Introduction to the Group Grope

The military is a wonderful experience in life. Where else can you learn that a “Cluster Fuck” is a bunch of people busily working hard at nothing intelligible or productive? It’s a profane, yet colorful description of a business process many of us see every day. (Nice people use the phonetic terms. “Hey, look at that Charlie Foxtrot!”)

Yesterday when doing my startup standup startup blog entry, I used another one of those terms, not heard as much, the group grope.

Ever been to a group grope? If you’ve spent any time in the business community, I’m willing to bet you have.

A group grope is when people, who do not bear responsibility, assemble for purposes of solving a problem which none of them have the information or skills to solve.

So that last time your team got together to talk about source control, when none of you have the power to make a decision about what to do, or even have experience using various tools? You know, where you left feeling pretty good, but with the vague feeling that things were unresolved? That’s a group grope.

Group gropes are fun, yet subtly frustrating. You get to take time off from work, see your friends, talk about some issues of importance, get caught up. That’s all great. The next step, and the key indicator of a good group grope, is when each person asks the other what they know or can do about the problem without getting any positive result. “I don’t know how marketing feels about that, Bob, have you spoken to them?” “Those guys in marketing are doing a great job, and I’ve heard it could be a problem, Frank? Have you met with them lately?”

It’s like a Scooby Do episode where the mystery is never solved. It’s just a bunch of kids wandering around asking questions of each other.

It feels good, there’s a lot of fun people involved, you get to explore areas you normally don’t go into, but at the end of the day you’re left empty and unfulfilled. There’s no long-term benefit.

You can short-circuit a group grope, sometimes, by simply announcing you are in one. “Is there anybody here responsible for X? Also, guys, don’t we need some folks who know Y and guys from over in the Z department? Without them I can’t see us making much progress, can you?”

Be sure to separate a group grope from a brainstorming session. Brainstorming sessions are there to create potential ideas about a problem. The meeting ends, you have a list. You probably also have some assimilation and analysis to do to turn the list into action. Group gropes end with everybody knowing a little more about problem X, mostly trivial stuff, but nothing else of value can be gained from it.

Sometimes when you’re in a group grope you can stop it. Many times you cannot. Many times it’s just best to lie back and think of England. But if you’re the one responsible for setting a meeting up, and somebody calls “group grope” on you, it’s a good time to either kill the meeting and let folks return to work — or figure out what the hell you’re all supposed to be doing that’s going to be useful to the company. Don’t confuse social fun and a sense of learning with accomplishing something valuable.

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