Field Stories [3]: Liberating Strategy SuperAntiFragilisticExpialidociously

Keith McCandless
19 min readSep 11, 2022

By Keith McCandless, Johannes Schartau, Nancy White, Larry McEvoy (MD), and Michael Arena

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

PART 3 This article features four field stories which illustrate how liberating strategy takes shape in different domains and diverse settings. Luminaries in complexity-inspired strategy Johannes Schartau, Nancy White, Larry McEvoy (MD), and Michael Arena) share their experience in the field. The stories expand our understanding of how to include all voices in shaping the future while inviting everyone to creatively adapt in the moment with Strategy Knotworking. See Part 1 for a review of the theory, logic and complex dynamics associated with antifragile and more of both strategies. See Part 2 for practical steps that are effective for liberating strategy in a wide range of organizations and settings.

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.

One day I got a call from a Business Unit with customers in the automotive sector. They were tired of the usual theatrics and magical thinking associated with conventional strategic planning. They wanted to create a strategy that actually mattered and were looking for an approach to effectively implement it. And, they wanted to do all of this collaboratively, as one global leadership team. From my perspective, this is a perfect client.

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

Instead of setting a strategy for the next five years and then sticking to it like a plan, this group took the working sessions as a starting point to kick off a process of continuous inspection, re-evaluation and adaptation. The group coupled their Strategy Knotworking results with Objectives and Key Results. This helped them focus on outcomes in a specific time horizon while reminding them of the long term view and helping them define short term actions.

Repeatedly going through the Strategy Knotworking questions again allowed them to re-interpret their context and adjust their strategy when necessary. People outside of the group were invited continuously to help make sense of new developments and changing trends. This was easy to do since the team now had a step by step narrative, with each point lending itself to an invitation for a conversation. Their strategy wasn’t an artifact they had created for themselves. It was an ongoing open process that benefited from diverse views and additional voices.

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.

The team was happy with the way they were able to seamlessly connect their long-term ambitions with short-term actions. One team member said “I’ve been with this company for more than 13 years. This is the first time strategy makes sense and has an actual impact.”

The next major challenge that the team hadn’t anticipated was the chip shortage. They discussed the unfolding events during their regular strategy sessions and were able to quickly react to the new situation while keeping other strategic pillars stable. One team member pointed out “We were hit with two major challenges right after another. They should have kicked us out of the market but instead we are doing better than ever.”

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

I have been using Knotworking with cross disciplinary teams in international agriculture development, ecosystems management and mental health. For the most part, these are externally funded initiatives and have requirements both for results (application of the work) and for cross-team learning. Funders have an agenda. Grantees have their agendas. And sometimes there is not useful clarity about how these agendas work in sync. And there is rarely opportunity or support for shared optimization and exploration.

Traditionally, each team does their own strategy development (a.k.a. “Grant application”), get the grant money, do their work, show up at “learning events” to share what they learned and then go back to their own projects or even parts of the projects. This reinforces silos. People tend to focus on their grant, their context. There is little opportunity for shared language for strategy, learning, adaptation and evaluation. There is little genuine social connection to support peer support and social learning.

The six knotworking questions plus the Ecocycle make it possible for a group to look back critically, assess the current state, and prospectively generate options to move forward.

  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?

From answering the six questions a shared language evolves. Fresh ideas across the portfolios come into focus. Relationships form and deepen creating space for peers to ask for and offer specific help. Teams can more easily refer to issues across the contexts for optimization. Emergent ideas can be supported across the portfolio of grant funded projects.

What shows up repeatedly is how silos get busted or rather become more permeable and even networked. For example, conversations around the Ecocycle generate shared understanding and disparate elements are woven together. Hearing and learning about other groups’ Knotworking approach stimulates the kinds of cross pollination that their funders dream of. Simultaneously, through use of the LS portfolio, relationships and network weaving among the participants is building social capital. Two aspects of Knotworking seem most useful in this context.

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.

For example, a group of researchers leading projects in Africa and South Asia did a traditional face to face kick off meeting, essentially presenting their plans and everyone went home. When the pandemic hit, the next annual F2F meetings were not possible, so we designed an online gathering that used the six questions with each team doing an Ecocycle mid way through the event. The online interactions were spread out over three weeks to give teams to amplify their Ecocyles and consult with others. The group did a “virtual tour” through each Ecocycle, positing questions, noting similarities and differences, and noting where they could help each other. This became the basis for their almost-monthly community of practice meetings. They had a basis to want to come together across projects.

For example, there was a measurement tool they all had to use but few were well-practiced with it, so it was clear that practice needed to get out of the scarcity trap and into the birth phase of Ecocycle. In this case it was in the form of a community of practice (CoP). A couple of CoP meetings and things broke through the log jam.

Another challenge was replacing field research with online research due to the pandemic that needed more than a little nudge. AND something had to be removed to make space for new practices, provoking good conversations of creative destruction. So often new ideas and practices are added to existing work, reducing the chances they will take root and even compromising the old, less-than-ideal practices. Creative destruction helps remove the deadwood in a way that shows the value, rather than simply critiquing old practices or punishing those who were practicing them. (“Don’t creatively destruct me out of a job!”)

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.

Knotworking and Ecocycle sometimes raise eyebrows at first. Resistance happens. What changes is when results happen. We know we are making progress when new leadership emerges from junior participants, when the big bosses no longer feel the need to over control the meetings, when the funders find a new, more collaborative role with grantees rather than the enforcer or setter of all agendas.

Across time, we know we are making progress when cross project teams continue to identify shared challenges and opportunities and act on them. When people start telling new stories about the work that help others understand the work and want to join, we know we are making progress! (As Michael Arena suggests below, positive gossip is all abuzz).

When teams have used the six questions to generate ideas, needs and relationships and understood where they are on the Ecocycle, when there is concrete action, we know we have made progress both within and across the portfolios.

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

Anyone who has spent time within a team has had the opportunity to experience the energy from the people around him or her. In some cases, there is a noticeable buzz around a team or project in which ideas flow freely and individuals are able to easily build upon the viewpoints of others. This is why positive gossip is so critical.

Other times, our interactions are simply grueling. Perhaps most importantly, these emotions are contagious. That is, we walk away from these conversations feeling more or less energized. Consider when someone is in a bad mood and you engage in a conversation with them. Are you not more likely to walk away in a bad mood? In this same way, if the people you work with are perpetually negative, their negativity can also become contagious.

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.

When an employee joined a so called, “toxic team”, in other words, a team that displayed negative energy, his or her level of engagement began to drop immediately. In fact, on average, when a newcomer joined a negative team, engagement dropped 3 times that of a positive team in the first 24 months, while at the same time, those who joined positive teams maintained high levels of engagement (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Engagement by Tenure

Understanding how energy is unleashed in face-to-face interactions is critical to ensuring creativity and generative thinking. Positive energy forges innovative relationships. These face-to-face relationships become the simple building blocks for new ideas. They create the critical links for positive energy to readily flow, and these relationships build hope and excitement about new possibilities. Indeed, high-energy face-to-face relationships are the foundation of innovation that spread energy and ideas across a network.

The Liberating Structure Positive Gossip is an important tool to shifting these patterns. It helps us to shift these destructive interactions into a more positive climate. Positive Gossip is an antidote to the negativity that can spread informally from person to person. University of Michigan professor and network expert, Wayne Baker, argues that if you want to create a positive organization, you need to nurture energizing connections. His research suggests that thriving organizations have a higher number of energizing ties versus de-energizing ties from employee to employee. He argues that a 3 to 1 ratio of energizing connections to de-energizing ones creates a tipping point towards becoming a thriving organization. [Baker article]

This is exactly what we saw in one organizational study that was designed to examine the patterns of network energy within a critical operating group (figure 2.). A network survey was conducted to understand how energy connections showed up in daily interactions. People were asked two simple questions. 1. Who do you interact with and 2. of these individuals, who energizes vs de-energizes you? The diagram below shows the effects of these interactions for one function. The green nodes provide energy to the people around them, while the red nodes take energy away. By tapping into the power of just 8 energizers (slightly larger green nodes) and practicing positive gossip, the organization was able to super charge the network by activating nearly 30% of the individuals. In such a context, ideas flow readily and innovation is far more likely.

Figure 2. Energy unleashed in a network

Generating more positive gossip can be a game changer for organizations, in shifting the destructive pattern of negative energy, but we need to be intentional. We need to lean in to practicing positive interactions and have some fun with a more positive behavior. Below are a few approaches to help us get started.

  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.

Liberating Strategy starts and ends with generating more positive interactions while shaping next steps together.

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)

At a workshop on biology and business far from corporate environs, a group of executives and I were exploring — in conversation and on the ground — the interface between business and biology. After too much patience with leadership taught in windowless conference rooms and strategy derived with over-mechanical planning, I now find it helpful to convene work on these topics far from the confining gravity of what we already “know.” The participants that September day shared a willingness to think differently about how we shape organizational thought and action; the blue sky and clear air were welcome perks.

We hovered on a canyon edge on a bright September day at Cove Canyon Grasslands in south-Central Montana (Cove Canyon Grasslands video). An anonymous and once-denuded area of prairie, timber, and rocky cracks, Cove Canyon’s regeneration from degradation to abundance had inspired and humbled me just as its arc was now challenging and inviting the people gathered there that day. Where once there had been eroded dry gullies were now streams exploding with new life; where once the barren soil grew very little it now erupted with plant and animal diversity and abundance. As always in biology, things predictable and surprising were happening.

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.

Today, though, the question was different, starkly uttered under a limitless blue sky: How does biology do strategy?

It was a question both out of nowhere and perfectly sensible — business does strategy, so why not biology? Is biology strategic or just random? Biology had already revealed several insights into the vocabulary we use so often but understand so seldom: performance, resilience, adaptation, innovation, sustainability, growth, reliability, agility. These are business words, but they are also biology’s words, first. Rocks do not innovate. Dust is not agile. Only living things, in their internal and external combinations, evoke this more elusive business and organizational lexicon.

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?

Our eyes that day swept over land buffeted by fire, wind, extreme swings in temperature, drought, floods, and time. We looked at bigger trends and tiny phenomena. These are the principles we found underpinning the Strategy of Life we found outside that September day.

• Easy entry, low energy approaches allow for multiple attempts and faster identification of what works and what doesn’t.

• Over Big Time, failure is non-negotiable; any given small time, failure is not a problem.

• Biology favors high risk of failure and lost cost of any particular failure over low risk of failure and high cost of failure.

• Biology relies constant sensing over incessant predicting. Prioritize sensing and sifting over planning and projecting. The first guarantees the gathering of winners; the second hopes to predict them.

• Biology relies on short and multiple feedback loops to sort winning and losing bets and immediate next steps

• Optimizing and replicating happen only off of winning bets, and never on their legacy history, only if they’re working now; when things become unstable, it diversifies to multiple bets.

• Save seed capital for disaster — the opposite of just-in-time inventory. Bad times mean more bets will be needed, and fewer bets threaten survival.

As it turns out, Biology’s goals are simple enough, for all its variation. Across all its vast kingdoms — plants, animals, fungi, etc — biology’s goal is resolute: survival. Specifically, biology aims relentlessly at survival along two axes: the individual and the population, the present and the future. This obsession plays out in an infinite number of micro and macroenvironments which are themselves defined by the constant interplay of stability and variability.

Its strategies for ensuring survival in these diverse and dynamic niches are are as varied as the organisms and species themselves and the environments they live in. The sheer number of strategies is dizzying to the point of being infinite. Movement results from flying, floating, drifting, walking, hopping, slithering, brachiating. Respiration delivers lungs, gills, skin, cell membranes, aerobic, anaerobic. Multiplication unleashes seeds that drill, float, wait, stick to fur, or require fire; long gestations and rearing times; rapid cycles and millions of progeny in a single surge. There are countless ways and places to survive — and strategies required for each.

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.

Amid all these expressions of strategy, the complementary principles of optimizing and exploring are both abundant. It’s just that biology is supreme at timing and applicability rather than trying to outguess the future: it optimizes under the long peak only when it works (while preparing for the inevitable end of such tailwind predictability) and only when its primary strategic approach has winnowed out a winner with higher odds. Whether optimizing under a stable set of circumstances or not, biology constantly, in good times and bad, rich and poor, deploys the more antifragile strategies inherent in exploring and innovating.

Those organisms and populations–and organizations–which can exploit disorder, disruption, chaos, and complexity will emerge and thrive. New optimizers will also emerge, but only after exploration has vetted the incalculable variables of uncertainty. In the theater of biology, one does not decide what clarity is needed and then hope it happens; one discovers what clarity is actually emerging and then adjusts to it. Bureaucrats and policy planners tread carefully here, for in the living world, assumptions fall and conditions rise with startling pace and irregularity.

Humans are comfortable with the strategies of optimization under (presumed) fixed conditions; we are less comfortable with the exploratory strategies of post-disruption succession and sorting. We like to know, or feel like we do, before we leap. We like sure bets. Biology likes many bets. We prefer big data in big queues with powerful analytics. Biology prefers constant sensing and dense feedback on short loops.

As I write these words, I can see a large ponderosa pine doing what humans like to do — optimizing off a large base of capital. The tree is large and old and has timed the rhythm of decades, variability be damned. Heat and wind and cold — even fire — can’t shake its unifocal approach. As a winner, it’s a huge producer of one thing and one thing only. It produces seeds, not big trees. Thousands every year, each randomly tossed to wind, soil, heat, moisture, and micro niche by known factors that sort to random for any given seed.

What is it optimizing and casting? Not a replica of itself. Somehow, it recognizes it was the result of a low-risk, low-probability bet which was part of a strategy hedged with a million tries, not a high-risk single bet with narrow requirements. So every year, it throws out thousands of small packets of exploration onto unpredictable landing sites in unpredictable times. It cannot know where its seeds will fall or how much wind and rain and sunlight will reach the landing site of its seed bets. The old tree is optimizing, but what it is scaling is not replicas of itself. Its seeds, for which it survived so doggedly to gain the right to produce, are its affirmation of infinite small bets.

It’s tempting to see the tree as some kind of metaphor, but it’s not. It’s alive, and tangible, and literal, and it’s plying strategy the way biology has validated it for millions and millions of years and billions and billions of life forms.

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.

The strategies Johannes, Nancy, Michael and Larry have shared give me confidence that more adaptive and regenerative approaches to strategy are taking shape in many places and diverse settings. Now is a very good moment to launch a fresh exploration of how to shape the future. I look forward to hearing your story.

Not hammer strokes, but the dance of water sings the pebbles to perfection. R. Tagore

Links to Part 1 Liberating Strategy SuperAntiFragilisticExpialidociously and Part 2 What You Can Do.

Learning Resources

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

Lipmanowicz, Henri and McCandless, Keith (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press

McEvoy, Larry, MD. (2021). Epidemic Leadership: How to Lead Infectiously in the Era of Big Problems (John Wiley and Sons, publisher)

Arena, Michael and Uhl-Bien, Mary (2016). Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting from Human Capital to Social Capital, People + Strategy

White, Nancy. (2018) Adaptive Strategy Development and Facilitating Strategic Planning in Complex Contexts , Full Circle blog

  • 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 https://vimeo.com/693378067/0187842d67
  • Editorial magic provided by Nancy White and Leslie Stephen (developmental editor)

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Keith McCandless

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