have the ability to optimize totally. Others claim that people are able to use only the grossest satisficing methods. In between these two extremes are some models that compromise between optimizing and satisficing. If you are ever in the position of planning a group decision-making meeting, you should remember these factors as you choose the procedure the group will use. You need to consider your beliefs about the decision-making abilities of the people who will be responsible for the group's verdict.

Our Examination

We will now examine some detailed procedures. We are going to make some suggestions concerning the proper circumstances for using each of the procedures that we will discuss. At this time, except for one case, our recommendations will be based on the logical implications of the models and not on experimental evidence. Later in this chapter, we will discuss research concerning these procedures.

Let us begin our discussion. For our purposes, we will focus on one decision-making task. Let us see how each procedure works when a group must decide on a menu for dinner. We shall call our group the "Diner's Club."


Brainstorming is a technique to help groups generate proposals for alternative courses of action. It was not intended as a method for carrying out the entire decision-making process. Osborn (1957) proposed the idea of brainstorming. He believed it was a way to help people make more creative proposals than they otherwise could have.

As you recall, we distinguished in Chapter 2 between theorists who are wholists and those who are reductionists. Wholists believe that people perform tasks better when they are members of a group than when they are alone. In contrast, reductionists believe that people perform tasks better when they work alone than when they are in groups. Osborn was a firm believer in wholism. He believed that people working in groups have the potential to generate more ideas and more creative ideas than when they work alone.

Osborn also believed, however, that people often do not realize this potential because individuals working in groups are often afraid that other group members will evaluate their ideas negatively. People are particularly afraid that the group will dislike their "craziest" notions. Therefore, group members often are afraid to express their ideas in public. This is a significant drawback because "crazy" ideas are sometimes the most creative and best solutions to problems. Hence, Osborn wanted to provide a technique for generating ideas in groups that would make people comfortable enough to express even their most "off-the-wall" ideas. To do this, he created the brainstorming method.

Brainstorming is easy. The first step is to choose a person to write down all the proposals that the group generates. Next, the members call out their ideas. They do so under unique conditions:

1. Under no circumstances can members evaluate any proposal. Encouragement is fine, but the group does no evaluating until a later stage. Osborn believed that people are apprehensive about suggesting their ideas because they are afraid that others will evaluate these ideas negatively. Therefore, if the group follows the rule that members cannot evaluate proposals, people should feel free to express any ideas that they have. Brainstorming will not work unless the group strictly follows this first rule. If any member begins to evaluate a proposal, the group must enforce the rule by gently reminding the group as a whole not to evaluate ideas.

2. The members should attempt to generate as many proposals as they can. A large quantity of options should ensure that at least a few of them will be good.

3. Participants should "freewheel," that is, attempt to come up with the wildest proposals they can imagine. Most of these ideas will no doubt be bad, but one of them may instead turn out to be a stroke of genius.

4. Members should "piggyback," that is, generate ideas that build on suggestions of other group members.

The Diner's Club brainstorms about dinner suggestions, following the conditions set forth above. They arrange their ideas in columns and find that they have the following list:




French fries


Lo mein



Chow mein

Pork chops

Spaghetti and meat balls


Lamb chops

Spaghetti and meat sauce


As you can see, the Diner's Club has a wide range of ideas for dinner. Did brainstorming help the group? If so, how much? The effectiveness of the brainstorming technique is variously regarded.

Effectiveness of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is most appropriate when the group's task is specific and fairly limited in range. Under these conditions, the technique will lead to proposals that are most likely to be feasible and least likely to be so numerous that they overwhelm the group.

A disadvantage of brainstorming is that the sheer number of options can force a group to spend a great deal of time evaluating possible courses of action. Further, members express many potentially good ideas in a vague form as they brainstorm. Consequently, the group needs a great deal of time to formulate more precise versions of these options to evaluate them properly.

Brainstorming Experiments

Scientists have conducted many experiments in an attempt to discover whether or not brainstorming actually does what Osborn intended. In Chapter 2 we described the work of problem-solving groups. As you recall, the best way to study problem-solving groups is to compare them with "nominal groups" of the same number of people working alone writing down their ideas. We will call this second method the silent generation of proposals. In this way, researchers can compare the quality and quantity of ideas coming from groups and from same-size aggregates. This is also the best technique for studying brainstorming.

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