Liberating Learning: Building Muscles for Application at UdG

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

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


Shifting Conditions That Hold Problems in Place

Two of my colleagues/friends have written very useful posts reflecting on practices that can enhance any year end reflections and new years planning you may be cooking up. Many of you who know me how much I value what emerges from practice and my learning path is to understand these things from a complexity perspective in various systems. Recently a client pointed me to a FSG blog post which had a link to a quote that has enlivened this path.

Social Innovation Generation in Canada defines systems change as “shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.

Savor that one for a minute.

For me, the blog posts noted below give us some ideas about shifting those conditions that are holding our problems in place!

First, Mike Parker of Liminal Coaching shares a great set of ideas framing the complexity of todays work world (work in the broadest sense!) What is wonderful is that if you keep reading, you will get to Mike’s gift: the value of daydreaming in helping us navigate our complex worlds. Yes, daydreaming. He riffs on the time management Pomodoro practice and creates Liminal Pomodoro – a practice to relax and let your mind do its work in that daydreaming state of mind. This might be helping conditions in our own minds that are holding our problems in place. Read the post – seriously. Then go take a Liminal Pomodor break and come back and read the rest of this post. Who knows, you may see it in a whole new light!

The second post comes from Michelle Medley-Daniel from the Fire Adapted Network Community. I had the chance to work with Michelle and hear team last year and we played with many complexity informed practices such as Liberating Structure. Michelle informed me that what she learned during that retreat had continued to add value over the year – which of course made my day.

Michelle’s reflections came around the US Thanksgiving holiday and reflected one of my favorite themes, abundance and ditching the scarcity mindset. To me, these are not Pollyanna-ish practices, but survival skills. When you take a different perspective, you have the chances of shifting the conditions that are – yes – holding the problems in place. I’ve snipped the high level essence of 2 pieces of advice below, but let the beautiful pie picture lure you into her full posting.

How Practicing “Enough” and Looking Ahead Can Support Social Innovation

Idea 1: Adopt an abundance mentality and give scarcity thinking the boot!

  • Give freely.
  • Check your pace; make space for your priorities.
  • Practice gratitude.

Idea 2: As you reflect on the strategic opportunities that lie ahead, consider how people think about the future.

In the times of the immense wildfires in California, and the work that Michelle and her colleagues do at the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, this advice seems urgent and important.

Let’s shift the conditions that are holding the problems in place!

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?

Quick Reflections on a 13-Year-Old Blog

Last Friday my calendar reminded me that this, my second attempt at blogging, has been in the works for 13 years. I went solo in 1997. Time does fly. YAY!

I asked on Twitter yesterday what I should blog about in response and here were the suggestions:

  1. Eugene Eric Kim:  Write a sentence noting the occasion followed by, “Yay!” Treat yourself! Your blog is already full of deep thoughts!
  2. Jason Toal : Sketching as a practice of change
  3. Peter Bury: Towards a knowledge sharing society #KSS #K4DP
  4. @TrustedSharing suggested “Any ideas on events that get people to facilitate using #liberatingstructures? I have a group that wants to learn. (See more on the tag)
  5. Steve Crandall: Anything you want!

So, first, of course, YAY! Thanks, Eugene!

Second, a sketch! Well, Jason, it isn’t really a sketch. It is a visual decision tool!

That offered, there is SO MUCH to say about visuals as a tool for change. Recently a small group of #liberatingstructures practitioners pooled our LS visuals in a photo album and my mind went crazy with possibilities. Take a peek. .

For me, one of the essential qualities of visuals, particularly the hand drawn visuals we make during the process of our interactions and meaning making, is that they are imperfect, beg questions and open conversations, rather than “definitively” nail something with certainty. In complex contexts, certainty is often a false friend.

Third, well, Peter, it was a beautiful and rare sunny weekend in Seattle and I really don’t understand this #KSS and #K4DP stuff — I don’t even know what that last hashtag represents, so I’ll have to disappoint you. Sorry! So I allowed the garden to lure me instead of trying to figure it out. I guess age has it’s priveledge!

For my friends at Trusted Sharing (an amazing platform, by the way), there was a post I had been meaning to write so I used your prompt to get it done. You can find it here. (I’m having some tech problems, so for the moment the visuals are missing. Grrr..) It certainly is not an exhaustive answer to your question, but maybe a few things to start with.

Finally, Steve, for you… what I’m thinking about these days is not just want I want to write about, but what I want to do going forward. It is transition time, of some sort – always a wonderful and challenging moment in time!


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: and the BC Campus hosts wrote here . 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. 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!