Friday, November 23, 2012


I changed my job title to read Group Facilitator, Collaborative Process Advocate, and Storyteller more than ten years ago. While group facilitator and collaborative process advocate are not what I would call widely accepted professional titles (just try finding them in the Yellow Pages), I felt comfortable with them. The one I was uneasy about was storyteller. Still, I sometimes wonder how people react to that string of descriptors.

In an attempt to connect those dots, I crafted the following bio. Rather than a traditional biographical sketch, I put it in the form of a first-person story.
My Father was a storyteller. It was his everyday way of communicating important values and ideas. I followed his example, but didn't realize it until several years ago. After leading a three-day training program on group facilitation at the Pentagon, I read the attendee’s evaluation forms. In response to the question, “What did you like best about the program?” several people responded, “Sandy's stories.” I didn't understand what they were talking about so I asked my co-trainer. He looked at me, puzzled, and said, “Don't you remember you told that story about the meeting in the Adirondacks where they insisted they couldn’t reach consensus, and one about the volunteer board of directors where one of them came in late and he had a hangover, and the time the chairman threw the facilitators out of the meeting … ” I realized then that I had told a lot of stories. Since that experience I've told stories more intentionally and formally, and in front of audiences large and small – personal adventures, historical sagas, tall tales, Jewish stories. I am pleased to share my stories with you. Find out more at
Over those ten years—while I facilitated groups, advised collaborative leaders, and produced three books on group facilitation and collaboration— storytelling grew larger in my professional life. I trademarked the logo to the left and, at professional conferences, led my workshop, “Stories at Work: How to Create, Tell, and Use Stories with Groups and Organizations.” I told stories—true stories—to illustrate a point or respond to questions.
Now, I've taken a different turn. Here is a collection of fictional stories, Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf: Welcome to Chelm’s Pond. I describe it as a mashup of the Chelm fool and Adirondack tall tale, a fusion of Adirondack-Ashkenzick cuisine, and a wonder about the nature of God and the meaning of prayer. Please take a look at the 2½-minute book trailer, view the illustrations on Facebook, and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

False Wisdom of Crowds(?)

False Wisdom of Crowds,” Thomas Frey's recent blog post, comes to a useful conclusion – that analytical skills are becoming increasingly important to take advantage of big data – but some of his comments regarding the “wisdom of crowds” are incomplete.

For example, he says, “When working with large groups of people online, the wisdom of crowds is neither elevated to the smartest among them, nor is it diminished to the lowest levels. It hoovers somewhere in the middle.”

In fact, this is true for groups of all sizes, as evidenced by a demonstration I often use. Here is a specific, recent result.

During a presentation I was giving, I asked the audience to estimate the population of Albany, New York (capital of the Empire State and my home town). Here's the process they followed.

  1. I asked them to form into groups of three persons each. To each group I gave four index cards. One of the cards was marked “group estimate.” I asked them to hold that card aside.
  2. They made independent, individual estimates, and wrote each estimate one of the three remaining cards.
  3. They talked and arrived at a group estimate (using whatever method they wanted) and wrote it on the "group estimate" card.
  4. I showed them the 2010 Census estimate of Albany's population. They calculated the difference between the Census figure and each estimate and wrote it on the corresponding card.
  5. They ordered the four cards, the one closest to the Census figure at the top.
  6. I asked them "What is the rank of your Group Estimate? Is it the best estimate, second best, third best?" Here are the results.

Number of groups whose group estimate was …

2nd Best:6
3rd Best:4
4th Best:0

What this means is that six of the groups had one group member whose independent, individual estimate was better than the one they came to as a group; in four of the groups, there were two such group members. In only one group was the group's estimate better than that of any of the individuals.

This result is typical. (If there is anything unusual about it, it is that one of the groups had a group estimate that was the best.)

So one could conclude that groups are not effective. That would be the wrong conclusion.

Instead, researchers have focused on the processes used by groups to make estimates, judgments, and decisions. Using carefully thought out and tested techniques, it is possible to have groups consistently produce results that are better than that produced by the best individual working alone.* Indeed, by sharing information and correcting each others errors, groups can produce results that are better than the best individual.

* For example, see Reagan-Cirincione, P. (1994). “Improving the Accuracy of Group Judgment: A Process Intervention Combining Group Facilitation, Social Judgment Analysis, and Information Technology.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 58, No. 2 (May), pp. 246-270.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How to Create an Organization's Story

One of my storytelling colleagues was asked by a board of directors to help them tell their organization's story. It is an amazing story but they were unclear how to convey this story to themselves, their members and others. My storytelling colleague – who does not work in organizational storytelling – asked for advice. Here is the preliminary advice I provided. I would like to hear yours.

Think in terms of multiple, easily tellable stories (rather than one big or complex one). A good elevator story (I mean this literally – that is, a story that can be completed on the way to the lunch room) that is memorable and repeatable will do a better job than one that requires a well-rehearsed professional storyteller.

For example, here's a story from The Ultimate LEGO Book that brings home the company motto, “Only the best is good enough.”

When Godtfred, son of LEGO’s founder Ole Kirk, tried to save company money by finishing a shipment of toy ducks with two coats of paint instead of the usual three, his father told him: “Go and get the ducks immediately, give them their last coat of paint, repack them, and take them back to the station. And do it all yourself “ even if it takes you all night!”

Some ideas for eliciting stories from people in the organization:

  • How was the organization started. Who founded it, what obstacles were in the way, how were they overcome.
  • Tell me about a challenging situation. What did you learn about the organization and the people involved. What came of it.
  • Tell me about a situation that caused you to feel proud about the organization and the people involved in it.

Some sources:

Sandor (Sandy) Schuman
Stories at Work®

Monday, June 11, 2012

Facilitators Should Not Be Neutral

My “Fast Talk,” Facilitators Should Not Be Neutral, from the International Association of Facilitators Conference 2012 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Working with Difficult Groups: A Conceptual Framework

Do I look worried in this picture? I was not. I was leading a workshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the 2012 International Association of Facilitator's – North America Conference. It was a great event, and I am looking forward to their upcoming conferences.

The purpose of my workshop was to explain the “conceptual framework for working with difficult groups” that John Rohrbaugh and I developed for the book, Working with Difficult Groups. If you're interested in the framework, you can download a free copy of the chapter that explains it. Go to the Working with Difficult Groups website, and on the left-side menu, click “A Conceptual Framework for Working with Difficult Groups.”

Another workshop I led was entitled “Stories at Work: How to Create, Tell, and Use Stories with Groups and Organizations.” You can learn more about that workshop here and download copies of two of the group facilitation stories I used, “The Meaning of Wilderness” and “The Uncomfortable Participant.”

Stay tuned for a video of my conference “Fast Talk,” Facilitators Should Not Be Neutral.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Science of Team Science Conference

Science of Team Science Conference
"The Annual International Science of Team Science (SciTS) Conference is a forum to enhance our understanding of how best to engage in Team Science to meet society’s needs. The SciTS Conference serves: as a point of convergence for investigators studying Science teams and Team Science leaders/practitioners; to engage funding agencies to provide guidance on developing and managing Team Science initiatives; and to afford data providers and analytics developers insight into collaboration tracking and analysis needs. In this way, the SciTS Conference acts as a bridge between the science and the praxis of Team Science, serving as an important conduit for translating empirical findings about Team Science into evidence-based effective practices for scientific teams and funders of Team Science."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Relationships are what we have.

I am fond of the following, which I wrote in Creating a Culture of Collaboration (and later modified):
Meaning is what we want.
Understanding is what we need.
Choices are what we make.
Relationships are what we have.
But this video says it better.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Small Group Research - Special Issue on Organizational Meetings

Small Group Research has published a Special Issue on Organizational Meetings (Volume 43, Number 2, April 2012). Below is the table of contents with links to these articles.

Meetings at Work: Advancing the Theory and Practice of Meetings

Cliff W. Scott, Linda Rhoades Shanock, and Steven G. Rogelberg

Meetings Matter: Effects of Team Meetings on Team and Organizational Success

Simone Kauffeld and Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock

The Meeting Genre Across Cultures: Insights From Three German-American Collaborations

Tine Kohler, Catherine Durnell Cramton, and Pamela J. Hinds

Team Meeting Attitudes: Conceptualization and Investigation of a New Construct

Thomas A. O'Neill and Natalie J. Allen

Public Meeting Facilitation: A Naive Theory Analysis of Crisis Meeting Interaction

Stephenson J. Beck, Robert S. Littlefield, and Andrea J. Weber

Wasted Time and Money in Meetings: Increasing Return on Investment

Steven G. Rogelberg, Linda Rhoades Shanock, and Cliff W. Scott

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Science of Team Science

The individual scientist has been largely replaced by the collaborative scientist as the demands of today's complex problems require the concerted effort of individuals with diverse expertise. The aim of the upcoming Science of Team Science (SciTS) Conference is to produce “evidence-based effective practices for scientific teams.” It will take place April 16-19, 2012 in Chicago. For information about similar conferences, see my previous blog post on interdisciplinary collaboration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Collaborative Tensions

Many authors have written about the paradox(es) of collaboration. I’m not sure that the following qualify as paradoxes, but they certainly contribute to making collaboration difficult, as attention is focused on one end of a spectrum of concern at the expense of the other. I call them collaborative tensions.

Plan efficiently ↔ Involve everyone

Is it true that a collaborative meeting should be planned collaboratively? Convening a collaborative is often a non-collaborative activity. To engage others, conveners have to provide enough information about the purpose and plan of the collaborative – but not so much as to be perceived as predetermining its definitive purpose, scope, or outcome. The more complex the issues, the more collaboration is needed and the more difficult it is to get everyone involved, so conveners start with a smaller, less diverse group and then invite others – who might be offended or put off by the work that was done in advance. How do you plan enough but not too much?

What's in it for me? ↔ What's in it for them?

If there weren’t anything in it for me, I wouldn’t bother trying to establish this collaborative effort in the first place. And it’s the same for everyone else, too. If there isn’t something in it for them, why should they join? Thinking through “what’s in it for me” as well as “what’s in it for them” is key to building a collaborative. To get what I want, I have to figure out how they can get what they want.

Process ↔ Outcome

When a collaborative forms, it is usually because the participants want some outcome, some change from the status quo. However, there are usually differences in the outcomes desired by the various members, some are compatible and some are less so (or downright contradictory). So it is the job of the collaborative to come to an understanding of all of those desired outcomes and their underlying bases and to develop a set of outcomes that all can agree to. Collaborative leadership advocates process, not outcome, but leads to outcomes for, by, and of the collaborative as a whole.

Short Term ↔ Long Term

In the short term, we want to fulfill the purpose for which the collaborative was formed. However, in complex situations, it may simply take more time. Nonetheless, short term products may be more important to strengthening the process – by demonstrating to participants that the collaborative can be productive – than to actually providing products of importance or lasting value. In the long term, the most valuable thing may be the collaborative itself, enabling its members to address emerging issues and produce outcomes that were not initially anticipated.

Your Organization ↔ Our Collaborative

Once an organization (or an individual) makes an investment in forming a collaborative, it identifies with and feels ownership of the collaborative and expects to receive benefits from it. An organization might want to guard its investment and be reluctant to accept newcomers into the collaborative, even if having additional members would contribute to the collaborative’s success. How can the organization protect its investment in the collaborative while enabling newcomers to join – and reap its rewards – without having made the same investment in it?

Proprietary Information ↔ Shared Information

Often, the success of a collaborative effort depends on sharing information. How can individuals and organizations share their privately-gained information and make it available where everyone in the collaborative can benefit from it?

Building and maintaining collaboratives is time consuming and frustrating because we have to work through these collaborative tensions. What makes collaboration necessary is what makes it difficult.