I used to teach IT subjects at the college level. During the first class of each new course, while going over the course outline and explaining how evaluation would be done, I would have to discuss the requirements for the group project.

I say “have to” because the college included group work as a mandatory skill to be taught and evaluated, reasoning that the college must turn out graduates with the skills demanded by prospective employers and all employers listed “teamwork” as an essential skill. There were practical considerations also. If I had sixty students in a class, it would have been impossible to mentor and grade sixty individual projects on top of the exams, tests and quizzes. Twelve groups of five made it manageable. Despite this, when I mentioned “group project” I was invariably met with a chorus of groans.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sometimes, before mentioning the group project I would ask for a show of hands of those who wanted to start their own business and work independently upon graduation. Perhaps three or four out of the class raised their hands. I then reminded the class that the rest, obviously hoping to go to work for a larger organization, would invariably be forced to work in a group at some point and had to be prepared. Still I was met with a chorus of groans, and I could understand why as I have never liked working in groups myself. Most of the students had been forced to work in groups all through elementary and secondary school and knew what to expect: the loudest person with the biggest ego would appoint him or herself “leader”; a lot of otherwise productive time would be spent in meetings, discussions and arguments; a small core of group members would “decide” on how things would be done; and some people would do absolutely nothing and receive the same grade as all the other group members. I reminded the students that picking only friends and like-minded individuals made for a weak group. Inevitably there were some students who, just like those left to the last when it was time to pick teams for sports, were not wanted in any group and had to be forced on one of the groups with lesser numbers.

So was the students’ aversion to group work well-founded? Advertising guru Alex Osborn is largely credited with popularizing “brainstorming” as a way to generate large quantities of ideas from relatively small groups of people. His books, written in the 1940’s and 1950’s, helped spawn the current business obsession with teamwork. In her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” author Susan Cain quietly debunks what she refers to as “groupthink”. Cain lists three common problems with group work:
• Some individuals sit back and let others do the work
• Only one person can talk at a time while the rest must sit passively
• Fear of looking stupid in front of peers

University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette began studies of group work in 1963. His studies compared the total number of ideas generated in groups to the total number of ideas generated by those working individually. Results showed that those working individually produced more ideas in total and ideas of higher quality than those working in groups. Research has also shown that the ideas generated by groups were fewer and of lower quality as the size of the groups increased. Psychologist Adrian Furnham writes: “If you have talented and creative people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority”. It appears that when it comes to groups, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, but rather just the opposite.

Larsinio at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Cain, the experiences of some large firms such as Reebok International have caused them to go back to cubicles and closed offices as opposed to open-plan offices. But what about large-scale collaboration efforts that have produced results like Linux and Wikipedia? These are the results of large numbers of individuals working independently and then bringing their work together. Furthermore, Internet-scale collaboration involves asynchronous communication such as email, blogs and forums that does not interrupt the work of contributors.

So why are most businesses still clinging to the idea of group work? If you are looking for ways to get more and better work out of your employees you may want to consider whether, like my students, your employees groan when you suggest they form a group.