Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 230
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Second Half

Research reveals a mid-point intervention that doubles the productivity of task groups.

Have you ever noticed that football teams often play much better in the second half of a game than they do in the first half? It's rather perplexing. Afterall, nothing has really changed from one half to the next.

Post game questioning usually identifies "adjustments" that were made, and of course, we all remember scenes from old movies of impassioned speeches that arouse players' emotions.

Do you suppose we could apply the same principles to our businesses? Anita Woolley, from Harvard University, decided to investigate.

The business equivalent of a football team is a task group with time limits . . . a group of people whose coordinated actions are applied to a specific task or project that has a deadline. Further, it is possible to measure the final outcome of their efforts, the successful completion of the project.

Task groups that work within time limits pass through two broad stages. The first stage acquaints members with the task and with the experience of working together on this task. The second stage produces the work that completes the assignment. Near the mid point, a transition usually occurs that marks the boundary between the getting-acquainted-with-the-work stage and the getting-the-job-done stage.

Many people have wondered if this transition point might be a good time to try to help task groups so they might be more productive, and researchers and management experts have debated the topic for years. One position argues that the goal of helping task groups at these transition points should be to help the people get along with each other. They argue that task groups fail to be as productive as they could be because interpersonal tensions interfere with work.

A second position argues for a more practical approach. The primary handicap to productivity, this position argues, is prior decisions concerning how the task should be accomplished. These decisions were made at the beginning, or early stages of the project, and were wrong, and subsequent learning about the resources available and the needs of the task have been disregarded in carrying the project forward.

Ms. Woolley devised an experiment at Harvard that tested these ideas. She recruited 30 three-person teams and gave them identical tasks. Then she varied interventions to try to help the teams be as productive as they could be. One type of intervention focussed on the interpersonal processes of the groups. A second type focussed on task needs, resources, obstacles, and strategies for moving the project to completion. Some of these interventions were timed to help the groups get started. Others were timed at the transition, the mid point.

Ms. Woolley measured the success of the groups on the task that had been assigned them, and compared the results. They were striking. The groups who 1) received the intervention that helped them identify needs, resources, and obstacles, 2) helped them formulate strategies for moving their project to completion, and 3) received this intervention at the mid point, during their transition from getting acquainted to getting the job done, were twice as successful as the other groups. They doubled their productivity. Doubled. That's pretty good.

She also asked the people to estimate their productivity on the task she had given them, and everyone reported similar perceptions. That is, the lowest performing group had no awareness of their poor performance. They thought they were doing just as well as the highest group, even though they were only accomplishing half as much. She also noticed that these task-focussed, mid point discussions were most effective in groups that lacked dominant leadership by one person. They worked best in collaborative groups.

For the record, Ms. Woolley's task-focussed discussions addressed these topics:

    1. identify different ways to succeed at the task,
    2. identify "best" approaches to complete the task,
    3. identify the group's goals in working on the task,
    4. identify potential trade-offs the group may need to make,
    5. identify potential obstacles,
    6. identify resources available to the group,
    7. identify the best use of these resources, and
    8. outline a specific strategy to proceed.

Consider this a checklist, and use it with task groups. You'll be glad you did.

Reference: Woolley, Anita Williams (1998) Effects of Intervention Content and Timing on Group Task Performance. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 34(1), 30-46.

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