Two Liberating Structures Workshops at University of Illinois April 5 and 6

Are you at or near the University of Illinois at Champagne/Urbana? Interested in Liberating Structures? Then join us for one or two days of hands/heads/hearts on workshops.  The first one is a new offering I’ve put together that builds on some of my recent blog posts (and more to come) about facilitating in complex contexts!

April 5 Learning the Strategy Game Plan: Liberating Structures for Development

The first workshop is on April 5th, 8:30 am – 5:30 pm. It is designed to explore how we can use Liberating Structures, a repertoire of 33 group practices, to improve project planning and execution for participatory projects that are often on complex and emergent contexts. While a funder or boss may want a linear log-frame and a budget, we need to find approaches that embrace ambiguity with practical approaches, ensure learning and improvement are part of the design, not an afterthought, and which consistently liberate and unleash the knowledge and experiences across the system at play.

In the workshop you will practice 6-8 structures and utilize an overarching framework to tie the pieces together in a cogent, visual whole. The fee is $100.00, registration is here, and a brief flyer is attached to this blog post.  Leave me a comment with any questions. Spread the word!

April 6th, Unleashing Learning Engagement in the Classroom 

The second is a series of three, 90 minute workshops that dive increasingly deeper into the use of Liberating Structures for increasing classroom engagement in higher education. We’ve designed this with the busy professor/lecturer/Graduate Student/TA in mind.

Is it a challenge to engage all student voices in your classes? Do you look for ways to spark deeper student engagement the subject matter and with each other? Do you wish they would take more ownership and risks in their learning? Engagement deepens learning and application. It strengthens the muscles that help students work with ambiguity. But it can be challenging, in both small and large groups.

Come explore Liberating Structures, an easy to learn and deploy repertoire of of 33+ open source interaction structures that can build patterns of easy, regular student engagement in the classroom.  They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone.

You can start with a short 90 minute introductory workshop, or stay for all three learning sessions. First is an introduction of the easiest and most often used Liberating Structures, second, a focused application to solve a real challenge, and third, a deeper dive into the theory and practice behind Liberating Structures.

8:30 – 10:00  Workshop 1: Liberating Engaged Learning: discover and use 4 structures that can immediately increase engagement in your classroom.

Friday, April 6, 2018
Illini Union Ballroom

8:30 am to 10:00 am  Workshop 1: Liberating Engaged Learning: discover and use 4 structures that can immediately increase engagement in your classroom. In this 90 minute session you will get a hands on introduction to some of the easiest and most commonly used Liberating Structures to build student engagement in your class. It will conclude with a debrief and identification of immediate applications in your classroom. You can then build your practice by turning to the instructions for individual structures on the website (www.liberatingstructures.com), mobile phone app (available free on  iTunes and Google Play) or continue with the two following workshops.

10:30 am to 12:00 pm Workshop 2: Stringing Structures to Tackle a Challenge in Your Classroom: learn how a sequence of multiple structures can address specific challenges (student, passivity, unequal participation, lack of critical thinking, etc.) and larger outcomes. This builds on Workshop 1. 

 

Liberating structures can be used individually, but their power becomes more visible when they are joined together or “strung.” In this 90 minute session we will use a string of 2-3 Liberating Structures to collaboratively work on addressing a concrete shared classroom challenge such as how to create an open environment and tackle a lack of student participation, end student passivity, weak discussions, or the lack of productive risk-taking. You will walk away with at least one actionable solution you can apply the next time you are in the classroom. You will learn how to use the Liberating Structures Matchmaker tool to select and string the structures. Prerequisite: Workshop 1

12:00 pm to 1:00 pm   Lunch Break (grab lunch in the food court or on Green Street) with someone you just met this morning

1:00 pm to 2:30 pm Workshop 3: Understanding the Theory Behind Liberating Structures: an advanced workshop that looks at the underlying elements of Liberating Structures and how they can become part of the everyday pattern of highly engaged classrooms. Liberating Structures can appear to simply be “yet another facilitation tool.” What sets them apart is the attention to five microstructures that sit beneath each Liberating Structures, and the ten principles that guide them. These give us insight as to how and why Liberating Structures work well for stronger classroom engagement, enable more critical thinking, innovation and action. In this workshop we will explore some of the theory behind Liberating Structures and experience a few of the more complex and rich structures. You will also be introduced to various vectors for continuing to learn and practice Liberating Structures. Prerequisite: Workshop 1 and/or 2.

It’s worth your time to come to all three, but if you can only attend one, then come to the first. If you can do two, then combine workshops 1 and 2 or workshops 1 and 3.

Registration is here and the short flyer is attached below.

Flyer – LS Workshop on April 5 2018 – Strategy Game Plan

Flyer – LS Workshop on April 6 2018 – Unleashing Learning Engagement – external

 

Facilitating Strategic Planning in Complex Contexts

My clients have been asking for more support in planning for the future. In almost every case there have been internal or external factors that suggest significant inflection or turning points. Policy changes due to political shifts. Growth in networks. Shifting priorities. Emerging possibilities. New combinations of partners.

They usually ask for traditional strategic planning. I have realized I don’t do this anymore. Won’t. Forget your SWOT analysis. I’m fully into the “liberating planning” space. A liberated facilitation space. This work has been deeply enhanced by my collaboration with folks like Keith McCandless and Fisher Qua, fellow “struturalistas!” Many of the words below came from or were inspired by them and others from the Liberating Structures community.

Context

Why do we need complexity informed planning? Three big reasons.

  • Portfolios, not just projects: Very few organizations have just one element, yet planning is often linear and isolated at the project level. Strategically we need to take a portfolio perspective on planning which is quite different than “planning a project.”  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. A portfolio approach can help buffer against the typical three-year grant funding cycles and keep focused on strategy. Tactics should include “safe fail” probes (http://cognitive-edge.com/methods/safe-to-fail-probes/) and experimentation in areas of uncertainty, and then, once some clarity has emerged, scale up or adapt to more mature results.  Among many useful things, the Liberating Structure Ecocycle Planning (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/31-ecocycle-planning/ ) supports a complexity informed portfolio approach.  Interestingly it also allows simultaneous work on strategy and tactics.
  • Complexity requires complexity informed facilitation practices. A portfolio approach is complex, with many unknowns, variables and dependencies. Even within a project, the challenges people are facing are rarely simple cause/effect problems. They are complex. It does NOT mean that things are SO complex, we simply can’t address the complexity.The facilitation implication is that people need a handle on complexity, to recognize it, work with it, and not get overwhelmed by it. If we are to tackle system level problems, we need a repertoire suited for complex contexts. Look at the work of Cognitive Edge (http://cognitive-edge.com/ )  , Harold Jarche and many others. (http://jarche.com/2010/10/organizations-and-complexity/, https://jarche.com/2016/04/complexity-in-the-workplace/ , http://www.ontheagilepath.net/2015/10/complexity-and-methods-to-succeed-thanks-for-the-books-organize-for-complexity-and-komplexithoden.html and https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/10604.pdf )
  • Planning itself becomes an Ecocycle. My recent work with the Ecocycle Planning tool has opened a new repertoire of facilitating in complex contexts by helping us recognize that our work does, and should, span the four spaces of maturity, creative destruction, networking and birth. The Ecocycle recognizes that we operate across a range of contexts and projects that are, from a Cynefin framework perspective, simple (rules based), complicated (expertise driven),  complex (not predictable) and chaotic (we will never fully know!) A manager may feel most accountable for the maturity space, where tested approaches can be scaled up. But without an eye to the pipeline in, simply managing the mature space is self-delusion. It may require making space through creative destruction. Opening up to wider networks to identify new possibilities and steward them through the innovation process. Yet maturity is the manager’s area of comfort. To embrace the other areas, they must see the action of the continuum of the Ecocycle.

The patterns I notice across the Ecocycle and other useful facilitation processes for working in a complex context are that:

  • 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.

Another thing I notice is that this practice embraces a different mindset for planning which also attracts REALLY INTERESTING people. That, of course, attracts me.

The Adaptive Strategy Landscape for Project Design & Development

We have been struggling about what to call this and how to describe it. My newest experiment is “Adaptive Strategy Landscape.” I’m currently designing a workshop for practitioners in international development to use Liberating Structures in project design – thus my need to blog about this and think out loud with you. I am drawn to the term “landscape” because it is visually strong, and implies an ecosystem of inter-relating elements. I am very open to other name suggestions. 😉

So what does this Landscape, this “emergent, complexity-friendly strategic planning” actually look like? Right now we are framing it around six questions I learned from Keith. Typically I tinker and modify them to the domain in question. This is their generic form.

  1. PURPOSE: Why is this work important to us and the wider community?  How do we justify our work to others? What makes this important?
  2. CONTEXT: What is happening around us that demands change? This question is particularly energizing to help identify and sharpen purpose. It shocks me how often this is ignored or left muddy and far from strategic. A good idea out of context is often a blind alley.
  3. BASELINE: Where are we starting, honestly? This question has many layers and process options, from identification of strengths (things in our “Maturity area” of the ecocycle), positive deviance (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/10-discovery-action-dialogue/ ) , identification of challenges, or the things we have resisted or feared discussing, the light and the dark. It surfaces the things we must work with. AND the things we need to creatively destroy to make space for innovation. The creative destruction is ESSENTIAL to this process!
  4. CHALLENGE: What paradoxical challenges must we face to make progress? This invites the ground shifting conversation to enable working in a complex environment. It is not “if we do X, Y will happen.” It is not X or Y.  It examines competing priorities, uncertain futures, and antagonizing circumstances. It explores multiple perspectives and truths. Paradoxes are not things to defeat us, but tools to change how we view a problem. To shift our mindsets.  A useful sub-question if things get stuck is What happens if we don’t change? How do we keep moving forward in this land of “wicked questions?” ( http://www.liberatingstructures.com/4-wicked-questions/ )
  5. AMBITION: Given our purpose, what big ideas seem possible now for our purpose? What big opportunities do we see? What is ready to be imagined and then stewarded into birth? This frames our shared impetus forward. It is the genesis of our monitoring and evaluation framework as well, informed by the other five questions. This is super-important and includes a developmental evaluation perspective right from the start. This is useful to engage project funders in dialog, both in the proposal, planning and discussion of outputs and outcomes from a complexity perspective.
  6. ACTION: 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, no matter how small the step. Do something. Don’t wait to plan for perfection. ACT! Build iterative learning into the design. Monitor and evaluate as a way of working, not an afterthought or a tick on the checklist.

While these each have a number attached to them that informs sequence, this is not by any means always a linear process. A discovery around “where are we starting, honestly,” may lead us to rethink our purpose. Learning loops abound.

Process

A portfolio approach, complexity and the Ecocycle, informed by the six questions, has lead to the construction of a set or “string” of processes (many from Liberating Structures) that inform design of the process.Here are some example structures for each question.

  1. PURPOSE: Why, why, why is this work important to us and the wider community? 
    1. 9 Whys
    2. 1-2-4-All
    3. Drawing Together
  2. CONTEXT: What is happening around us that demands a fresh/new/novel approach ?
    1. Mad Tea
    2. Critical Uncertainties
    3. Discovery and Action Dialog
    4. Users Experience Fishbowl
  3. BASELINE: Where are we starting, really?
    1. What, So What, Now What?
    2. TRIZ
    3. Critical Uncertainties
  4. CHALLENGE: What paradoxical challenges must we face to make progress?
    1. TRIZ
    2. Wicked Questions
  5. AMBITION: Given our purpose, what seems possible now?
    1. 25/10 Crowd Sourcing
    2. What, So What, Now What?
    3. Troika Consulting
  6. ACTION: How are we breaking away from the present and moving toward the future?
    1. 15% Solutions
    2. Ecocycle
    3. WINFY
    4. Purpose to Practice

I pay close attention to turning points, where something shifts in the group, and adjust my string to respond to these emergent factors. I use large visuals to anchor and capture salient information, ideally identified by the participants and NOT me. (This helps avoid one of my pitfalls, over-harvesting!) Post its, paper, pens are all in everyone’s hands. Fisher has started adding a timeline to the bottom to build off of question 3 with more detail.

We iteratively stop and take turns telling the story of the emerging visual to get clear on what we understand and what we need to process further. Often, this is the moment when we go back and sharpen the purpose, and find the right level of granularity around each question. Sometimes we capture these on videos. There are moments when you see new clarity emerge right on the spot.

From this a smaller team usually transforms this into a written plan, conforming (ahem!) to the needs of the organization and or funders. There is still a gap between the very learning intensive process of complexity-based planning and the formats we use to write, manage and evaluate projects. More work to do!

Here are a few examples of the visual after a planning session.

From the Fire Adaptive Communities retreat
From Keith McCandless

 

So what do you think?

Please add, comment, critique, rename in the comments! Thank you in advance for thinking WITH me!

Resources/Inspirations:

Innovation Barrier #2: Your Network Is Embedded In An Older Model

At this point, most people are aware of the power of network effects.  Everybody uses Microsoft Office because everyone else uses it.  If you want to sell something, you put it on eBay because that’s where the buyers are (and they’re there because that’s where the sellers are).  Apple’s iOS is popular, in part, because everyone wants to develop for it.

via 3 Things That Can Stall Innovation (And How To Overcome Them) | The Creativity Post.

Drawing Monsters (thanks to Lynda Barry)

I’ve been having fun riffing on Lynda Barry’sdrawing monsters” in combination with a variety of Liberating Structures. These are known as “string” in the LS community. When we string together structures, we go deeper, increase engagement and have serious fun!

Drawing Monsters helps us make our fears conscious and visible. This sets us up to use a variety of LSs that can help us address those monsters.

This string includes 15% Solutions, Troika Consulting, Improv Prototyping, Discovery and Action Dialog and What, So What, Now What? Rarely would you need all of the LS that followed monsters, but there are some nice pairings and triads of structures. 15% Solutions is a great starting base. If the challenges are individual, Troika Consulting works well. If there is a shared monster, Discovery and Action Dialog is great.

For me the Improv Prototyping is VERY helpful in converting ideas into practice. We can THINK about solutions in our heads, but until we practice talking about them, living them, they may be stifled and unformed.

What, So What, Now What? makes a great reflection and wrap up, doing it 1-2-4-All style or 1- All. Keep the solitary moment of reflection in there. There are people who really need that minute or two!

I’ve been asked enough times that I think it is time to write up and share what I’ve done and learned. At the end of this post is a PDF and PowerPoint attached with all the supporting materials. Have fun and share in the comments what you have done/plan to do with this!

Monsters FollowOn Strings PDF

Monsters FollowOn Strings PPT

Liberating Learning: Building Muscles for Application at UdG

Knowledge, its creation, evolution and application, is rooted in social practice as described in social learning theory. In education, tradition may dictate the professor or the institution as the source of knowledge and the learners as recipients. Practice and application may come after the course is over, out of sight of the institutional in time and place. For some topics this can limit sense making and stunt the application and evolution of knowledge in the field. We need to build these sense making and application muscles while still in the classroom. My experience in the UdG Agora project and elsewhere shows me that Liberating Structures can support this muscle building.

Tannis Morgan at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) invited me to join her team designing and implementing the UdG Agora project they were developing with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Here is the brief description of the project:

The UdG Agora is a project of the University of Guadalajara (UdG) Student Centred and Mobile Learning Diploma. The goal of this faculty development program is for UdG professors to confidently integrate student centred and mobile learning strategies and activities in their courses.

Through the use of practical examples, challenges and experiential learning, the program will provide learners with the tools they need to meaningfully plan, design, implement and share student centred and mobile learning in their courses. Learners will collaborate, share, and contribute openly to a community of practice that fosters the enrichment of student centred learning experiences with the use of mobile learning technologies (iPads).

The program adopts the Agora as a metaphor for an open, collaborative, community space where learning happens through interaction and engagement with others. The Agora for this program are both face-to-face (f2f) and online spaces.

My role was to bring Liberating Structures as a learner engagement strategies along with some visual thinking/doing skills. Most of the team focused on the mobile learning elements.

Liberating Structures in Teaching and Learning

I was introduced to Liberating Structures some 6 years ago. As a process geek, my first glance led me to conclude that co-founders  Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz had elicited a template and set of principles around a group of fairly familiar group processes. My first thought was “yeah, this is a really useful way of packaging some existing knowledge and practices.” Liberating Structures, at their simplest, are handy, useful practices. Anyone can pick a structure up and begin to apply it. Their primary strength is getting everyone unleashed and engaged in the group’s purpose which well aligns with my values. The key insight that I gained in this first exposure was the value and power of working with the duality of freedom and responsibility. Power is distributed with just enough constraints and pow, the action happens.

But there is more to Liberating Structures than a set of well described practices. There is the microstructure described through the design elements of invitation, distribution of participation, configuration of groups, arrangement of space, and the sequencing and allocation of time. It is a bit of a pattern language. This makes it easy to learn, select, sequence or “string” them together for different purposes. This is the “second level” of value of Liberating Structures. Once you know and are comfortable with a subset of structures, you can quickly plan, and adaptively apply LS to the work at hand. When you know the pattern of a microstructure, you can pay attention to things that support or block inclusion, such as the distribution of power which is otherwise left implicit or ignored. There is speed and flexibility, freedom and sufficient control/constraints. The rapid cycling through different thinking and doing modes unleashes people and helps them step out of their ruts.

But there is more to Liberating Structures than practices and (micro)structure. There are the 10 principles. This is where both the real disconnect and potential of of social learning in higher education shows up for me. Recently, LS practitioner Astrid Pruitt wrote about LS in higher education and noted that three of the 10 principles have a particular importance to her.  I found her experiences resonant to mine. (Read her whole story – there are some great practical insights!)

Here is a quote from Astrid that is worth quoting in whole. I’ve added a few thoughts in parentheses.

“Now, when I look at these (her educational) experiences and use my LS lenses to discern them, it becomes clear to me that my conventional educational experiences violated three vital LS principles. They did not:

Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions There was one expert whose knowledge and solutions were valued above all others. The collective experience of the class was ignored. (This is particularly true when we are looking to transfer knowledge, skills and approaches in fields such as international development where the imposition of the “academic” or “Northern” perspectives can foil even the best researched and documented interventions by assuming the expert approach is right and therefore should be “owned and implemented” locally, with little local participation in the process.)

Amplify Freedom and Responsibility Invitations to students to shape aspects of how the subject would be explored were sparse and awarded to a select few. Progress was tracked intermittently and failures were kept private. (In the introduction of LS at UdG, if the professors had no freedom and responsibility, everything we did would dissipate after the project was over. Freedom to choose, adapt and responsibility for the results desired was critical.)

Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group Student relationships with the subject matter was directed by the teacher and diversity of perspectives controlled. Limited peer-to-peer learning. Conversations substituted with powerpoints.” (We worry often about “wheel reinvention,” but my experience has shown that when people discover and learn themselves, there is a greater likelihood for adoption and evolution of what was learned.)

Co-founder Lipmanowicz notes that all 10 principles are regularly violated in many classrooms creating an even more compelling case for LS in education.

But there is more to Liberating Structures than practices, (micro)structure and principles. This is where the the deeper and long lasting value proposition emerged for me as I practiced more and dug deeper into LS through LS practice groups and immersion workshops. Liberating Structures work across many context. The real sweet spot for me is that they create conditions that wonderfully support real work in complex contexts. Have you ever have a moment when you don’t know the answer? Didn’t know exactly WHAT to do, but knew SOMETHING must be done? When you are asked to do a strategic plan in uncertain times, and knew instinctively you could not fall back on practices that result in stilted and abandoned plans that were outdated upon publication? Are you are wanting to do more than deliver content in a classroom, and instead want to equip your learners to apply and expand their own knowledge, teaching and learning that will last far outside of the course, classroom or degree? Do you look for bridges between seemingly contradictory challenges? When you are trying to step out of the deep ruts we have gotten ourselves into? LS are brilliant as we push new boundaries and have to sense, probe and prototype our way into the next steps. They don’t assume a single possibility, and help us see what we are trying to discern to move forward.

There is a reason for this brilliance that amplifies on first two strengths of practices and structure. It is the powerful combination of just enough structure and just enough freedom that allows us to work and push at boundaries of complex, complicated and even chaotic work. (CITATION) McCandless often pointed this out as the wonderful space like this:

Liberating [verb]: to set free from imposed, controlling structures

Structures [noun]: simple rules that specify how people are included and participate

LS gives us a way to describe, probe and challenge our assumptions, our patterns and even ourselves. This is essential in complex and emergent work. It supports what many of my colleagues have called for years “creative abrasion,”  which helps us see and jump out of our ruts, to evolve thinking and practice in real time. For most work in higher education, both the domains and the application are in complex contexts, making LS in higher education a “muscle” for sense making and application.

Liberating Structures at the UdG Agora

The Agora project kicked off with a 5 day face to face event on campus (3 days in the second iteration), followed by a 4 month planning and application phase where professors had to apply what they learned in three experiments or “challenges.” This was capped off with  a final face to face reflection event on campus in the 6th month. You can read more about the Agora here, and here, and here. The initial F2F was framed around a series of mandatory and elective 75-90 minute hands-on studios bracketed with plenaries to introduce, socialize and make sense of the whole.

LS in plenaries

Initially Liberating Structures were simply going to be the focus of one of the elective studios. As we began to design the agenda, we realized we could use LS throughout the days to “walk our talk” of learner engagement and steer clear of simple content dissemination. These professors knew their domains and generally experienced teachers, so we were not so much teaching, but irresistibly inviting them into a new way of engaging with us and their students. So not only were they exposed to a focused session on LS, they were experiencing and practicing throughout our time together.

In the plenaries, instead of starting with a lectures, we used Impromptu Networking  to jumpstart relationships between professors, since phase two would require both triad groups (Troika Consulting) and larger communities of interest to support the project work.  In the very first plenary, LS facilitated an “each one teach one” approach to immediately begin learning iPad skills, even with people who had not even opened the box yet. This is often referred to as “learn, pair, share” in education circles.

From the start, knowledge in the room was made visible and accessible.We frequently deployed 1-2-4-All to check understanding and sensemaking, both because the topics were new, but we were also working across two languages (Spanish and English). When debriefing, identifying and sharing learning, we used Users Experience Fishbowls, Shift and Share and Conversation Cafe.

Liberating Structures helped us get creative when conditions changed. When we had a large, open meeting space, we used only chairs, not tables, allowing us to quickly reconfigure group sizes. People did not end up sitting next to the same person all day, and bonds were created that lasted through the 6 month project. When our event was interrupted by an earthquake (yes, which eventually called for ending the day early as the campus closed), we could redesign and quickly recover. Sometimes we were packed into crowded lecture halls and 1-2-4-All  facilitated social interaction, even in packed lecture halls when we could not get a big, open space. Engagement was high, naps were rare!

The Liberating Structures studio

The LS studio started with Mad Tea to surface interests, possibilities and fears, introduced LS with a brief 10 minute presentation. Then professors selected from a range of “challenges” to practice and debrief one LS. The challenges offered three levels of difficulty and could be completed and debriefed during the studio.

At the end of the studio we used What, So What, Now What to reflect on what was happening in the studio, and to dive into how we support learners’ observational and critical thinking skills on a day to day basis, and 1-2-4-All to brainstorm how LS might be applied in each of their classrooms. In 90 minutes they used at least three structures as a whole group and one they designed and led or actively participated in themselves. This was capped with draft designs for classroom deployment, should they choose to do a LS challenge implementation. Interestingly, some of the other members of our team started using LS in their own studios!

Application in the classroom and final debrief

During the 4 month implementation phase professors worked in their own institutions and courses. One of their options was to apply LS in their classrooms alone, or with any of the other mobile and engaged learning strategies they learned in the phase 1 studios. Periodically through the second phase we held online meetings where people could share what they were doing, ask questions and generally support each other.

When we reconvened face to face to debrief and share lessons learned, we again used Liberating Structures as we did in the first face to face. By now, the professors were expecting this, not surprised. Engagement was deep, friendly and fun. Yes, fun!

Lessons Learned from LS at the UdG Agora

Liberating Structures was not a central element to supporting student engagement through mobile learning strategies. It was an elective, not a core studio. But it began to permeate the project leading to some initial lessons.

LS is easy to learn and do

Even in a super short period of time, and as one tiny slice of an incredibly busy week, the professors were  open to consider and incorporate LS into their practice. There was fast uptake of the LS basics. We used the microstructures to debrief, so the deeper LS literacy and the idea of stringing was planted right from the start. Few professors expressed concern that the LS gave too much control and power to the students and they clung to their “sage on the stage” stances. That said, when choosing which of the new things they learned to implement in their classrooms, many of them very fun and interactive mobile technologies, my sense was that it was the professors who were most engaged in improving how they taught who were the ones attracted to using LS for their implementation challenge.

When we went online during the implementation phase, we focused on LS for one of our weekly live hangout online meetings and some enthusiastic participants shared their LS stories. Because the structures are well documented and described (and, thanks to one of our participants, many translated into Spanish!) the professors did not appear to fear “looking stupid” in trying them. Interestingly, some of their students were initially skeptical of this “new” approach of their professors.

One of the hallmarks of LS is that as a new practitioner you can use one and get pretty good results on the first try. What is remarkable is that as you gain deeper mastery, you get even better results! It would be very interesting to go back 12, 18 and 24 months to see how much LS has permeated their teaching. We know that some are still using it as they report via Twitter with the hashtag #UdGAgora and #liberatingstructures.

LS Supports both the domain and relational aspects of learning

The UdG Agora project was focused on increasing student engagement through mobile learning and engaged teaching practices. Engagement does not sit just with the learner, but also with the professor. LS moves the power from “teacher as expert, student as learner” to a field where all are learning, and domain expertise is supported by the teacher. This is a result of “engaging and unleashing” everyone – not just the learners. And through this, teachers and students engage in a reciprocal learning relationship. Engaged professors seem to light up their students and vica versa.

Another aspect I’ve been thinking about in terms of learning and applying LS is the data emerging from  neurobiology related to “brain based” approaches.  Dan Siegel writes how neurobiology might inform our teaching practices.He talks about the unity of the “triume brain” of cerebral cortex (rational brain), the limbic system (emotional brain) and the stem (reptilian brain). Siegel “envisions the brain as a social organ,” and “the emotional system that develops in relationship.” One of the consistent threads across all the UdG Agora studios and experiences was engagement between professors and students and between students.This highlights the social and relational aspects of learning and doing.

Siegel describes a “sixth sense” as “mindsight,” and links this to mirror neurons. He suggests that “What fires together, wires together,” is how we learn by what we observe. If we observer our teachers functioning as learners, will we be better learners? If we work to expand practice in the field, will it work better if we can operate from the mindset of a practitioner, not just an expert? If we can try out our ideas in a place of constructive support, can we begin to solve the tough challenges?. My Liberating Structures experiences at UdG and elsewhere suggests the answer is YES, particularly when we not only talk about something, but we model and practice it – even if the conditions are not exactly like the conditions the professors face in their classrooms. Siegel talks about the power of associations that people make in order to make sense of the world. Positive and uplifting associations can be more meaningful, encouraging, and benefit change. LS gives us those experiences quickly and simply. For some related reflections, see http://www.fullcirc.com/2015/11/27/relationship-centric-teaching-part-3-of-iss-fellowship/

LS can support and strengthen existing pedagogies

The University of Guadalajara is a huge university (100,000+ enrollment) with an immense public education mandate. There are many vestiges of formal lecture based approaches in some of the programs and professors are hired and rewarded for their subject matter expertise. Many are not deeply versed in pedagogical approaches and options. There is pressure to serve many students and our sense was that professors are stretched thin. Thus ALL the studios we offered on student engagement and mobile learning had to work with the existing classroom and program contexts. So before leaving a studio, we always asked for specific examples of how they could apply what they learned in the studio in their classroom. In the LS studio, professors could immediately identify specific opportunities that fit with their subject matter and pedagogical approaches. From the person who was primary a lecturer, to the hands-on professor – there were plenty of real, actionable applications.  The early ideas focused on beginning of term activities to create and support relationships between students and between students and professors. This gives everyone a “toehold” regardless of where they are starting.

LS supports student achievement

The value became visible in the third phase as we reconvened to share what was learned. I remember the words of a professor of dental hygiene who talked about how she totally restructured her introductory course, which had a history of a very high drop out rate and in this first implementation, so obliterated the dropout rate.  I heard stories of very light incorporation of LS in the opening weeks of the semester, and how it changed the social-relational dynamics of their classrooms. I heard stories of twists and innovations on the LS they chose to use, and what the professors were learning about their own practice by switching it up, and challenging themselves. And the words that came in the feedback conversations were words like “engaged,” “alive” and even when some students initially resisted or were skeptical, they too were unleashed and liberated. When compared to feedback in other contexts, such as global meetings and team work, the responses are very resonant.

Application Beyond the Classroom and Moment

Liberating Structures is a wonderful set of tools to use in the classroom, training space and in meetings. But the lasting value is how it changes us and our practices once we leave these formalized spaces and moments. As we revisit the brain science insight about mirror neurons, we can again reflect on how the patterns that allow us to unleash and engage ourselves in a meeting can be carried out into the world. With the brain as “the emotional system that develops in relationship,” we recognize how the LS principles support that development through things such as Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions, Amplify Freedom and Responsibility and Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group. As we practice, we become. As we become, we must practice the respect and amplification of freedom and responsibility.

There is a community of practice in the larger LS community about how to spread LS in the world. It is a true CoP in every sense of the word as we improvise, test, rethink, re-practice into ways to spread LS. While we try to reflect and debrief in our work across contexts, we probably could do a bit more – and more sharing of what we learn. But it is clear:

  • Talking about LS is not enough.
  • Demonstrating them in the abstract has value, but is not enough.
  • Doing them, again and again, in similar and different strings and configurations, with riffs and variations, we build a literacy of engagement that helps us engage, work productively in complex contexts, have fun and DO GOOD!

References 

UDG

LS in Higher Ed (sorry, I have not sorted these out yet – an ongoing project!)

LS in Other Contexts

 

Transitions, Plumbers and Poets

In this season of immense natural disasters around the world (fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, war, famine, drought…) and here in the northern hemisphere, with a shift in the seasons themselves, I woke up thinking about transitions, and how we use them as plumbers and poets.

As a group process facilitator and change agent (or as Keith McCandless says, a “structured improvisationalist!), transitions are where real progress or failure happens. They are the moments when more is possible – often much more than we ever imagined. Disasters are transitions at a grand scale. Moments in a meeting are often at a subtle and even unnoticed scale. Both can and do change our future trajectories.

Transitions are often messy. Sam Kaner and his colleagues coined the term, “the groan zone” to describe a critical transition in group process. It is part of his larger “diamond of participation” from the “Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision Makers,” an essential facilitation tome.

The groan zone is the transition from the opening, divergent part of group process to the convergent, decision making and acting part of the process. Think about the energy of ideation at the start of a project where people are flourishing in possibility (or not!). Then reality comes —  we move into decision making and, hopefully, action. In this liminal space we are often uncertain, confused, and lack confidence or momentum.  Intellectually and  viscerally the groan zone concept and its expression in my work  has always resonated for me. It named a transition that is critical for groups to move forward.

The wisest piece of advice from Kaner’s book was to name this discomfort and use it. I use that advice daily. But there is more to the practice than acknowledging discomfort. I want to reflect on both the intellectual and visceral, or intuitive aspects of this practice of working with transitions, especially groan zones.

This is where the plumbers and poets reference in the title comes in. Stephanie West Allen is a colleague who is constantly spotting and sharing resources. when the poets and plumbers link passed across my screen I paused. YES. Here is the quote from James March that Dale Biron shared in his blog post:

There are two essential dimensions of leadership: “plumbing,” i.e., the capacity to apply known techniques effectively, and “poetry,” which draws on a leader’s great actions and identity and pushes him or her to explore unexpected avenues, discover interesting meanings, and approach life with enthusiasm.  ––James March, Stanford Professor Emeritus

(I am looking for the original source. I think it is from “On Leadership” by James March and Theirry Weil)

The metaphor applies far beyond leadership roles. Here I explore it from the facilitator process, but think about it for leaders, for followers, for disruptors and peace makers.

The facilitator as “plumber” comes prepared with intellectual knowledge of how humans operate socially, and the context for their work.  This is a great place for the application of complexity theory, such as Brenda Zimmerman and Dave Snowden’s work, along with a sorts of socio/relational frameworks. This is often linked to theory, but I recognize some start with theory to build their approach, and others end with it to understand their work.

The groan zone is also an essential space for understanding and using differing views, contradicting view points and  embracing diverse possibilities. Dave recently wrote about this and one snippet from the post offers a good taste:

The use of parallel safe-to-fail experiments over short timescales based on differing and ideally contradictory hypotheses about what is happening and what is possible.  But critically any such experiment, which is ’nudge’ should only be to shift things to an adjacent possible, to something sustainable at the point of intervention.

Note the words “nudge” and “shift to an adjacent possible.” This is not only experimentation to identify next steps in complex settings, but they increase the diversity and its possibility within the group process. Sound like a possible transition or “groan?” Yup. So the work of my complexity teachers is essential for the technical “plumbing” work.

Technically we come prepared for transitions with skills on how to design them to meet goals and adapt to changing circumstances. So when I design with Liberating Structures, I assemble a string of structures that support the diamond of participation, including the groan zone, with options prepared and improvised as needed. Structures that support the groan zone include TRIZ, Wicked Questions and Ecocycle, which help to unmask polarities, “elephants” in the room and dig deeper into sensitive and challenging issues, 9 Whys to explore assumptions, 15% Solutions and Troika Consulting which allows us to quickly iterate and reflect on options with peer input, Helping Heuristics for when our interpersonal dynamics are slowing progress, among many others.

That said, intellectually and technically prepared is not enough for me. I can never be a good enough plumber (technician) without the poet side of things. The poet has to be present in every meaning of the word, with senses alert, intuition as open and calm as possible. Even the stance of my body can be part of the poet. For example, when I’m sensing disruption, confusion, fear or people feeling rejected and unheard, I stand or sit as straight as I can, arms and legs uncrossed, palms forward. Deep breaths. Most often I have no intellectual idea of what I should do at this moment beyond listening and being present. As I literally shift my stance, something changes for me. My observations and intuition tell me sometimes something changes for people in the room as well. Maybe it is mirror neurons at work.  We CAN be changed and influenced by what we see and perceive with our senses. Regardless, this is part of the flow of energy in group process. Can I measure this? No. Can I fully describe it in purely technical terms? No, not me. But it is inextricably linked to both self-awareness and something I find inexpressible.

Of the many masterful facilitators I learn from, the visual facilitator Kelvy Bird has most clearly articulated this presence element in her work here on scribing, and here on opening,  with a clear recognition of the “social field” within which we work. (No surprise as she is a key partner in the Presencing Institute! I am waiting for her book!)

Here is an example of what Kelvy helped me see. There is a distinction of presence and openness as compared to neutrality. Neutrality used to be one of the core values of facilitators (as previously espoused by the International Association of Facilitators and others.) As I’ve gotten further in my career, I’ve felt more and more like describing my stance as neutral was not only disingenuous, but it was false. I may be a listener at one moment, a provocateur in another, and a co-creator in yet another. I am happy that the language of neutrality has been left behind with a greater emphasis on attending to influence. The latest IAF facilitator core compentencies describes this as “Vigilant to minimise influence on group outcomes,” and “Maintain an objective, non-defensive, non-judgmental stance.” This resonates with my sense of stance and presence – even while I still struggle with objectivity and our ability to always be objective! This is far from technical “plumber” work, but it is useful to observe that the best plumbers I know have “hunches” about what they can’t see behind a sealed up wall! So the plumber and poet are not two, but one.

By being part of the process, I am changing the outcome. I am not neutral and I am influencing in certain ways. While I am strict with myself to clearly call out my own opinions, “take off my facilitator hat,” I do have influence. And it is only when I’m open and clear, self-aware and fully present, that that influence can be in the service of the group and influenced by the group itself, not to my espoused beliefs and/or ego. This is most important at transitions: the start of an engagement, during the groan zones, and as we move into resolution and reflection. It is a dance between the technician and the poet, between clarity and beauty. Between words and images.

I’m not sure this all makes sense as I struggle to write about it.  I guess the only way I can express it is to say the poet in me keeps evolving. Early on, I stuck to clearly proscribed forms (Limericks! Haiku!) Now my poetry is in process, words, images, and my own presence.

Let me be clear. There are many risks to this stance. If my self awareness weakens and fails, I can cause failure around me. If my openness cracks me open and I fall apart, I cannot serve. If I come without enough clarity and energy, my services suffers. This is not just a technical nor “expert” practice. It is all in. All. In. Again, from Kelvy:

We learn through copy. We advance through integration. We master by tapping into our own source.

So how does this relate to transitions? The technician, the plumber, can spot most of the the structural transitions. The poet senses the subtle ones, energy, hunches, buried treasures, that are often the ones that take us to new places, that help us make progress in complex or even chaotic contexts.

At this point in my career, I’m deeply interested in the poet. How about you?