A team is a small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.1 Although student teams may not satisfy all the requirements of the definition, the degree to which they do often determines their effectiveness.
“Students do not come to school with all the social skills they need to collaborate effectively with others. Therefore, teachers need to teach the appropriate communication, leadership, trust, decision making, and conflict management skills to students and provide the motivation to use these skills in order for groups to function effectively.”2 Faculty members must take responsibility to help students develop their skills to participate on and lead teams.
Individual decision making is the act of making up one’s mind. Team decision making is the process through which a team chooses an alternative. Team performance depends largely on the choices made by the team. These choices, in turn, depend on the processes through which teams decide. Therefore, high performance teams require processes through which teams make high quality decisions. Faculty members may help teams improve their performance and reduce the likelihood of dysfunctional teams by working with students to help them improve their capabilities to make team decisions. This document provides resources for faculty members working with student teams on decision making.
Every day student teams make many decisions, ranging from small to large scale, both in terms of resources involved in making the decision and the impact that the decisions can have.
• A small-scale decision might be why, where, and when to hold the next meeting. This decision involves resources, in the form of time and energy, to evaluate and select the purposes, time, and location of the meeting. Inability to effectively make small-scale decisions rapidly and effectively may lead to a dysfunctional team.
• A large-scale decision might be determining the approach to adopt for the design project. This decision involves the time and energy of the individuals who research the different alternatives as well as their pros and cons. Some of the team members may have substantial commitment to one or more of the possible approaches. This decision has the potential to make or break a team.
Why learn about effective team decision making?
Each student team has to make many decisions during its existence. These decisions may be made in ad hoc ways or using processes that increase the likelihood of an effective choice. The processes through which decisions are reached may dramatically affect the quality of the decisions and team performance. For example, the choice a design approach might be made by flipping a coin or by thoughtful analysis of the pros and cons of each alternative. To make informed choices in selecting team decision making processes, teams need to learn how others have thought about decision making processes.
In discussing information on decision making the aim is to provide individuals and teams with theoretical frameworks, strategies, and tools that they can use to make informed choices about how they will make decisions. Decision making will be examined from three perspectives:
- Environments for Decision Making The environment that a team creates for conversations plays a critical role in quality of its decisions. Two other minidocuments in the Foundation Coalition series on Student Teams in Engineering also present aspects of the decision making environment. The first minidocument is on Effective Intrateam/Interteam Communication, while the second minidocument is on Understanding Conflict and Conflict Management. The current minidocument invites students to consider attributes of environments for decision making that are likely to improve the quality of decisions reached. Then, it explores a specific type of environment called the Thinking Environment. Thinking Environments are described in more depth by Nancy Kline in her book, Time to Think.3
- Methods for Decision Making Teams can arrive at decisions in many different ways. The current minidocument presents seven methods by which teams might make decisions and examines advantages and disadvantages of each. Informed dialogue about the different methods may help student teams make more informed decisions about how they reach decisions.
- Tools for Decision Making As engineering companies established and relied upon multifunctional teams to plan and implement designs, they developed a number of tools to help teams share, organize, and visualize the information that might influence their decisions. The minidocument will present several of these tools that student teams could learn and use to make their decisions.
Skill with environments, methods, and tools for decision making will help each engineering graduate, because each graduate is likely to work on many teams in his/her career.
Much of the work with teams across the Foundation Coalition can be traced to the workshop assembled by Lynn Bellamy and Barry McNeill of Arizona State University. Please see some of their material on teams at http://www.eas.asu.edu/~asufc/teaminginfo/teams.html.