Thursday, November 13, 2008

Houston, we have a problem...

Last week, I ranted about the group exercise that I needed to complete as part of the Manager component of my curriculum at school. Part II of this exercise was completed this week, and much to my surprise... it didn't suck.

The professor began by discussing the exercise, and the strong feelings it had evoked - in particular, the part where we had to choose the strongest and weakest member of the team. No surprise there - I myself had been strongly opposed to this component of the assignment. After a brief discussion, it was acknowledged that approximately 50% of the teams had "gamed the system" (as my team had done) by developing an equitable system of assigning strongest and weakest members.

He continued by reviewing the goals of the assignment and by pointing out that according to the instructions, the only way to actually fail the assignment was to not hand in the project on time - that was the one clearly specified goal.

Then, as promised, the presentations began. As it turned out, the presentations were essentially the "remedial action" he had alluded to as punishment in the first session (certainly not as ominous as he had tried to make it sound). Only four groups presented, though he pushed each group fairly hard.

One group in particular suited his needs as an illustration. They had opted to race in all scenarios and had rated their performance as a 9/10. Revealing that the group had in fact submitted the assignment 1 minute late, the professor then asked them if they would consider re-evaluating their performance on this particular exercise. They refused to budge, instead arguing circles around why their team's performance was still excellent despite missing the defined deadline. It's hard to convey through writing the experience of witnessing their adamant position, but quite a number of classmates were clearly uncomfortable with it.

It was a matter of fact that the goal was indeed to submit the assignment by the specified time. Quoting from my previous post, it was clearly stated at the beginning of the exercise:

"The activity will take place between 3 and 5 PM. If you do not complete the activities in time, you will fail this component of the course and will have to complete remedial action."

Faced with this information and the fact that the professor had further honed the question to ask not about "team performance" but "team performance on this exercise," the result seemed irrefutable. In their position, I would certainly have admitted that our team needed to accept the reality a failing grade on this assignment... but they refused to budge.

The professor then went over the correct answers to the exercise. Based on fiscal expectations from scenarios A and B, the decision should be to race (though more information should be requested). Based on the additional data provided in scenario C, it becomes clear that engine failure was indeed related to temperature and that at the current temperature failure was guaranteed - therefore, the decision should be not to race.

Then, the professor asked the aforementioned team: knowing that they had not only submitted their assignment late but had also arrived at the incorrect answer, would they even consider that they deserved a mark lower than they had given themselves? Again, they adamantly refused.

What was this scenario really about? It was about the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. NASA, an organization of near limitless resources was faced with the exact same situation as the fictional Carter Racing group. They were faced with extreme pressure to launch and with a single dissenting voice telling them that they could not. That single engineer was ostracized and the mission continued, leading to the death of all seven crew members. In retrospect, it was painfully clear that the evidence predicted this outcome... so how could all the brilliant minds at NASA have gone ahead?

The answer was Groupthink - the same phenomenon to which the Holocaust is attributed to. That is, when you have a strong, cohesive group of people it is easy to ignore dissenting opinions for the maintained solidarity of the group. Disagreeable voices are not listened to, but rather pushed outside of the group. In medicine (and NASA), this is further compounded by the fact that physicians (or engineers) are highly trained, highly intelligent professionals. Because they are so highly trained, they are loathe to be contradicted or admit they are wrong; their are confident in their role as an expert. Similarly, because they are so intelligent, they find it easy to convincingly rationalize and argue their way out of responsibility for a negative outcome.

This was illustrated quite well by our group of colleagues, who were all intelligent, capable people with an excellent team. However, they arrived at the incorrect answer and failed the only measureable objective - yet still refused to accept any responsibility for these failures. Furthermore, there were those that, faced with the full evidence, would have opted to race. Shocking. The professor's point was clear.

The class' anger at the assignment had melted away by the stimulating demonstration being made. I got it. We got it... well, most of us.



The professor made a few further points that I found it necessary to personally reflect on. Firstly, he said that teams that "gamed the system" were more likely to fail the exercise than those who did not - reflective of an inability or unwillingness to address their weaknesses.

On the contrary, some groups that had gamed the system, like ours, did in fact arrive at the correct conclusions and submit on time. But I did consider that many of the most pertinent and mathematical arguments arrived via the one member of our group that chose not to "game the system" with us.

It was further suggested that those who did not want to "game the system" would feel immense pressure by the group to conform - a characterisitc of the cohesive group and Groupthink structure that formed in these situations.

I had previously expressed that, "We did this, except for one of us who decided that they indeed did want to formulate their own opinion of who was strongest and who was weakest. We respected his choice." However, concerned by the implications of the second session, I went back and asked that group member whether he had felt pressured by us to conform. To my relief, he said he never had.

In spite of this, our discussion did not end there. I still felt that the "strongest-weakest" question was unreasonable. The professor himself had admitted wording the question this way so as to evoke a strong enough response that many groups would opt not to conform to the instructions. That in itself was almost an admission that the request itself was not necessarily the best approach, but was necessary in this case for the purposes of illustration.

Indeed, I do not think that the fact that we did not want to isolate a strongest and weakest member of our group indicated an inability to recognize weakness in our group. I'm certain all of us could detect weaknesses in one another... but we all had weaknesses, and they were all different weaknesses. Certainly it is possible to evaluate and work on weaknesses, but it is not constructive to single out a single person as the weakest.

While this might be reasonable from a practical point of view, we must also consider the social aspects of such an action. First of all, by isolating a weakest member, cracks are made in a cohesive group structure. Furthermore, approached in such a manner, the "weakest member" is unlikely to respond favourably to the criticism. This is not necessarily because that member is unreceptive to criticism in general, but rather because we are not wired to accept such singular and broad-ranging finger pointing.

Certainly, we all make personal value judgements (that may or may not be accurate). Thus, we may, in our mind, cognitively isolate a person who we believe to be the weakest member over the lifespan of our team. However, even in this case, it is usually not ideal to try and address these weaknesses through such charged labelling.

I wanted to know, then, did the group member that had not participated in our "gaming" of the system still believe that the question was fair? After the above discussion, we agreed that in most situations the "strongest-weakest" question was not the most tactful approach, though there are some situations where such an evaluation might actually be appropriate (for example, in deciding which employee to let go or in choosing a limited number of staff members to accompany you in a particularly difficult surgery). Nonetheless, for the illustrative purposes of the exercise, the question had served its purpose.

1 comment:

sandlot said...

This post seems to deep to be read 2:53am.

I'm sure it was very thought-provoking though.