What triggers us to adopt new facilitation and engagement processes?

(Note: currently the images on this post have gone missing. I’m working on it!)

I have developed an enormous backlog of things to write about my learnings from my Liberating Structures practice. Sometimes I need a little kick in the keister, so this tweet got me rolling from @TrustedSharing

“Any ideas on events that get people to facilitate using #liberatingstructures? I have a group that wants to learn.”

Introductory/Immersion Events

Image by Tracy KellyEvents are certainly one way to get people started using Liberating Structures (LS). Earlier this year Tracy Kelly and I facilitated a two day LS Immersion for the education community up in British Columbia and based on some tweets that have followed on, some (many? Who knows) participants have begun incorporating LS into their teaching and administrative meeting practices.  Tracy wrote up a great blog post here: http://www.tracykelly.net/?p=1247 and the BC Campus hosts wrote here https://bccampus.ca/2017/04/05/opening-the-flow-of-learning-with-liberating-structures/ . Both posts highlight some very useful ideas and practices for event based invitations into LS and from a specific domain perspective (in this case education, but imagine other domains!)

Having co-led immersions for the past few years and participating in them for longer, the real clincher for me is to make sure the event isn’t just about LS, but looks closely at the real application “back at home/work” for the participants. When you have groups with some shared purpose, this is magic. When your group is heterogeneous, it can be harder to find that “what, so what, now what” hook that helps people not just get an introduction, but to understand the value proposition of using LS to increase engagement in their work and lives. Real stuff. Tracy wrote it well: “Purpose is the new vision!

Practitioner/User Groups

Once I was introduced to LS, I thought “yeah, these are good” and then slipped back into my old ways. I needed to experiment and practice with at least one other person to push myself past my own ruts and comfort zones. So after an immersion, it can be super useful to convene lighter, smaller experiences for people to practice, dig deeper and understand how to use LS in their own work. After all, there are tons of riffs, variations and different sequence options.

These groups can be geographic, within a workplace or domain. What matters is getting together. If I use an LS once, that is all fine and good. If I use it twice, I’m beyond the initial twinge of possibility. Repeated use is the “gateway drug” to full use — and all of the rich possibilities of LS.

Here in Seattle we have a deeply playful and creative user group. At the May Seattle users group, Keith (LS co-founder) hosted us to explore “punctuations.” A couple of years ago when some of us retreated for a weekend to play with some emergent structures, I had this sense that we all did these little things in between individual structures, and I described them as punctuation. The term took hold.

When we gathered to play with punctuations, we started with a little meaning making – what DID we mean by a punctuation in the context of LS? Of course, we had to use a little punctuation to elicit our definitions, using a visual riff on Gareth Morgan’s, “What is a Pig” exercise. Hard to see in this picture, but our images had a lot of connectivity and bridging metaphors. Breaths, pauses for soaking in and making sense of an experience. Something that prepares us for what comes next.

Turns out we had some different initial definitions, which grew a bit closer with conversation and some experimentation. For example, Keith was imagining punctuations as affordances for specific structures. For example, how can Fisher Qua’s riffs on Spiral Journal support a deeper “What, So What, Now What?” (There is a picture of the Spiral Journal about half way down this page and hopefully someone is working on writing it up. Hint, hint, you know who you are!) I saw them independent of any particular structure, and called upon as needed, sensing what a group or situation needed. By the end of our What is a Pig Conversation, our senses of the word became intertwined. But darn it, did anyone write down some sort of synthesized definition? I think we were having too much fun.

There were also some emergent threads – maybe principles – that emerged from our play with punctuations.

  • There are always many riffs and variations. How do we discern when we are riffing for our own love of riffing, and when we are responding to emergent contexts and adapting and iteratively experimenting forward?
  • Our core group of experimenters is in love with clever language. When do we, as Viv McWater’s says, “put down our clever” from Keith Johnstone- noting when others may feel confused or excluded.
  • Including many senses might make LS strings (sequences of structures) more flexible and mixable. See the next section for more on this.
  • Punctuations are flexible and mixable.
  • They elicit things (this deserves more unpacking!) They reveal things.
  • They are bridges, synapses.

So practice groups are places for LS to soak in, get clear and “stick!”

Intentional Experiments and Salons

Finally, there are some of us who want to dig in more, play more. A small group here in Seattle have started hosting little experimental “salons” with our first one just a few weeks ago exploring the role of space and movement in the application of LS. You can see a few cryptic pictures here, and yes, I have promised a write up. https://goo.gl/photos/mKNnhtmmNHcrBZ2fA We plan a few more and I am on the hook to organize one around visuals and LS.

That said, there are a few things that became clearer to me as we moved around a beautiful dance studio and reflected on how we use our bodies when we “meet.” The primary driver for these salons and which was clearly visible in the first was we, as facilitators, participants, leaders, engagers, need to remember all our senses. A moving meditation as a group is completely different then asking people to “quietly sit and reflect” in your seats. At the same time, I’ve been working with an amazing network across the developmental disabilities community and I have to carefully attend to abilities and how to invite movement when I’m with a group of diverse people. I’m still feeling quite bad that I did not fully tweak a “Shift and Share” design with quick changeovers that were difficult for folks in wheel chairs. I underestimated the logistical load (not to mention cognitive.) Always learning…When we engage multiple senses, we must attend to design for including everyone.

Friendly Mentoring

Finally, the thing that has kept me moving my LS practice forward has been the generosity of my mentors, Keith, Fisher, Neil and many others. From a quick phone call or “over coffee” meeting, to our online spaces in Slack and Linked in, the ability to throw out a question, or offer a string of structures for feedback and critique has done the most to inform, deepen and improve my practice. So @TrustedSharing, if you mentor one, the magic is happening!

Lessons from VizEd Vancouver

The fabulous Tracy Kelly of BC Campus invited me north to Vancouver to co-facilitate two workshops, one on graphic facilitation in higher education (“VizEd“), and the second a larger team collaborative Liberating Structures 2 day immersion workshop. In keeping with my debrief/reflection practice, here are my lessons from the sold-out GF workshop.

First, it was a joy to collaborate with Tracy. She has the domain skills and expertise and organizing mojo as icing on the cake. She attracts fun and interesting people to her BCCampus offering and she is has a deep sense of fun and playfulness. The whole package. So saying “yes” to Tracy is easy peasy.

The registration information gave a clear snapshot of the day’s plan:

Join us for a hands-on, full-on day of exploring the opportunities and practices of bringing hand made visuals into our teaching and learning. (P.S. “handmade” can mean electronic too!)

We will warm up with some exercises to banish our inner critics, then explore practices for going visual in our work. Bring your challenges! Bring your ideas!  Bring your inner learner, your inner teacher and your inner child as we explore visual practices together.

What you can expect:

  • Tips and practice for basic drawing skills (Courage! Confidence! Color!)
  • Examples of visual exercises and activities, and where they might be useful in your work in higher education
  • Explore templates for collaborative visual meaning making
  • Experiment with the intersection of group process and visuals


What we Planned

We iterated our agenda and then whipped it into final shape the night before. There were so many elements we wanted to include, but had only one day! We pulled exercises from both of our practices. It was interesting to see where we had developed different versions of  similar exercises. So we riffed and improvised across our two practices.

The basic building blocks included an visual self introduction using the Liberating Structures Drawing Together, my ever-ever-ever-beautiful favorite “I Can Draw” exercise I learned at an IFVP gathering in New Mexico years ago, a brief exposition of what comprises graphic facilitation, development of the elements of a visual vocabulary, and ways to put it together through space organization, templates and metaphors.

To put this together, we planned to give an overview of sketchnoting, then have them sketchnote/graphically record Tracy interviewing Jason Toal and I. Jason is another fab visual practitioner from SFU.

Then we planned to break into small participant driven groups to Shift and Share around four topics before identifying personal next steps and do a River of Life for evaluation. (Visual agenda on your right!)

What Happened

We had only an hour to set up the room, so we were blessed by a team of helpers who helped transform the pin boards into paper-covered drawing boards. Never underestimate the labor (or for my Canadian friends, labour!)  it takes to set up the room for a graphic facilitation workshop! We had packets with pens, pastels, eraser, pencil, “boo boo labels” and a few other things ready for everyone. People like their goodie bags!

The drawing practice itself is very physical and I’ve learned to encourage people to take care of their bodies right off. I am beginning to work more with communities comprised of people with very different physical and mental abilities. There is a lot I have to learn about useful accommodation.

Photo by : By BCCampus

We had 26 people from various parts of the higher education ecosystem (with just a few classroom teachers). It was a quiet but fearless group. They stepped into every invitation, even at moments of “confusiasm.” They jumped into the self portrait with five simple shapes and used that as a basis for peer self introductions as we got to know each other.


The “I Can Draw” is always a visual feast of color and beauty. That we can fill up a room in 30 minutes with such a visual richness never fails to stun me. So often people walk in with that “but I can’t draw” voice sitting on one shoulder, so this exercise is about freeing oneself of that voice.

We sprinkled some slides with some exposition about visual facilitation practices, mostly to situate the simple drawing practices into areas of application. In the higher education context, there are so many opportunities, from visual planning, visual engagement in the classroom, and visuals for constructing and sharing ideas and information. The main point was that we can incorporate visuals in so many places: we just need to remember to THINK about it!

Icon Drawing. Photo by BCCampus

Tracy had a great version of the “how to draw basic shapes and icons” that I had not experienced before.  Everyone started Round 1 at a blank canvas of large paper. We’d demo shapes and icons, they would practice, and we’d step back and look at each others work for inspiration. Supporting these rounds of drawing were resources on the table – various sets of icon cards to peruse and practice, depending on the relevance of an icon to a particular person’s work.

Then they would rotate to the canvas to their right for the second round. So instead of just working on “their” piece of paper, they were working on top of each other’s work. We debriefed not only the drawing, but this experience of layering our work. The rounds included:

  • Round 1 – circles & spirals with icons that include light bulbs, globes, spiral arrows, balloons, etc
  • Round 2 = squares, stars, triangles and arrows with icons like computers, phones, buildings, documents, books, barriers, wrenches
  • Round 3 = people – including star people, stick folks, bean people, spring people, and basic face structures to show a range of emotions. Here we also talked about the cultural implications of how we drew and used color for people. 

I liked this better than my version, which was to go from shapes, to people, to arrows and frames and finally to icons for two reason. The groupings helped break things into bite-sized pieces, and it accomplished the “writing over each others work” that I usually do in a separate exercise. So when time is tight, you get “two for one!”

Photo by by BC Campus

After lunch we gave a few more examples of how to unify and organize visual elements with frames, templates, layouts and metaphors. (Tracy introduced the term “grounds” for these things!) This warmed them up for their sketchnoting/graphic recording practice. Tracy again came up with a great idea for listening and capture practice with “VizEd Radio.” She had a set of domain related questions for Jason and I while people madly sketched, followed by a reflection on what it felt like to try and visually capture a conversation. For me it was great to listen to Jason’s reflection on his practice, and where we had similar and different experiences — important for seeing the diversity of this practice.

During the course of the day people had asked about specific elements of visual facilitation. Our Shift and Share session provided the chance to identify four of these areas for short, collaborative learning huddles. People could spend 15 minutes in each area, getting a taste, or hang out at one for the full hour. The four stations included digital recording, designing visual supports for specific facilitation practices, visuals and the classroom and  more on templates and layouts! I regret we did not do any good capture of these sessions. I think we all got lost in the interesting conversations and demonstrations. The photo above is all that remains. Harvest fail!

Finally, we asked people to think about how they would apply their new found/enhanced visual skills when they headed back to their classrooms and offices combined with a short visual reflection of their day. We used River of Life, where you visually draw a river, left to right. The upper left is the past: what you wanted out of or anticipated about the workshop, the middle is the present: what you learned, and the upper right is the future – your next step in using the skills. You can see some samples of the Rivers here: https://goo.gl/photos/iaLHerqP3ZS1K3RBA. We also offered a small visual grid on the way out where they could leave impressions – but I think by then we had fully exhausted everyone!

What We Learned

Here are a few snippets from the evaluation:

  • 85% of respondents said it was a high quality learning experience and 93.8% said they can apply what they learned to their work.
  • I enjoyed being challenged to approach what I normally do in a new way.
  • The facilitators created a safe environment for us to try out new ideas. Plus it was just plain fun to get out of the office and do something I have never done before.
  • I learned so much about some of the basics of visual practice that I feel confident learning more on my own now. That is important! and I also gained confidence in drawing…I learned to let go of the critic and just practice. Okay, the critic is still there and hasn’t been let go of but is quieter.
  • I learned a lot – both how to draw things and how to use the things I draw

We had some moments of dissonance as well. Some felt the afternoon was not as well structured as the morning. And of course, some loved the food, some did not. THAT is not a problem I have ever been able to solve!

In the mean time Tracy and I have been exchanging our personal reflections via email.


  • I continue to be invited into fabulous collaborations every time I co-facilitate a graphic facilitation workshop. From Michelle Laurie for our RosViz workshops, to Tracy I am just damn lucky.
  • Yes, you can do a workshop with results in one day. I used to think we really needed two days which feels like a luxury these days with people so busy and short of time and resources. With each iteration the agenda gets sharper.
  • USE the darn visual agenda (it was at the far end of a long room… I should have positioned it better)
  • Don’t overpack the agenda. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, I’ll be learning this the rest of my life, but I think we exercised appropriate restraint.
  • Work hard, hard, hard to reinforce each specific idea for application. In all the hullabaloo, this is so easy to lose.
  • Get clearer in how I express some of the fundamental ideas. I do get lost in my own obscure jargon. Argh!
  • I need to practice my own drawing more, but I remained convinced that my imperfection is an invitation not a straight up weakness! 🙂
  • Have good food. THANK YOU BCCampus!!!


  • My VizEd course/practice is expanding from a very heavy leaning into graphic recording into broader Viz practices, with specific hooks for supporting education and organization processes. In the future, I will continue to include more smaller scale work than I have done before (bonus: less paper) and give a bit more air time and encouragement for sketch notes. This means my sketch note practice needs to improve too.
  • I still feel like end of day harvest/how we end isn’t what I want it to be (though I confess I love that I have my “river” from taking your course to look back on).  When I do this course solo, we finish by doing our first large scale GR and gallery walk, which is like “yay” and “omg look at it all! we did it!” I like that vibe to launch them OUT the door. But it may not be the most useful for all people, will continue to give thought… (Nancy nods in agreement.)

Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/giyTDeXPxAk2KF3R8 (mine) and those of BCCampus https://www.flickr.com/photos/61642799@N03/sets/72157677749832233/with/32498695293/ 

Slides: VIZED-BCCampus Slides for Sharing

Event: Preparing Teachers of Refugees

Diana Woolis, a friend and colleague at the Carey Institute for Global Good is convening an online event that begins soon and culminates on March 14-16. It will focus on preparing teachers of refugees.

Please join me and other educators from around the world in  Action for Teachers of Refugees a free global online event about teaching teachers of refugees.  We will be discussing critical issues and sharing ideas and experiences about professional learning. You can participate in some or all of the activities, for as much or as little time as you choose, and whenever you want through-out the 3 days.

We have several activities lined up:

  • Showcasing  professional learning platforms people are using or wish they had for professional development – add yours, learn about others.
  • Structured facilitated discussions: Text-based exchanges facilitated by guest Discussion Hosts (I am one) focused on addressing the question: What is sustainable, effective pedagogy for teachers-of-teachers of refugees, and how can it be enacted?
  • A Practice Lab – for those who want to reflect, in community, on their experience developing or participating in teach-the-teachers initiatives.
  •    Signature Pedagogy – A consideration of a draft version for teachers-of-teachers of refugees.

Especially needed are the voices of teachers, pre-k through college, so please share this invite with your teacher networks!

 Here is the overall description:

Many organizations in the United States and around the world are designing effective content and curriculum for teachers of refugees in a range of settings- from camps, to college campuses, to classrooms and online, on a range of topics from math to English to arts and humanities as well as social-emotional support for students.

As a group, we are universally challenged by how best to “teach-the-teachers” – how to engage, prepare, assess, certify and support them.

The Center for Learning in Practice seeks to contribute to addressing this situation by codifying ways in which continuous learning for teachers/educators and practitioners, real time data about teaching practice, and valuable feedback can be provided to teachers regardless of context and with fidelity. We seek to do so in community and in dialogue with educators and practitioners and help build a knowledge network among us.

The full schedule is here.

In addition, beginning now anyone who has registered can post a submission by simply writing a short description of their platform- what it is used for, who it serves, and how success, impact, or outcomes of its use are or will be assessed. On March 13 posting closes. On March 14, the Peer-Source is open all day for comments, and then is put in “read-only” mode, when we move to the Forum discussions.

I encourage you to join us for part or all of the event. Free. Online. Register now!

KM4Dev and Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner – April 6-7 2017

Care about communities of practice? Care about how we build and share knowledge in any context? In international development? Like hanging out with fun and interesting people? Then get yourself registered for a regional KM4Dev gathering here in Seattle on April 6-7. Our focus is communities of practice: the heaven and everything else. (Registration)

Our goal is to share practical experiences of the application of Communities of Practice (CoPs) and explore what is working, not working, when and why or why not. As practitioners, we will share stories and cases on day 1 to extract patterns and insights with a particular focus on the purpose of a CoP in a particular context, its fitness for purpose and practices that support success.

On day 2, tighten your seat belts as we will host a rare public workshop with CoP leading thinkers, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner who will share their Value Creation Framework to  identify and measure value created by communities and networks. Together, the two days will link the essential anchor of purpose, with an emerging framework for assessing our progress towards purpose. I don’t know about you, but there are not many frameworks that really dig into the value of CoPs and networks… too many just measure activity. This is a GOLD MINE, my friends. Don’t miss it!

This is a practitioners workshop, using examples and experience, bolstered by theory. It is not a “CoP’s Introductory” workshop nor a review of CoP theory. Come with your real world stories, challenges and insights, prepared to share, think, and make sense of our work. We will use a variety of participatory methods, many drawn from Liberating Structures http://www.liberatingstructures.com/, to engage and unleash the knowledge and energy of everyone present.

Don’t work in international development? We still love and welcome you!

We will gather in the brand new Centilia Cultural Center at Plaza Roberto Maestas http://www.elcentrodelaraza.org/room-rentals/, hosted by the long time Seattle institution, El Centro de la Raza. In the south end of Seattle, steps away from a Light Rail station, the Center itself is a hub of community and network activity of the Latino community in the area.

Come both days or just one (same price either way). Just JOIN US. Register HERE. Questions? Leave them in the comments.

Following Up After a Liberating Structures Facilitated Event

In late January I helped plan and facilitate the INGENEAS Global Symposium, a gathering of academics, researchers, practitioners, business people and policy makers interested in the role of gender and nutrition in rural agricultural extension services in the developing world. We used Liberating Structures extensively throughout the 3 day event.

Have you ever had the experience in a global meeting where jet lag is an ongoing presence, prompting naps and drooping heads? We saw no napping! People were engaged, occasionally baffled, and exceptionally open to new ways of being together, even those who are most comfortable in traditional academic meetings. The only persistent wish was for more time to “go deeper” in exploring and learning about each other’s work. We hope people will stay connected and build that depth. (More on that in a later blog post about the network mapping project we also did!)

It was fabulous to have a client, Andrea Bohn, who fully embraced both my crazy approaches and Liberating Structures. Her support was  so thorough that we used LS to plan the meetings as well. After the meeting she connected participants who expressed interest in Liberating Structures to their local (or nearly local) practice group for further learning, practice/peer support, and sent out this follow up email:

Dear Symposium participants,

Hard to believe that it has already been more than a week since we parted in Lusaka. It was great to have you there!

One of the follow-up actions I committed to is to tell you a bit more about the facilitation techniques used by Nancy.

It was one of our unspoken intentions with the symposium was to expose you to some very effective means of engaging and including all people (in an organization, at a meeting, training, etc.) and for helping bring to light the knowledge and experiences that exists among those gathered. We trust that you will find these techniques useful in your work as extensionists, trainers, team leads, etc. Most of the techniques used (some in modified form) come from the “Liberating Structures” toolbox (see www.liberatingstructures.com). Over the course of the symposium you experienced (and participated in!) these:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

In planning the symposium, we were guided by

There are many more structures/techniques in that toolbox (33 in total, www.liberatingstructures.com/ls-menu). The website describes each in some detail and we encourage you to explore them. However, we also know that it all makes a lot more sense after you have experienced one in action, as you did during the Symposium. I’d love to hear from you how using one or several of these structures in your profession is working out for you.



 Andrea Bohn, M.Sc., MBA

Member of the AgReach Team


Why Follow Up?

I’ve been either sending a follow up email, or creating an information visual about LS in meetings I am facilitating with LS because it is a simple capacity building step that is both efficient and effective. People are interested in the moment, and the follow up email is a perfect trigger point to invite them to dig in a little deeper. Here is the summary visual I created for a group last December after one of the participants made the request for the “list” of structures. Why not make it visual?

Debriefing With the Team

Beyond participant interest in Liberating Structures, I’ve found it very useful to debrief with the core event planning and facilitation team to get a sense of their experiences and to encourage further application.

In a more traditional academic conference context, this is always interesting. We tend to gravitate towards that which is familiar and comfortable. Those who have literally grown up and experienced their entire careers through formal academic gatherings may feel a bit like “fish out of water” with LS. Through the debrief at this event and others, three main issues come out.

  1. Control is distributed, not held at the front of the room. For example, in traditional academic conferences people present their papers from the front of the room and then the audience asks questions. With Shift and Share, a greater part of the time was focused on the conversation, rather than presentation.  Repeating cycles start to drill down to the most salient issues and points, but that is not always obvious from the start! For those who are used to holding control via presentation and who they choose to call on, this is a power shift as well.
  2. Time feels “too short.” Many of the LS cycle participants rapidly through the work and/or content at hand, and look at it from different perspectives via different structures. There is an instinct to “slow down” but sometimes the rapid cycling can help step past ruts and assumptions allowing greater depth. Over-packing a conference, however, with too much content, can stymie that result. And somehow we always over-pack!
  3. It steps outside of “sanctioned forms.” “I can go to the meeting if I am presenting a paper.” The way legitimacy is viewed in research communities is based on publishing. On presenting. With LS, we focus on meaning making on what is offered, versus exposition. So we need a way to create an invitation that has institutional legitimacy for those coming, but which does not box us into traditional forms if they don’t serve the purpose of the meeting. Across the LS community of practitioners there is deep experience with significant meeting results — without panels and presentations. But it is a leap of faith to go down that road!