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!



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?

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!

Group Process Design Principles in Times of Turbulence

Ready for a thinking ramble? Payoff isn’t until the end. Fair warning!

I have found myself pointing to Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Places: Where to Intervene in a System” more and more these days.  First surfaced in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1997, and expanded in 1999, the essay resonated with me then and continues today. Read the whole thing, but if you just want to scan the leverage points, check out the Wikipedia article. When I mention the article, everyone starts pulling out their pens, phones or electronic note taking devices. People are hungry for clues about where to intervene in the complex systems within which they work and live. Here are her leverage points:

PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM (in increasing order of effectiveness)

9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Regulating negative feedback loops.
7. Driving positive feedback loops.
6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.

Her number one leverage place: 1. The power to transcend paradigms. From the Wikipedia article:

Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.

Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others.

A bit more from Meadows’ essay on #1 and worth savoring, slowly:

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.

People who cling to paradigms (which means just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything they think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, no understanding, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the notion or experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But, in fact, everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help to achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is probably a lot better informed than your will.

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

Hold that thought for a moment.
A while back I happened on The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas – Evonomics, and another in the Atlantic about US post election responses, both of which resonated with my reading of Meadow’s essay. First, the snippet about Ostrom (another one of my compass points, like Meadows!)

“Evolutionary theory’s individualistic turn coincided with individualistic turns in other areas of thought. Economics in the postwar decades was dominated by rational choice theory, which used individual self-interest as a grand explanatory principle. The social sciences were dominated by a position known as methodological individualism, which treated all social phenomena as reducible to individual-level phenomena, as if groups were not legitimate units of analysis in their own right (Campbell 1990). And UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became notorious for saying during a speech in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.” It was as if the entire culture had become individualistic and the formal scientific theories were obediently following suit.

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.”

Notice Ostrom’s core design principles. See any relation to Meadows’ leverage points?

Now switch to the Atlantic  article titled “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing” by Eri Liu. Commenting on the need for work in the social sphere following our divisive presidential election, Liu suggested we needed three things:

  • Listen more to each other (in listening circles”)
  • Work more together (national service)
  • Argue more. But do it well (“We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones.”)

Liu gives us three concrete ways of unlocking the patterns and leverage points.

My work has clearly been situated in ever increasing turbulence. Traditional strategic planning? Throw it out the window. Focusing on mission and vision? Unless tied to concrete, actionable purpose, throw it out the window. It is too easy to be lost in our own abstractions and old/stale paradigms. (Thank you Donella!) Building knowledge management systems to capture everything? Fuggedabout it if we aren’t listening to each other (Thank you, Eric!) Trying to work just top down and with existing, rigid governance systems? Do you have all the time in the world? NO, ditch it! (Thank you, Elinor!)

So how am I designing now? Quickly, iteratively, and ruthlessly reflective. My group process practices in the last 18 months reveal a pattern where groups are getting more traction into creating insights on their work, and slightly increased  traction on acting on those insights.  I attribute this two two things: the application of Liberating Structures and other group processes that are informed by complexity sciences, and the use of emergent visuals to help show the path of thinking, understanding and action. The processes devolve power and responsibility to, as LS says, “unleash and include” everyone. They focus on immediate steps rather than waiting for certainty and perfection. They ask us to question our assumptions, measure our experiments and understand negative and positive feedback loops (Meadows again!) They seek to sidestep the barriers of traditional governance as much as possible without rejecting the participation of those institutions.

People get it. Quickly. The visual practices help bookmark the moments of insight and support telling the story to others.

The traction for action is still a bit elusive. Our reward systems punish many of the behaviors of emergent practices. Power is challenged. And just getting a grip on all the working parts can serve as an excuse to throw one’s arms up and give up. But we won’t give up. Nope. Sadly, Meadows and Ostrom died too young. But their words continue to feed us.

Stay tuned. Share your thoughts!

Edit: See this great post by Chris Corrigan on Prototyping and Strategic Planning. I had THOUGHT I had linked it in, but clearly that was in my dreams! Dave Pollard also recommends the work of Nora Bateson.