Archive for the 'facilitation' Category

Feb 12 2017

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 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, 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!


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Jan 18 2017

Wanderings of a Liberating Structures Practitioner – Part 2 the practice

This second post will describe the Liberating Structures string used at the Fire Adapted Communities Network three day retreat in Ashland, Oregon earlier this month to demonstrate the application of LS for strategic planning in contexts that are portfolio based, complex and full of (good!) people, all mentioned in part 1 where it all started.

FAC missionThe Fire Adapted Communities Network springs out of  work sponsored by The Watershed Research and Training Center and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The network is dedicated to working with peope helping communities live safely with wildland fire. They have a very clear mission: “We work with communities across the nation to create a more wildfire-resilient future. A “fire adapted community” consists of informed and prepared citizens collaboratively planning and taking action to safely co-exist with wildland fire.”

A key strategy for the network at it’s birth was to work through communities of practice (CoPs). After a year and a half, it was time to look at the progress so far and develop a learning agenda within and across the CoPs going forward, since the core function of the network is to identify, spread and apply good fire adapted community practices. Learning is always at the core.

I was initially invited in to do an afternoon’s training on CoPs but after a short conversation, I suggested that a CoP approach, woven across their three days, might be more meaningful than training. You know, that stuff which can often go in one ear and out the other. Additionally for me,  a CoP perspective is more useful than simply focusing on the form of CoPs themselves.  This idea of a CoP perspective is from Etienne Wenger-Trayner and basically asks us to consider the domain – what we are interested in learning and applying learning, the community – who we learn with, and the practice – how we learn and apply our learning. To look at whatever we are doing from that social learning perspective.

As the meeting concept evolved, the team eventually invited me to help them design and facilitate the three days, giving them a chance to step back and participate themselves, and see Liberating Structures in action. I in turn promised to weave in little CoP “meta moments” as issues and opportunities arose.

We proceeded to plan a lovely agenda for an amazing group of enthusiastic, smart and dedicated volunteers and staff. I had my string of Liberating Structures and back ups all designed. I had my adapted visual Strategy Gameplan sketched out. The gameplan is something I learned from Keith McCandless and which I’ve been tinkering with over the past six months. It builds off the foundation of a visual process templates developed by David Sibbet at the Grove, then adding the LS twists and questions. What used to be the “first steps” in the middle of the arrow (traditional first quarter, second quarter planning)  has now been replaced by the LS Ecocycle to hold the portfolio and to recognize what is in or ready for scaling, what needs destroying/stopped, what needs to be imagined and birthed.  This final twist is what has broken new ground for me. More on that in a minute…

Anchor Questions

I continue to tinker and modify the questions. In an actual application, they are customized to the issues/domains of the people using them, but the generic ones can offer us some insight. What you see above are actually draft questions for a LS Immersion Workshop in February with BC Campus on the use of LS in higher education. (IF this is relevant to you, JOIN US!) If people are interested, we can share our string once we finish it and I hopefully will debrief the event with a blog post afterwards. For the FAC communities, obviously the questions were about FAC!

  1. What is happening around us that demands change? (Often the words growth, adaptation can come into play.) This question has a long lineage through facilitation and planning practices and I find it particularly energizing to help identify purpose. Keith has said he has stopped wasting time with vision and mission and uses this sort of question to sharpen PURPOSE. I’m heading in the same direction. Then values and principles – really important aspects – are worked on in the context of the purpose, not as stand-alones. See Purpose to Practice for examples of the purpose/principles link.
  2. What paradoxical challenges must we face to make progress? This to me is the reality check and often the ground shifting conversation in working in a complex environment. It is not “if we do X, Y will happen.” It can be competing priorities, uncertain futures (classic example here in the US with a wild card president-elect!), antagonizing circumstances etc. Dealing with this up front in the context of the sub-question makes it more stark: What happens if we don’t change? In other words, how do we keep moving forward in this land of “wicked questions?”  Paradoxes are not things to defeat us, but to change how we view a problem. To shift our mindset. What is not very obvious from my image is that those circles are yin/yang containers for these paradoxes.
  3. Where are we starting, honestly? This question can have many layers and options, from identification of strengths (things in our “Maturity area” of the Ecocycle) , positive deviance, as well as the challenges, the things we have resisted or feared discussing, the light and the dark. Speaking our truths, sometimes just between ourselves, sometimes “to power.” This question surfaces the things we have to work with. AND the things we need to creatively destroy in the Creative Destruction are of the ecocycle.
  4. Given our purpose, what big ideas seem possible now? (Remember, question 1 surfaced our purpose. I keep wondering if I should add that label…) What big opportunities do we see? What is ready to be imagined and then stewarded into birth. This frames our shared impetus forward.
  5. How are we moving away from the current state to our desired future state? This is the practical piece. What are the next steps? Things we can decide and do. Start now. Do something. Don’t wait to plan for perfection. ACT!

Anchor Structures

For each question in the gameplan there are a variety of Liberating Structures we can use. Because this image is small, I’ll also add a list below as a starter point, but one of the heaven/hells of LS is that you have many options to use a structure in different phases and in different ways. That comes after building your overall LS practice! 🙂

  1. Impromptu Networking to quickly get people talking about real issues. 9 Whys to make sense of initial insights. 1-2-4-all to see diverse viewpoints and synthesize patterns. User Experience Fishbowl to surface perspectives. 8 Word Purpose Statement (which is an LS in development and not well documented on the website yet) to hone down to the most important part of the purpose, to clarify and compel. What, So What, Now what (W3)to move the process to question 2. Often in my first use of W3 I’ll weave in Argyris’s Ladder of Inference as documented on the W3 LS page. This all drives the Ecocycle.
  2. Critical Uncertainties to move us away from some fixed perception of the context and future and build robust, resilient and anti-fragile possibilities in our work. Wicked Questions to tackle the paradoxical challenges. W3 again to reflect. Sometimes these identify where we are stuck in the rigidity or poverty traps of the Ecocycle.
  3. Min Specs to identify and sharpen principles, TRIZ to surface the real issues if we are still avoiding or not being able to see them, Shift and Share to spread strengths, Discovery and Action Dialog to identify positive deviants, Appreciative Interviews to surface strengths. Generative Star Relationships or What I Need From You to surface team issues… plus so many other LS! Map on the Ecocycle.
  4. 25/10 Crowdsourcing to identify big ideas. 9 Whys to sharpen big ideas. Improv Prototyping and Troika Consulting to both develop,  test and improve ideas. Put them all on the Ecocycle.
  5. 15% Solutions to get stuff we can do NOW. Purpose to Practice to develop discrete projects within the portfolio. Plus a ton more LS! The team building LS mentioned in #3 may come into play here as action moves forward.

Now of course you aren’t going to do ALL of these. I have been using about 2, sometimes 3 structures per question and I always have alternatives in my “back pocket.” This is my own emerging edge.

Noticing Turning Points

I’ve uses this approach three times now in the past three months and each time there has been a moment in the gathering where all of a sudden we notice a turning point. For the TNC folks it became clear when we could not nail down a clear purpose. The energy up to that point had been on building the people side of the network and its constituent CoPs and the turning point shifted the focus to what strategic learning agenda or agendas would move the network forward. From that some of the CoPs found clarity for their forward movement, some because obsolete and were targeted for sunsetting, and some new needs and forms were identified. The current portfolio was better understood, and then the group could then go through the process of identifying their new and emergent elements of the portfolio. What is scaled to its next level of maturity? The well defined CoPs. What is destroyed? The fuzzy CoPs? What new ideas are imagined? New forms and focus for learning.

Be warned that this is a powerful string for creative destruction. DON’T go there if you are not prepared to have your past assumptions blown away, and your plans may change. DO go there if you are in a complex and uncertain environment, or when you have audacious ambitions that require powerful thinking and doing.


The Graphic Game Plan + Ecocycle gives you a place to harvest the most important parts of the process and provide a base documentation for going forward. It has been nearly impossible for me to include the fully developed Ecocycle in the game plan (unless you have a ginormous wall) so I have the full Ecocycle on a separate page and just harvest out the key ideas and turning points.  I also use a Kanban chart to track the LS as we go through them, and our tasks as we go through.  There are three columns: Backlog (what is to be done), WIP (work in progress and make sure you keep this LIMITED. Thank you Jim Benson) and Done! (track and CELEBRATE!). My Kanbans are very dynamic, and role model how we adapt as things emerge. Here is a picture of a Kanban from the FAC gathering:

What, So What, Now What?

Walking my own talk, what I have observed in the use of this approach is:

  • people get confused. Uncomfortable. And playful. And engaged.
  • issues are made visible
  • it can get messy
  • I did not always lead/invite/explain well

So What, or why I think this is important is because the approach:

  • is flexible and adaptable
  • people quickly see and own it (visually, emotionally and cognitively)
  • making confusion visible is a useful thing
  • it provides a container for surfacing and using discomfort and diversity
  • IT REALLY HELPS US find some solace in the complexity that might otherwise overwhelm us
  • it takes practice and I still have my sticking points

Now What?

  • I’d like to improve the harvest and graphic container for the harvest.
  • Keep practicing
  • Get YOUR feedback. That’s what the comments are for, ok?

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Jan 18 2017

Wanderings of a Liberating Structures Practitioner – Part 1 3 Reasons

Purpose 2 PracticeAs readers of my blog may have noticed, I’ve mentioned Liberating Structures more and more over the past two years. I’ve used them extensively with clients, but I don’t often get the chance to write publicly about that work. The great folks at the Fire Adapted Communities Network gave me permission to share my process “download” with you. It prompted me to a bit of year end reflection that requires more than one post. So here we go! This is a bit of a mishmosh of work and conversations that came prior as well. Consider this first post the rationale, or reasons for my shift towards Liberating Structures. The second post will show up here. (When I get it finished!)

What my clients have been asking for a lot is something that falls into the general category of a “retreat” to examine progress, consider current conditions and plan for the future. In almost every case there has been internal or external factors that make these moments in time feel like inflection or turning points. Policy changes due to political shifts. Growth in networks. Shifting priorities. Emerging possibilities. All of these could be addressed with “traditional strategic planning.” But I have realized I don’t do this anymore. Forget your SWOT analysis. I’m fully into the “liberating planning” space.

This first pots gives an overview of genesis of what I’ve been doing comes out of some work Keith McCandless and I did at the University of Michigan immersion last Spring, conversations with Keith, Fisher and other LS pals, and all the gatherings that have come before me with my clients. (THANK YOU CLIENTS! I LOVE YOU!) Some of the key themes that keep croping up include:

A Portfolio Perspective

Very few organizations or even projects have just one element. The group/organization/person needs to take a portfolio perspective on planning which is quite different than, for example, “planning a project.”  This thinking was first introduced to me by Rachel Cardone when she was managing a portfolio of investments in the water, sanitation and hygiene area.

When you work at the portfolio level, you are looking not for a single success (or failure), but for signals that can show how to move the whole field forward. You want to do rapid “safe fail” probes and experimentation in areas of uncertainty, and then scale up more mature results. This is very consistent with the Cynefin Framework of Snowden and friends. And,among many useful things, Ecocycle Planning in Liberating Structures is an amazing porfolio oriented approach.

That said, few non profits or NGOs talk about managing their portfolios. I most often see a project and project management perspective, something that exists over a totally artificial three year grant funding cycle, that dominates the narrative. And within that narrative are the holy pair of impact and scaling up and out. Figure it out and then replicate the you-know-what out of it. So why aren’t all our problems solved? How are we relating that to strategy? That brings up the second area.


Most of the challenges people are facing are not simple cause/effect problems. They are muliti factoral, often unpredictable which makes them complex. Now don’t get all wobbly kneed with the C word. It does NOT mean that things are SO complex, we simply can’t address the complexity. There are plenty of scholars and practitioners who have proved otherwise. And I don’t just mean to pretend a problem is simple and try to solve it that way.

The implication for my work is that people need a handle on complexity, something that allows them to recognize it, work with it, and not get overwhelmed. Think about the 2030 Sustainable Development goals.  At one level there are 17 rational appearing goals:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (in line with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change)
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Then start thinking about how these 17 are all emmeshed with each other. Dive into the links and look at the many layers of indicators and outcomes. Does your head hurt yet? (The sheer number of PDFs makes my head hurt!) Should that stop us from taking action? NOOOOOO…. If we are to tackle system level problems, we need a repertoire suited from complex contexts. Look at the work of Cognitive Edge (alas, now most of the methods are behind a paywall), Harold Jarche (and..), and many others.

The patterns I notice across these and other useful processes for working in a complex context are these:

  • they ask us to shift our perspective about how past experiences inform our present analysis,
  • they support the emergent (often unpredictable), and,
  • they are iterative.

All these ask us to practice a different mindset for planning. These approaches are also attracting REALLY INTERESTING people. That, of course, attracts me.

It’s the People

Yes, those people. If I were to admit it, it is the people, not the complexity that draws me in! Interesting people who really want to get things done are tackling these tough problems. They are passionate, open, hard working and they deserve practices that acknowledge the wisdom and intelligence of all actors (well, we all say/do some stupid things too. I do. Don’t you?) They deserve not to be tortured by boring meetings, poor process and feeble results. Work, learning, doing –> all is ready for liberation. And that includes how we plan for our work, learning, doing and yes, even serious play.

So there you have it in a messy nutshell: what drives me in my work. On to part 2 to talk about this strategic practice that has been emerging for me.


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Nov 04 2016

Liberating Structures in Higher Ed: Vancouver 2017


Source: » Liberating Structures 2017 Image by Tracy Kelly

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’m heading up to Vancouver to co-host a couple of workshops. Besides the VizEd, Tracy Kelly, a great team and I will co-host a two day Liberating Structures immersion workshop February 22-23, 2017 and the early bird rate ends November 15th. So Register Online Now!

This immersion workshop focuses on the appication of Liberating Structures in higher education. Here are the details:

Liberating Structures are a collection of powerful facilitation strategies that can be used in our classrooms, everyday meetings, strategic planning sessions, workshops, presentations, etc.  They are seriously fun methods to engage and work together.

Liberating Structures are small design shifts that move us gently away from more constraining  “conventional structures” (e.g., lectures, open discussions, round robin updates, brainstorms) and toward sessions that quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to unleash and include everyone

In the workshop, you will learn how to choose, facilitate, and sequence Liberating Structures for your individual facilitation challenges and contexts.

Who should attend?

Faculty, Instructors, Teachers,  Learning Designers, Leaders –  all who are called to facilitate learning, meetings, sessions, groups, presentations, workshops, processes, communication and change. (I would add learning in and outside of formal educational institutions!)

We will focus on post-secondary education contexts, but colleagues from other sectors (e.g., government, health care, private) are welcome!

Here are some examples of applying liberating structures:

I’m particularly excited by the early conversations with the hosting team, dancing around provocative and challenging issues such as inclusion, indiginization, how people do or don’t see themselves as “facilitators” and what this means in the Liberating Structures context. As always, we will travel both familiar and new territory! Join us!

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Nov 02 2016

» Graphic Practices in Higher Ed: VizEd 2017

Source: » VizEd 2017

Happy, Happy, Happy dance! I get to offer a workshop with the fabulous Tracy Kelley of BC Campus in February on visual practices in higher education. (She made the visual above which I LOVE!) AND PSST, the early bird deadline is NOVEMBER 15th. You can read all about it here. It is one of two workshops we are cooking up. The second is a Liberating Structures immersion workshop and I’ll blog about that separately as I want to share some of the planning process.

I’m particularly excited that we are focusing the practice in all sorts of higher education contexts – teaching and learning, administration, design and… well, ANYWHERE! (Yes, all caps. Yes, EXCITED!)

Here is the blurb:

Have you ever noticed that moment when people are talking about something, then they whip out a pen and start sketching? Or when a conversation breaks open because someone goes to the whiteboard and draws something?

We are beings with many senses, but we often forget how powerful it is to make meaning using words and images. There is something so negotiable about rough little sketches that invites us deeper into understanding, instead of trying to “be right” or “prove my point.” Everything becomes just a little bit more negotiable.  This is the power of creating visuals with and for each other.

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 to bring: 

  • Bring a notebook, your phone (or other camera) to capture visuals that inform and inspire you.
  • You are unlikely to use a laptop during the workshop, but you might like to bring a tablet (and your favourite stylus if you have  one!)
  • Wear your most comfortable clothes and shoes you can get dirty (ink, chalk, etc.)

Register here.

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