Field Stories [3]: Liberating Strategy SuperAntiFragilisticExpialidociously

Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up. Studs Terkel

Tying and Retying Strategic Threads

Johannes Schartau, Agile Consultant, Hamburg Germany

The Challenge

As a consultant, I get a lot of requests from teams who need help. What I have learned over the years is to clearly specify what my clients expect and to be very frank with what I have to offer. This approach could not be more crucial when talking about strategy. Most teams want to set magical goals in as little time as possible and then be done with it. These goals are supposed to be so inspirational that they almost work like a magical incantation: everybody listening to them will be entranced and simply cannot help but devote themselves to the cause. Unfortunately, that is not what I offer.

The Approach

In multiple working sessions over the course of two months, the team used Strategy Knotworking to

  • make sense of their environment
  • identify their most pressing challenges
  • establish their baseline starting position
  • identify promising ideas for dealing with their challenges
  • and define first steps for getting started

The Result

The Strategy Knotworking approach of continuously revisiting the initial strategy proved essential during the pandemic. There was no need to adapt the process itself, the team got together to revisit the strategy on a set cadence. They were simultaneously keeping track of stable long-term initiatives like cost savings while quickly prototyping multiple customer-facing innovations at the same time. A “more of both,” optimizing and exploring strategy put into continuous play.

Johannes is a consultant, trainer and coach for Agile product development and organizational strategy. As a Liberating Structures enthusiast he believes in the power of collaboration and providing groups with a space to create momentum. His background includes systems, complexity and integral thinking, empathy, and a good dose of humor. Johannes works for the beautiful company Holisticon in Hamburg, Germany, and is active worldwide.

Knotworking ACROSS

Nancy White, Full Circle

  1. What is the fundamental purpose of our work (as individual projects/as a portfolio)?
  2. What is happening around us that demands change?
  3. What are the critical uncertainties and paradoxes we must face to make progress?
  4. Where are we starting, honestly?
  5. Based on what we have discovered, what is now made possible?
  6. What are our next steps and how will we know we are making progress?

Action and Learning Entwined

The first is the provocation of the six questions that allows emergent thinking, grappling with very real tensions and contradictions in full view (rather than furtively worrying about them but NOT discussing them), and the iterative way they unfold. Similar to Johannes’ story, this iterative function keeps monitoring, learning and evaluation as PART of the entire process, not just something tacked on at the end in a report. Knotworking becomes part of the DNA of the work. It transforms learning and adaptation as concepts and observation into practical and visible next steps. Action and learning become entwined.

Exploring Together Generates New Options

The second is the ability to layer Ecocycles and see what is similar, what is different, where there are possibilities alone and together. One project may excel at moving things from birth or piloting to scaling or maturity. Another may be full of amazing ideas, but get stuck in the scarcity trap. The team that moves things well through that trap may have stories and approaches that break the log jam. Yet other teams may have the great self awareness that shows up in creative destruction to make space for something new. Teams then look to see how to balance their own work and when to collaborate with teams who have complementary strengths in their work.

Pictured above: Participants generate, compare, and learn from visual maps of their colleagues via Ecocycle Planning.

Creative Destruction Makes Space

I want to call out specifically how Ecocycle and the first three Knotworking questions help to make creative destruction visible, discussible and even valued, rather than feared. This rebalances the relationship between the grantees and their funders into a more collaborative relationship. And it does this because it is not some abstract thinking, not blaming, but concrete sense making, practical-yet-ambitious dreaming, and actionable, measurable next steps. Once the concept and language of Ecocycle is shared, then more rapid and useful reviews begin to happen.

Resistance, Results, and Movement Forward

Previously, each grant project would appreciate hearing about others’ projects. But it was much less common that making sense across projects, using a shared framework and language, would generate more significant progress for each project and for the larger grant-funded portfolio. There are challenges in doing this. Power and control always show their face when we share our work, warts and all. Resistance to considering creative destruction is a relevant example.

Nancy is an International practitioner in understanding and practicing online and face to face group facilitation. Wide focus includes distributed work, strategic planning, social learning, technology stewardship, communities and networks. Experienced Liberating Structures maestro.

Follow the Energy

Michael Arena, Professor and Co-Founder Connected Commons

Positive Team Energy

In one specific case, we saw a company in which nearly 50% of all employee attrition was occurring in the first 24 months of a newcomer’s tenure. This was highly correlated with a decrease in employee engagement during these first two years. This led to a series of initiatives to resolve this dilemma. The company launched a new cultural assimilation program, created a new on-boarding tool, and designed a monthly newcomer development series. Interestingly, these solutions only had a minimal impact on engagement. One thing, however, did significantly impact employee engagement. The energy of the team an employee joined, or network energy.

Figure 1. Engagement by Tenure
Figure 2. Energy unleashed in a network
  1. Facilitating positive energy in early exchanges — as newcomers joined teams, exchanges were designed to help them immediately feel valued by their peers using such methods as “appreciative inquiry” and “success moments” to create positive gossip.
  2. Facilitating active idea sharing — use idea primers to encourage the entire team to more actively share ideas and advice. Start with a “yes — and” approach to generate a groundswell of energy around these new ideas.
  3. Being a giver, not a taker — Leverage such approaches a as “give & takes” and the “reciprocity ring” to provide needed advice or fulfill an individual’s request. Far too often we think of our interactions from the perspective of “what can I get”, verse “what can I give”. The later amplifies energy across the network.
Michael Arena Ph.D. is a faculty member in Penn’s Masters in Organizational Dynamics program. He is also a co-founder of the Connected Commons, a consortium of that brings together business and academic thought leaders to pioneer research and apply organizational network science. Arena most recently served as the vice president of talent and development at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Prior to joining Amazon, Michael was the chief talent officer for General Motors Corporation. He also spent two years as a visiting scientist with MIT’s Media Lab researching human networks and acted as a design thinking coach within the Stanford dSchool.

How Biology Does Strategy

Larry McEvoy (MD)

Intensifying Intention without Magnifying Control

A few hours into these workshops, once the land’s initial postcard appearance has sunken into a deeper kind of awe, the usual question is, “How did you do this?” That question inevitably convenes a conversation about exponential effects when one is in charge — titularly, we own the land — and not in control — practically, its billions of interactions within seen and unseen networks dwarf any one particle, particularly me, and they have for a long time. It also surfaces the question, strategic in itself, of how to intensify intention without magnifying control.

Key Principles Shaping Biologic Regeneration

Standing on the edge of a canyon looking at square miles of ground that had recovered and gone exponential at scale, the question was potentially dizzying. Could our observation distill out key principles to the formulation of strategy that would allow biology to inform business, teaming, organizational design, massing movements?

Optimizing & Exploring: Discover What Is Emerging and Adjust To It

Such variation reveals a lot about what the strategies are, but you have to look closer to see the remarkably unified approach to HOW biology formulates strategy. Bereft of consultants, big data (it’s out there, but it’s only us that collect it), spreadsheets, facilitators, and geniuses in select rooms, biology’s approach to strategy is easy to miss underneath the countless manifestations of strategy itself: fins and feathers, gills and lungs, speed and size, color and camouflage.

Larry McEvoy (MD) is an emergency physician, healthcare CEO, and entrepreneur. His interests intersect at the crossroads of business, biology, and health… and have forged his thinking about the need to innovate leadership exponentially for the challenges of the 21st century. His work focuses on regenerating organizations, companies, and communities to exponential health and vigor — where performance, learning, and vitality rise in parallel and are abundant, infectious, sustained and sustaining.

Hope Springs Up

These field stories and this trilogy explore how to search out, shape together, and gain from strategies that embrace disorder and distributed control. With the surprises, disruptions, and uncertainties that just keep coming, returning to normal or proposing resilient strategies to bounce back may do more harm than good.

Learning Resources

McCandless, Keith and Schartau, Johannes (2018), Liberating Strategy: Surprise and Serendipity Put To Work (Medium)

  • Video [10 minutes] describing the Strategy Knotworking approach by an international NGO serving activists and communities working to end violent conflict and tyranny everywhere in the world
  • Editorial magic provided by Nancy White and Leslie Stephen (developmental editor)



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Keith McCandless

Keith McCandless


Keith is co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures ...