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Steiner's Model

Actual Productivity = Potential Productivity - Loss Resulting from Group Process
-Steiner's Model

As I discussed in previous posts (here and here), group performance does not always match our two-heads-are-better-than-one perception. In fact, there are some tasks on which a single individual will clearly outperform the combined efforts of a group. And in many cases, a group will only perform as well as its strongest -- or weakest -- member. So, as a leader, should you assign work to an individual employee or a team of workers? Thanks to the research of Ivan Steiner, we can find the answer in the nature of the task itself.

Steiner explained that the relationship between individual and group performance depends on the type of task performed. By categorizing task types, he could predict how the presence of other workers helped or hindered individual performance. As leaders, we can use his findings to determine how to employ our human resources.

In additive tasks, all members perform the same task and group achievement is the sum of individual performances. A group will always accomplish more on additive tasks than one person will in the allotted time. Think about early settlers coming together to help build a neighbor's barn. But remember: Ringlemann proved that individuals tend to contribute less when part of a group than they would while working alone. So although they outperform individuals on additive tasks, teams rarely achieve their full potential. For best results, assign a team to tackle additive tasks where each person has a clearly identified component, such as in a relay race where every runner's individual time impacts the team's total.

Group performance in compensatory tasks is the result of averaging together the efforts of individual members. If you have to guess the number of beans in a jar, get a group of people together to offer their opinions. Average their guesses -- the overestimates of some will cancel out the underestimates of others -- and you'll have the best shot of solving the riddle. Of course, you don't speculate on bean counts, but this is the same judgment process used in 360-degree performance evaluations. Groups generally outperform individuals on analytical and reasoning tasks.

Disjunctive tasks are group tasks in which results depend on how well the most talented member performs. In disjunctive tasks, there is a single problem for the group to solve and the most competent group member usually identifies the solution. Groups do well on disjunctive tasks provided at least one group member has the necessary expertise to solve the problem, and as long as that expert is willing to suggest a solution that others might reject or ignore. Since a group rarely performs a disjunctive task better than its best member does, you should assign these tasks to strong individuals rather than to teams.

Conjunctive tasks, on the other hand, are group tasks in which results depend on the performance of the least talented member. In conjunctive tasks, all group members work toward a common goal and productivity is limited to the efforts of the least capable member. In the relay race example, one runner's failure to complete a leg disqualifies the entire team. Adding more members to the team only increases the likelihood of including someone who can destroy results. If you can divide the project into subtasks matched to the abilities of each group member, one disappointing individual performance will not devastate the entire team's overall results. Otherwise, individuals will typically outperform a group on conjunctive tasks.

When in doubt about assigning a task to a team or an individual, simply use Steiner's Model to calculate the best approach. When the distractions caused by a group's dynamics reduce the productive benefits of a team approach, assign the task to a qualified individual.

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