Unit 05: Designing a Successful Small Group

A few years ago, I was tasked with designing a small group to develop and execute a new enterprise category initiative for an industry in which we have had very little share in previously – healthcare. “A group consists of three or more people who interact and are interdependent in the sense that their needs and goals cause them to influence each other” (Cartwright & Zander, 1968; Lewin, 1948 as cited in Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2013, p. 254). My first thoughts were to rally the normal troops – the sales leads, research leads, design leads – after six weeks, we had made no headway in strategy and were pushing back execution every day.

Why was this group failing? I realized we were falling into a trap of groupthink, “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (Janis, 1983, p. 9). We were all to similar, to close to the business, to familiar with one another’s preferences to really step outside the box and develop something completely new.

What we needed was diversity. We needed outside experts to “challenge group values,” subgroups to individually work on the problem, then compare solutions (Janis, 1983). There should be “critical evaluators” and opportunities for groups to have a second chance at a preliminary decision (Janis, 1983). What we needed was not a small group designed by geography but rather by problem –solving/specific-task orientation (PSY 533, 2018a).

As Peter Block (2014) says, the real questions one must ask themselves when developing a small group are:

      • How do I get every voice in the room?
      • How do I get people in the room who cross social distance levels?
      • How do I get people in a room who that aren’t like-minded?
      • Now that we’re in the room, how do we structure our time together in a high engagement way?

This is how everyone’s voice gets heard and a diversity of thought (Block, 2014). Once you get everyone together, you need to as a leader of the small group present some statement of purpose that matches the vision of the organization (Block, 2014). Here is where we found a match in “how small group characteristics influence ethics” (PSY 533, 2018a).

Once I took the ‘easy way,’ out of my mind by gathering the geographically similar, I dismissed the first group from the project (reassigned to other projects) and I found a myriad of individuals with significantly different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. The level of multiculturalism, “several cultures coming together,” to work on this project gave interesting international perspective on the topic of healthcare (PSY 533, 2018b). In our first meeting alone, you could tell groupthink wouldn’t be an issue – everyone was diversely opinionated and had a diverse look on the problem as well as potential solutions. After that first meeting, we elected to split into two groups of six to develop differing strategies for the problem. One of the groups even ended up splitting again into two groups of three over varying opinions and thus thought, ‘let’s bring both ideas back to the full group!’

That became the challenge, and is a typical characteristic of a small group, is “an appropriate meeting place” (PSY 533, 2018a). It was a significant challenge to get individuals across five time zones with varying technological abilities and resources in one place on a regular basis. After some help from our internal IT department to get both internal and external organization members of the group together in one virtual meeting space, we began to hit our stride.

We launched a few months later and were pacing ahead of our revenue goal after only two months. Feedback in the market was that the strategy, materials and execution were are flawless to set the field teams up for success. In our first anonymous survey, one field associate wrote, “this is a game changer.”

Ethically, we knew off the bat that this project required, Principle A: Competence, in an industry group members were none too familiar, healthcare. Due to this lack of competence, the team was attempting to devise  a solution for others that we were not “qualified by education, training, or experience” (APA, 1992). Principle C: Professional and Scientific Responsibility, was likewise in breach as the original team on the project did not consult with other professionals to serve in the best interest of our clients; but rather felt internal research was adequate to make recommendations off of (APA, 1992). The team operated with Principle B: Integrity, “honest, fair, and respectful of others,” (APA, 1992) and was highly alert to Principle D: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity through the respect of individuals rights to “privacy, confidentiality, self-determination, and autonomy, mindful that legal and other obligations may lead to inconsistency and conflict with the exercise of these rights” (APA, 1992). While Principle E: Concern for Others’ Welfare should have been more heavily considered in the first groups formation to “not exploit or mislead other people during or after professional relationships” (APA, 1992) via their intent to make recommendations with a lack of expertise, the second group was designed with these subject matter experts in mind so unintentional misleading could be avoided. Finally, Principle F: Social Responsibility; while this virtual small group does not actively participate in social responsibility in the public as the formed group, as individuals of the organization at large, each participate in corporate initiatives to give back to the community quarterly.

While small group work can be challenging due to space, time, technology, and personal differences, the power of a small group is in its efficiency, diversity, and mission matched against the overall vision of the organization. While we started out rough, after rebuilding the group with Peter Block’s four questions of group development, we were able to deliver a truly superb go to market strategy to innovate how we do business.



Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2013). Social psychology. New York: Pearson.

Block, P., (2014). The Power of Small Groups. Designed Learning. Retrieved from http://www.designedlearning.com/blog/the-power-of-small-groups/

Janis, I. L., (1983). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

PSY 533. (2018a). L11 Small Groups. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1896721/modules

PSY 533. (2018b). L12 Globalism/Multicultural Issues. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1896721/modules


One Comment

  1. David Sean Walker April 15, 2018 at 12:02 PM #


    Thanks for the post. As I read through it, a small group situation from my past came to mind. In the mid 90’s I was given team leader responsibility for a new production line introducing the first “lean cell” into our factory. I helped in the design and build of the equipment as well as development of all the procedures. This was a completely different manufacturing concept than we had previously used in our organization and it had high expectations. Within a few months of production startup, I had the task to assemble the first team that would operate the process. We employed around 2300 people at this location and I had the latitude to choose anyone in operations to be on the team. These were not interviews, but hand-picked appointments. Being a bit naive in my mid 20’s, I assembled an “all-star” team of individuals I felt would perform optimally. Most of the team members desired to be a team leader and were naturally high performers. As one might imagine, we were off to a great start. After a few weeks of debugging and problem-solving, the operation was consistently performing very well. Then I noticed some small-group issues begin to emerge and the “all-star” team began to flounder.

    What I didn’t see then, but is much easier now, is that I created a team of leaders. The individual members of the group each had a strong aversion for “status-quo” and desired to improve. This worked very nicely and aligned well with small group theory as long as we had many problems to solve.

    Small groups…
    • Have a problem-solving/specific-task orientation.
    • Are typically more democratic in nature.
    • Have an appropriate meeting place.
    • Are more cohesive.
    (PSY_533, L11 Characteristics of Small Groups, 2018)

    As the wealth of production issues (requiring problem-solving) transformed into a steady, mundane pace of production work, the team members became restless. We didn’t have groupthink (2018b), we had group unrest. Over time, many of the team members obtained promotions to team leaders and the vacancies were filled with individuals that enjoyed stability and consistency.

    The lesson learned for me was that the team designed to develop, design, or start a process is not always the best team to run the process after it is established.

    Works Cited
    PSY_533. (2018, April 15). L11 Characteristics of Small Groups. Retrieved from [18SP] PSY 533, Sec 001: Ethics and Ldrshp: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1896721/pages/l11-characteristics-of-small-groups?module_item_id=23792048
    PSY_533. (2018b, April 2). L11 Preventing Groupthink. Retrieved from [18SP] PSY 533, Sec 001: Ethics and Ldrshp: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1896721/pages/l11-preventing-groupthink?module_item_id=23792050

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