COMS 100A -
Survey of Communication Studies
State University, Sacramento
What Constitutes a Small Group?
Communication within the context of small groups is often
distinguished from communication between two people
(interpersonal communication) or in an organization
(organizational communication). Yet the question often
arises, what constitutes a small group? What distinguishes a
small group from a small organization? How many people must
be part of a group for it to be considered a "large"
John Brilhart offers five distinguishing characteristics
of a small group:
- A sufficiently small number of people so that each
will be aware of and have some reaction to each other
(from 2 to rarely more than 20)
- A mutually interdependent purpose in which the
success of each person is contingent upon the success of
the others in achieving this goal.
- Each person has a sense of belonging or membership,
identifying himself with the other members of the
- Oral interaction (not all of the interaction will be
oral, but a significant characteristic of a discussion
group is reciporcal influence exercised by talking).
- Behavior based on norms, values, and procedures
accepts by all members.1
1John K Brilhart. Effective Group
Discussion, 3rd ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown,
1978), pp. 20-21.
What impacts how group members communicate with one
another? Many things impact how group members communicate,
but three especially influential variables are A) the
networks of communication (who talks to whom), B) the roles
each member plays, and C) the process they use for making
decisions. Read about the networks of communication in your
text book on pp. 287-290. Read about the roles on pp.
276-281. Read about three processes for decision-making in
the paragraphs that follow.
Three Processes for Decision-Making &
Brainstorming is the generation of large quantities of
ideas for solving a problem. The goal of brainstorming is
for group members to generate a volume of ideas before
evaluating the quality, feasibility, and/or appropriateness
of those ideas. Thus, group members are encouraged to
generate seemingly implausible, unrealistic, idealistic
ideas which might later be tempered to work into the
constraints of the situation. When brainstorming, group
members are encouraged to avoid judging any idea that is
An advantage of brainstorming is that the group is more
likely to generate creative ideas. Also, brainstorming often
helps group members build rapport and cohesion because the
process is fun, inventive and sometimes humorous.
A disadvantage of brainstorming is that it is a random,
unstructured way of responding to a problem and often eats
up much of a group's time. Also, if a group contains members
who are willing to dominate conversation, the brainstorming
process provides those members with a forum to be heard
frequently, while more quiet members may become say
II. Nominal Group Technique
Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is a highly structured
decision-making process whereby group members are asked to
generate ideas individually and write them down. The leader
then asks each group member to share his/her first idea
which the leader records for the group. After each member
has shared his/her first idea, each is asked to share the
second idea, presuming it has not already been stated. After
each member has shared the second idea, the third idea is
shared and the process continues until all members have
shared the all ideas they wish to share with the group.
Once all the ideas are recorded, the leader opens the
floor for members to get clarification on the ideas. Members
may ask one another what was meant specifically by a
particular idea. Then, members are asked to rate the ideas
according to which they like most and least. Ratings are
then tabulated and members are asked to vote on the ideas
rated most highly.
One advantage of NGT is its efficiency; little time is
wasted in the process. Also, the group dynamics are
controlled, so the discussion cannot be dominated by any one
person, and conversational tangents are less likely to
occur. Additionally, because less discussion occurs,
individuals are more likely to make individual decisions
rather than conform to the norms and persuasions of the
A disadvantage of NGT is that the group is unlikely to
develop much cohesion from the process since individuals do
little talking with one another. The absence of conformity
may also be problematic in that the group members may lack
an emotional commitment to the ideas since they acted
largely in isolation.
III. Standard Agenda
Standard Agenda is a logical process by which a group
defines a problem and develops solutions. The leader takes
the group through six steps, making sure the group does not
stray to another step until prior steps have been
accomplished to everyone's satisfaction. The six steps are
- The group must define the problem they are
up against, even if it seems obvious.
- The group must analyze the causes of the
problem and the potential consequences if the
- The group must then develop criteria for an
acceptable solution. Here it is important that the group
stick with criteria for acceptability of solutions rather
than naming possible solutions.
- The group must identify possible solutions.
- The group must evaluate the solutions to
determine which one(s) in the best alternative.
- The group must test the solution and then
meet later to re-evaluate its success.
Each step is important enough to be dealt with
thoroughly. Time spent in the early steps may avoid wasted
time in later steps. For example, a group may spend lots of
time brainstorming solutions early on and then, upon
evaluating those solutions, discover that not all members of
the group see the problem the same way. Defining the problem
first could avoid wasting time later.
An advantage of the Standard Agenda is that the process
is logical, sequential and orderly. As mentioned above, if
followed closely, the structure can help a group avoid
unnecessary conflicts or misunderstandings. Also, the
structure of the Standard Agenda helps keep a group focused
and on track. The process also allows for brainstorming and
all its advantages (group cohesion, generation of risky,
multiple ideas, etc.), yet it gives the brainstorming more
A disadvantage of the Standard Agenda is the difficulty
of keeping the group's discussion focused on the agenda
items. Insisting that a group stay with the agenda may cause
frustration and resentment among some group members. Also,
the process does not provide any controls for group
dynamics, e.g., frequent talkers, quiet members, etc. Thus,
it is up to the leader to ensure balance and friendliness in
As you can see from your reading of the text book and
your reading of these small group decision-making
techniques, many variables impact the communication among
group members: individual and group roles, communication
networks (who talks to whom) and group procedures for
decision making. Small group communication may be further
complicated by interpersonal dynamics among group members,
organizational dynamics, and/or intercultural differences.
In all cases, the communication process in small groups is
made problematic by the channels communication, the
participants and their personalities (which become a source
of noise), and the procedures used to manage the flow of
communication and focus of the messages being sent.