Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0172 September 28, 2004 | 7,000 Subscribers...

Dear friends,

People tend to get easily frustrated by group meetings and we all no why...they typically stink! This is largely due to the pervasive and inaccurate assumption that group thought should be just as simple and efficient to manage as individual thought. This attitude of your typical meeting-goer contributes to harsh judgment upon themselves and other participants, leading to apathy, inaction, and the continual self-fulfilling prophecy of meetings that just don't work.

This week's article, "Avoiding Collective Incompetence," attempts to shine some light on the complexities of group dynamics and looks at what typically goes wrong in groups to help us better appreciate the challenges, and opportunities, presented whenever we meet collectively. Please share this article with your fellow meeting attendees and group leaders. Perhaps it will help take some of the sting out of our collective abhorrence of group meetings and lead to their improvement.

We're excited to also have Tom co-host our next Micro-Skills Tele-Seminar this
Thursday, September 30th at 1:00 PM EDT. In this one hour teleclass, Tom and I will explore the concept of "Collective Intelligence--the greater intelligence that's at work when a whole group, organization, community or society addresses its problems well--and look at facilitator interventions that can influence collective intelligence in groups and meetings. Please see details below and consider joining us on this call.

Finally, please check out our new Facilitator Tool Shop. In cooperation with Neuland North America Ltd., we've put together a great selection of tools including meeting boards, flipcharts, white boards, graphic wall, shape and color-coded cards, precision markers, all-in-one cases, and assorted assessories. Click here to check out our selection.

In this Issue:

Feature Article: Avoiding Collective Incompetence

Facilitating Collective Intelligence: Our next one-hour tele-seminar with Tom Atlee happens Thursday, September 30th at 1:00 PM EDT.

Resource: Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions

Teleclass: Random Acts of Facilitation Teleclass, October 11-15th

If any of you have any interesting stories or experiences about facilitation, group process, work groups, team building, training, etc. that might interest our readers, please send them to us.

Have a great week!

Steve Davis


Teleclass Oct 11-15th

170 articles and growing
Group Management Skill

Avoiding Collective Incompetence
Uncovering the sources of collective incompetence.

The Point

People tend to get easily frustrated by group meetings. And how can we blame them? The vast majority of meetings we've attended throughout our lives have been less than uplifting, to say the least. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in modern society who would tell you that they actually enjoy attending meetings. "Oh no. Not another meeting! ... I look forward to meetings. They let me catch up on my sleep." Cliches abound in modern culture that attest to our abhorrence of meetings.

Part of this problem though can be attributed to our pervasive ignorance of the complexities of facilitating group thought. Most tend to think that the groups they lead, or are part of, should operate just as efficiently as they do individually. This is in fact untrue. Further, the belief in this fallacy by your typical meeting-goer contributes to harsh judgment upon themselves and other participants, leading to apathy, inaction, and the continual self-fulfilling prophecy of meetings that just don't work.

Shining some light on the complexities of group dynamics and looking at things that typically go wrong in groups can help us better appreciate the challenges and opportunities presented to us whenever we meet collectively.

Why are groups so complicated?

Groups of individuals are far more likely to err than individuals. Groups give reign to
instincts which individuals acting alone are forced to keep in check.

-- T.B. Macaulay, English author and statesman --

Complexities of Group Mind
It seems obvious that when a number of individual minds come together, more complexity emerges simply out of the shear increase in the number of inputs, outputs, and interconnections available. There are more ideas in the room, far more for each individual to keep track of, and there are more relationship dynamics present together packaged with their spoken and unspoken assumptions and prejudices.

Because of this increase in complexity, there exist the capacity for synergy to emerge, where the capability of the group exceeds the sum of its parts. But given that groups are more complex and their interactions are often faulty, they are harder to manage. For this reason, synergy rarely emerges by accident. Just as easily, and more often than not, groups tend to drift toward collective incompetence.

George Kieffer, in his book, "The Strategy of Meetings," explains this phenomenon beautifully in the following metaphor. "... you cannot afford to view meetings as likely in and of themselves to culminate in positive results without a great deal of work. Meetings are inherently risky enterprises, mobs in waiting, more susceptible to passions, pieties, persuasion, and manipulation of all kinds and degrees than are the individuals who participate in them. Meetings begin with the same risk of injury as a motor vehicle containing a steering wheel at each passenger seat."

Therefore, it’s very important to recognize the inherent limitations of group thought, that we elaborate on below, and yet maintain respect and appreciate for both the process and the particular individuals in attendance.

Limitations of Group Mind.

Group Amnesia. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, in studying the human mind has found that the most that we can hold in short-term memory without forgetting something is six or seven pieces of data. Therefore, a group of people will remember and forget different information at any given time. This validates the ongoing need for real time recording of the inputs, actions, and decisions of your group.

Cognitive Dissonance. People dislike inconsistency and will attempt to eliminate it. When mental conflict occurs because beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information, people will tend to suppress, rationalize, avoid, or oversimplify it away. Know that this phenomenon exists, educate your peers about it, and if you must avoid the complex issues, at least acknowledge you're doing it and perhaps plan another time to deal with it.

Disassociation from Task. Because group thinking is so difficult, individuals actually tend to disassociate from the task. Yet you may think it's just you who has drifted and that everyone else is on top of everything being discusses. Not likely! But wanting to refrain from appearing stupid and wanting to be accepted, you go ahead and agree with whatever is on the table. Everyone is missing risk being the fool and speak up!

Lowest Common Denominator and Highest Risk. The most common response of the group mind appears to be this: to reach a conclusion on the stated task, in the safest possible way so as to avoid division, and as quickly as possible, the group finds a consensus based on the lowest common denominator. The result is a compromise that may not solve the problem but does salve feelings and egos.

Lowest Common Level of Stupidity. Drs. David Charney and William Anixter specialize in treatment of anxiety and note that the most common malady, ahead of substance abuse and depression, is the individual’s fear of groups, affecting some 40% of the public to some degree. Convinced that it really is a matter of body chemistry, Victor Palmieri offers an only partially facetious cure. “There is a change in body chemistry, a drop in acuity to the lowest common level of stupidity, so when you see confusion in a meeting the important thing is to get out of the room as quickly as you can before your body chemistry changes!”


As we have shown, group dynamics are more complex and difficult than individual dynamics. Hence, in any meeting you attend, the participants think less clearly as a group than the sum of the intelligence would suggest and less clearly than any single member may recognize at any particular moment. Group members tend to disassociate from the real task and move toward levels of abstraction. So it behooves us all, group leader and attendees alike to know the sources of collective incompetence and do our best to limit them.

Sources of Collective Incompetence.

  • Miscommunication. Individuals come to a meeting with different abilities, experience, intelligence, language, styles, and body language. Know that miscommunication is inevitable and there’s continual need for clarification.

    Remedy. Therefore, avoid arguing your own views. Instead present your position as clearly as you can and listen carefully to others' reactions, considering them carefully before you press your point.

  • Outside pressures. A meeting is often the focal point for decisions made elsewhere. Pressures brought to bear on participants from the outside can affect meetings far more than actions within.

    . Don’t assume aspirations of meeting participants are clear. Reverse that presumption. Ask yourself what pressures weigh on your prospective partners.

  • Different Agenda. Every individual comes into the meeting with his or her own personal agenda to accomplish. And in many forms of meetings, these are very appropriate.

    Remedy. But don’t assume that personal agendas align with the stated meeting agenda. Ask yourself what’s behind a criticism or a suggestion.

  • Insecurities and basic human needs. We tend to go mad in herds, but tend to recover one by one. To suggest change or to question, one must first speak as an individual and expose oneself.

    Remedy. Don’t presume understanding and accord merely because no one speaks. There is nearly always a difference of opinion around the table. The most powerful interests in any meeting are the basic human needs of the participants…economic well-being, sense of belonging, need for recognition, and control of one’s life.

  • Personal Feelings. Personal feelings about fellow participants or about the meeting itself will always distort comments in the meeting and undermine collective thinking.

    Remedy. Do your best to separate ideas and opinions from the people presenting them, and aggressively prevent or protect all participants from personal attack.

  • Competition. A meeting provides a forum for assessing and expressing status within the group, and that will affect the behavior of group members.

    Remedy. Accept that this is going on to some extent in any meeting.

  • Distractions. Every meeting will have distractions from the late arrivals and early departures, to uncomfortable surroundings, to telephone interruptions, poor technical facilities, etc. Even when there are few outside distractions, all participants tend to wander from time to time resulting in a short circuit of the group mind.

    Remedy. Presume you are losing some members all of the time and do what you can to limit distractions and keep everyone involved.

  • Thought displacement and buzz words. This is a particular form of distraction that can strike at any time. A “buzz” word can throw off a line of thought or a glib participant can send out the wrong data or information without anyone noticing.

    Remedy. Thought displacement goes with the territory, presume it’s happening throughout the meeting and ask for clarification whenever you notice it.

  • The Laws of Triviality and Avoidance. “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved,” claims Professor Parkinson. Further, the time spent will be in inverse proportion to the complexity or difficulty of the issue: law of avoidance. Complex matters, irrespective of money, tend to be ignored, and simple matters tend to be belabored. People are simply more comfortable discussing what they know rather than what they don’t know. And most people want to demonstrate what they know rather than what they don’t. This means groups avoid the tough questions and concentrate on the easy ones.

    Remedy. Expect this tendency in all your meetings and point in out whenever you see it. Offer options to meeting separately to address the tough issues if possible and appropriate.

  • Personality and Roles. Some personalities simply don’t mix. And irrespective of personalities, individuals naturally take on certain roles depending upon other participants: the facilitator, the disrupter, the complainer, and so on.

    Remedy. Just be aware of this...that nearly everyone adopts a role of some kind during a meeting and nearly everyone harbors feelings about the other participants.

  • Incompetent Members and the Lowest Common Denominator. An incompetent or destructive participant tends can derail a meeting, bringing the whole group to his level. He can force others to respond to peripheral issues and encourage disassociation from the task. Fear of hurting his feelings, disrupting the group further, or reverence for democracy may allow him to take the meeting over. The group tends to defer, dropping to the Lowest Common Denominator.
    Remedy. This tendency is counteracted by the facilitator's imperative...the unflinching control of process.

  • In Summary. Good intentions are no match for collective incompetence whose sources reside in all meetings. Meeting participants need to know that it takes far more work to accomplish their goals than they think. Remember all of these hurdles when planning and developing your strategy for your next meeting. By understanding these forces and how they’re likely to manifest during the meeting you can devise strategies that will make them work for you, not against you.

What sources of collective incompetence have you noticed most and what have you done about it? Would could you do differently in the future?
Please send us your questions and comments.

Facilitation Expert Series

Facilitation Micro-Skills Tele-Seminar: "Facilitating Collective Intelligence. Featuring Tom Atlee, author, democracy innovator, and founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute. Attend this one-hour tele-seminar on Thursday, September 30th at 1:00 PM EDT (NY Time).

"Just in Time" Learning

Join Tom Atlee
on Thursday, September 30th at 1:00 PM EDT (NY Time) for a one-hour interview where we'll explore the concept of "Collective Intelligence-- a form of intelligence grounded in the recognition of the value of diversity, unity, relationship, context, uniqueness and the spirit inside each of us and the world--and look at facilitator interventions that can influence collective intelligence in groups and meetings.

Our discussion will draw from the following points...

We've been hearing about collective intelligence, group mind, collective wisdom, collective consciousness, and so on. What is your sense of these phenomena and how do you distinguish between them?
What factors or interventions do you find influence collective intelligence in groups and meetings?
What are some of your favorite methods and processes for meetings and conferences -- and why do you prefer them?
You talk about "systemic societal intelligence" and "wise democracy." What's all that about?
You seem to focus a lot on what you call citizen deliberative councils. What are they and why are they so central to your work?
How do you see facilitators fitting into all this?
Whose work do you find particularly exciting in this field?
I know from your website that your consider collective intelligence part of a larger field you call co-intelligence. What's the difference?
What are the edges of your own thinking in this area? What inquiries are alive for you right now?
And, answers to any questions you bring to the teleclass.

Free Bonuses:

1. Where Is Your Group Intelligence? Essay by Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, exploring where intelligence and culture reside in your organization.

2. Collective Intelligence Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace. An important contribution exploring the impact of computers on society and culture.

About Tom: Tom Atlee is founder and co-director of the non-profit Co-Intelligence Institute. Recently his work has focused on developing our capacity to function as a wise democracy, so we can turn our social and environmental challenges into positive developments for our society. His social change vision is based on new understandings of wholeness which recognize the value of diversity, unity, relationship, context, uniqueness and the spirit inside each of us and the world. Co-intelligence theory also acknowledges many facets of intelligence (like head and heart), wisdom, and the higher forms of intelligence (natural and sacred) that move through and beyond us. Although Tom and the Institute focus on very practical issues of group, social and political dynamics, co-intelligence has many esoteric dimensions as well.

Click here for details about this interview, the bonuses, and registration.


Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions, by John E. Tropman

A best-seller in its first edition, Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions, Second Edition covers everything you need to know about organizing engaging meetings, including preparing agendas, controlling what happens behind the scenes prior to and after meetings, and managing conflicting values and personalities. Through the Meeting Masters Research Project at the University of Michigan, author John E. Tropman observed and interviewed the nation's most successful meeting experts to find out how to make meetings both stimulating and productive. Based on his findings, Tropman formulated seven principles and fourteen commandments for implementing dynamic meetings.

In the Spotlight

Teleclass for facilitators and group members.

Discrete skills and attitudes for the new and experienced facilitator who wants to get their group into serious motion.

I want to thank you for designing a course that lived up to its advertisement. I found the daily curriculum practical and thought provoking. The ideas developed each day created foundations for the lessons to follow. Many "acts of facilitation" were immediately applicable to my facilitation practice. The tone of each class was a supportive learning environment. Each class ended on a note of high-energy with encouraging words and an opportunity for feedback. --Steven Pyser, J.D., Consultant--

Random Acts of Facilitation, 5-Day Teleclass

This class will meet over a telephone bridge line for five consecutive weekdays October 11-15, 2004 at 10:00 AM PDT, 1:00 PM EDT (NY Time) to cover 25+ facilitative actions you can take to empower and move groups forward. This course, that you can take from the comfort of your own home or office, is for beginning facilitators, group leaders, or group members who simply want to know more about facilitation so that they can make their groups more effective. These "discrete" acts of facilitation also lend themselves to being taught to your group members who desire to become more self-facilitative.

How the 5-Day Format/Training works...
1. You dial into your class every day for 5 days (Mon-Fri) for a 60-minute focused training segment using a conferencing bridge.
2. You work a 25-point checklist during the 5 days (about an hour a day of study and field work) which you complete by Friday afternoon, or sooner if you wish.
3. You will have the opportunity to discuss issues on the subject matter with the instructor and your classmates via an online discussion forum during the course.
4. During the week, you may access the instructor via email for help or situational questions.

5-Day Random Acts of Facilitation Training Agenda...
Here's what you'll be learning and doing during the 5-Day course...

Introduction to the Facilitation and Self Facilitation Skills.

1. Set the Stage.
2. Share the Dream.
3. Get Facilitation
4. Juggling.
5. Me First.

Relating with compassion and understanding.

6. Be Ignorant.
7. Make Smiles Happen.
8. Hold 'em High.
9. Acknowledge the Elephant.
10. Turn on Your Crap-Detector.

Group Dynamics and Facilitation

11. Build the Container.
12. Build trust.
13. Mine the Unexpected.
14. Evolve Your Team.
15. Honor the Process.
16. Facilitate Full Participation

Organizing and Presenting yourself confidently, professionally, and authentically. 

17. Prepare for Success.
18. Get Real.
19. Make Experiences, Not Speeches
20. Watch the Body Talk.
21. Be your message

Intervening to shift group energy

22. Tame the Tormentors.
23. CareFront.
24. Use the Struggle.
25. Break through barriers.
26. Facilitate from Within.
27. Embrace Facilitation as a Master's Path

Benefits to you of participating from the 5-Day Random Acts of Facilitation Training...
1. Get a great introduction to the concept and practice of facilitation skills if you are contemplating becoming a facilitator, team leader, board member, manager, mediator, etc.
2. Never waste another minute in an ineffective meeting again.
3. Learn how to challenge and empower every group you come in contact with.
4. Learn skills to help groups make quantum leaps in their effectiveness.
5. Be a catalyst for positive change in your community.

Also included with your training...
In addition to the 5-Day training described above, you also receive:
1. Comprehensive 15-page Student Learning Guide.
Free access to the participant-only website (lots of resources, forms, etc.).
3. Free access to the RealAudio version of the 5-Day training.
4. Free copy of the Portable Article Bank ($29 value).

The full cost of training/access is only $79 if you register by September 30th. ($89 for the general public) including a free copy of the Portable Article Bank ($29 value). Everything you read about above is included. And, we offer a 100%-satisfaction-guaranteed guarantee.

October 11-15, 2004, 10:00 AM PDT, 1:00 PM EDT (NY Time), 60 minutes each day.

I would recommend to anyone who wants to experience excellent modeling of what good facilitation is, to sign up for this teleclass. --Elain Wylie, Life Coach--


Immediately upon completion of your registration, you will receive an email with instructions to access the course and free article bank. This course is limited to 20 individuals, first come, first served.

Click here to register now

Self-Guided 5-Day Real Audio Version
You'll be provided with access to three separate recorded offerings of the five-hour teleclass (15 hours total) that you can listen to online and follow along in the learning guide is used in the live class. Click here to purchase for $69. We will also include a free copy of the Portable Article Bank ($29 value) with your purchase. We offer a 100%-satisfaction-guaranteed guarantee.


Please click here to purchase.

Self-Guided 5-Day CD Version
The Compact Disk (CD) version comes with all of the self-guided features listed above, together with 5 CD's you'll receive by mail that you can listen to anywhere you have access to a CD player.


Click here to purchase the CD Version for $79
plus $4 Shipping and Handling

About the satisfaction guarantee
If, for any reason, you are not satisfied with this training, simply email us with a request to refund/credit your credit card in the full amount and we will do so immediately. It's our policy to do this and we honor this in every single case.

Real Audio Testimonials
Click here for a one-minute audio testimonial from several participants on the final day of the teleclass.

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