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!

Can we actually practice graphic recording after just a 4 hour workshop? Yes! Part 2

Background: This is the second of three posts about some recent visual experiences at the  7th Annual GFRAS Meeting in Limbe, Cameroon, where I was invited as their graphic recorder! As I noted in Part 1, it is a huge investment of resources – theirs and mine – to have me there for the meeting, so I asked if I could also run a short “introduction to graphic recording” the before the event kicked off, and then we could have the participants fan out across the breakouts and field trips to capture sketch notes. This second post in the series shares a few stories and artifacts from the workshop participants about their sketchnoting at the meeting and after they returned home. How are they using their new skills? Part 3 will share the graphic recordings I did with a little reflection on my own process. When I publish #3, I’ll come back and link it here as well!

Unleashed across breakout sessions, field trips and plenaries, many of the participants of our short graphic recording workshop took their pens and notebooks to try and capture the essense of sessions as sketch notes. Remember: these people walked into the workshop with little or no sketchnoting experience. Just a fire in their bellies and a willingness to try.

The first experiments were just with pen, mostly on the small conference spiral note books. You can see the experimentation with how to organize the ideas on the paper and a great deal of courage focusing on the images, not just relying on text.

At one point after a plenary, a few folks stopped by my graphic recording station and we did some mini debriefs and talked about introducing color. The magic was instantaneous… (not that I don’t like black and white, mind you!). Click the images for a larger and fuller view!

By the end of the week, our intrepid team had introduced metaphors and ways to organize space on the page along with some clever extras.


But wait, this is not the end of the story! What happened after everyone has gone home? I have two stories to share already (and hopefully I will glean a few more.

Merida Roets, who was also our day 2 keynote and my wonderful roommate at the hotel, was already planning to offer her staff a brief graphic recording session upon her return to South Africa. (I’ll share the capture of her keynote in post #3). They may have wondered what Merida was up to, but she immediately applied her learning to her work with her project developing some learning materials for the South African Sugar Association. She shared an image with me as an example. (I can recommend Merida for both her intelligence and love of chocolate!)
Finally, one of the workshop participants who was already deeply into visual practices for agricultural development, Luke Smith, who is the AgriEdutainment Officer & ICT Director of WhyFarm that originated the world’s Food Security superhero  “AGRIman” as a way to engage younger folks in agriculture , wrote ” I have used the graphic facilitation method with some children in a workshop. I didn’t have all the materials required to execute they way I wanted too. I showed the children  the basics as you showed us in the training. I then gave them the problem of how can we increase food production by 2050 and told them to use the icons, arrows, symbols to come up with a solution.
The children drew there ideas on a copybook page, I didn’t get time to take a photo as the session ran out of time . But I was amazing that some kids drew the ideas of doing farming underwater. I want to try this method again but with flip charts and markers etc. I will certainly capture the use of graphic facilitation the next time. ”


And for a bit of fun

I am the Immigrant to my Neighborhood Crows…

I have been intrigued by Seattle’s crows since I moved here in 1981. They attacked my sons walking to school during nesting season one year and I went out and told them “hey, I’m a mom too. Don’t bother my kids, and they won’t bother yours.” They stopped dive bombing the boys. Since then I’ve been talking to them… in the yard, on the street. The other day one crow was having problems cracking open a walnut by dropping it on the street. I picked up a rock and cracked it open and walked away. These are my neighbors, who I barely understand, but whom fascinate me. I am the immigrant in their neighborhood. Read the article for the science! Beautiful photo from KUOW.

Listener Lauren Linscheid of Seattle sees crows flying every day toward Lake City Way. “I want to know where they’re going and why,” Lauren told KUOW’s

Source: Where Do Seattle-Area Crows Go At Night?