More Magic, Less Mystery

Keith McCandless
14 min readMay 19, 2020

Sustaining Creative Adaptability with Liberating Structures [Part 3 of 3]

By S. Fisher Qua and Keith McCandless

Reality is nothing but a collective hunch. Lilly Tomlin


Through the three articles in this series, we shine more light on our experience working with groups of people generating and maintaining peak levels of creative adaptability. Creative adaptability is defined as: a flow state of heightened consciousness and generative productivity achieved within a group. Further, creative adaptability means not just to survive but to respond to challenges in a way that increases vitality and cultivates relationships that act as enduring sources of inventiveness.

Part 1: Sure LS Works in Practice; What About Theory? We introduce Liberating Structures (LS) and link elements of our LS practice to a handful of mind-bending complexity science concepts.

Part 2: A Hunch Taking Shape We share field observations and a hunch that by paying close attention to the composition of micro-organizing elements, it becomes possible to design interaction with a high degree of variability at the micro-scale (experienced as imaginative play) while retaining meta stability at the macro-scale (experienced as creative or useful results).

Part 3: Design Advice: A Rhapsody for Strings

In Part 3, we offer design advice for LS users to consider in their practice. The focus is on how to generate and maintain peak levels of creative adaptability. Last, we invite commentary from colleagues by asking, “What gives you confidence to include and unleash all voices?”

In Part 2, A Hunch Taking Shape, we hypothesize that by paying close attention to the LS five organizing elements, participants experience interaction with a high degree of variability at the micro-scale (experienced as imaginative play) while retaining metastability at the macro-scale (experienced as creative or productive results). The activity — designed with inspiration from four mind-bending concepts — makes it possible for participants to discover actionable insights where none seemed to exist before. Further, we observe increasing vitality and relationships forming that may act as enduring sources of inventiveness. We use a LS TRIZ example to illustrate the hunch in practice.

Rhapsodizing for Strings

Importantly, each segment of TRIZ generates insights or action that makes the next segment flow effortlessly or serendipitously. In many ways TRIZ is a small sequence or string of LS with separate invitations, each using 1–2–4-All to advance the flow toward clarity and action. See the flow or string illustrated below.

1) What can you do to get the unwanted result — no behavior change in patients (e.g., use technical language, behavioral health therapies trigger co-pays)

2) In what way does your current approach to primary care resemble the perfect adverse system? (e.g., my primary care visits are scheduled for 15 minutes, we use technical language)

3) What kind of revolutionary action can you take to stop the counterproductive activities? (e.g., stop using technical language, stop one-size-fits-all appointments, stop gatekeeping)

Each segment of the mini-string generates something — an idea, suggestion, or action — that is used in the next activity. There is a logic to each step, one activity feeds the next while sustaining a high level of creative adaptability. With thoughtful design, the same attributes are present in much longer and more complex strings of LS. [see Rhapsody for LS Strings for examples from LS maestros, 2016]

Making Friends With the Elephant

There are many like-minded researchers, artists, and theorists working to describe and/or invent a new way to organize. Each sees, describes, and exploits a different part of the same very large “elephant.” We appreciate them all. Differences in the approaches arise from the domain or discipline of primary interest of the researcher. Paradoxically, their work tends to cut across disciplines and domains. Here are a handful who have a more direct influence on our design practice. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Anti-Fragility. Jody Hoffer Gittel, Relational Coordination. June Holley, Network Weaver. Paul Plsek, Directed Creativity. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language. Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology. Nick Sousanis, Unflattening. Lynda Barry, What It Is. Joanna Macy, Coming Back To Life.

Seven Bits of Design Advice

Below, we convert these observations and experiences into seven bits of design advice. We describe some of the choices, heuristics, and aesthetic preferences we bring into our work with LS. While we offer this advice to you as individual readers, the majority of our design work occurs in group ensembles. The ensembles include people with a wide range of experience with LS. This advice may be useful to consider with your design groups.

  1. Make Invitations Precisely~Ambiguous We shape invitations with precise~ambiguity in mind. Each invitation has a clear purpose (precision) while leaving room for many productive answers (ambiguity). An invitation often asks a question that attracts and holds attention while an exploration unfolds. Great invitations focus participants precisely on worthwhile challenges AND spark ambiguous interpretations and multiple actions [Requisite Variety]. When tackling complex challenges, this is a very much desired result. AND, participants are capable of making productive sense out of the messiness. Each exploration opens a neighboring door… and another adjacent door. Most combinations fail but they open doors to the next possibility. [Adjacent Possibilities]. And, a few succeed and advance your work spectacularly.
  2. Insert Punctuation In Your Strings Punctuation means activities that accentuate a specific principle or abstract idea in a way that is embodied; practice a skill or awareness that might be useful when interacting within a structure or string; and, amplify the results or quality of output that can be used before or after a structure. Punctuating between elements of a string helps everyone make transitions. Punctuating may be as simple as speeding up or slowing down the action. For example, after a wildly fast Mad Tea that has rearranged your sense of what is possible, drop into a slow LS Spiral Journal activity to sharpen novel insights. [Learning Adaptability] Using punctuation to help participants notice and record their learning and the implications for shaping next steps is highly recommended. See #7, Act-Learn-Evaluate-Plan As You Go.
  3. Use Repetition To Generate Depth, Novelty and Momentum Counterintuitively, repetition can generate novelty. We recommend asking yourself and your design group: “Can we dig deeper or reach higher by repeating the last activity? What is possible now that we have generated this set of ideas/actions? Is there a novel idea that re-combines what we already know about this challenge?” [Adjacent Possibilities] Repeating 1–2–4-All is often a great idea. Also, using different LS with similar purposes back to back can be productive. For example, 9 Whys and Drawing Together complement each other when you are clarifying and deepening purpose. In succession, invite groups of people with distinct and diverse experience into a User Experience Fishbowl exploring the same topic (e.g., users then designers then suppliers). Similar to TRIZ with three segments of 1–2–4-All, repeating the use of a single LS through multiple lenses can be a very productive way to generate more options. [Requisite Variety, Learning Adaptability]
  4. Rely on Serendipity: Plan To Make Leaps and Transitions LS tap nonlinear possibilities: a shift in a small design element can make a big difference and a huge design theme can fall flatter than a pancake. Possibilities take shape only as the exploration unfolds. [Adjacent Possibilities] Loosely hold onto your design, prepare to make shifts when something better pops into view. Having a robust repertoire of LS microstructures at your fingertips (shared among a diverse design group) can help. Include options in your LS Design Storyboard where possible. Also, we recommend Whispering Out Loud (i.e., confer about design changes with everyone listening in rather than in private) with your co-leaders.
  5. Invite Unusual Suspects Into Your Design Work Unusual suspects — often people closest to challenges but not in a privileged position — bring fresh perspectives and local knowledge not present when only leaders and experts are included. [Requisite Variety] Inviting people at multiple levels “above and below” or “inside and outside your circle” can be your most important design decision. And, resistance may be very strong. In many settings, the pull to include experts only or just the people aligned with the existing approach can be very strong. This may weaken the variety of options or responses generated because the complexity of the environment is not represented. Always try to include diverse users or customers in your mix of participants.
  6. Design with Believe-Before-You-See Aesthetics In Mind We believe insight comes from inconspicuous often overlooked details and that beauty can be coaxed out of messiness. Productive questions we recommend are: Why is it so hard to make progress on your purpose? What do you need to learn from your users to make progress? Searching for what is impossibly and paradoxically true about the situation you face is a good place to start. [Complementary Pairing] We focus on the intrinsic qualities and ignore material or technological hierarchy whenever possible. The Positive Deviance methodology shines brightly in this regard. We look for what is irregular, intimate, unpretentious, and paradoxical. We don’t ignore what is imperfect, nascent, or impermanent. We seek out people who are comfortable with dynamic incompleteness. Discoveries made via this approach generate social proof of positive changes underway and sparks more action.
  7. Act-Learn-Evaluate As You Go When working on a complex challenge with a compelling purpose in mind, it helps to develop measures and tracking methods as the work unfolds. Real time interactions generate new direction and the evidence needed to proceed. Predetermined goals and performance metrics often are too narrow or small for a group to make leaps or discover something innovative. We recommend that you plan to improvise, literally. [Complementary Pairing] The most important measures emerge from what is being learned and what the new evidence suggests for next steps. Developmental Evaluation is most helpful here. Iteratively, we recommend asking yourself and your design group: “What seems possible now?” The frequency of asking this question may be months when revisiting Ecocycle Planning or minutes when looking over the results of 25/10 Crowdsourcing. [Learning Adaptability] It is important to recognize and evaluate the degree to which the next step or path forward has been shaped out of liberated interaction. The next steps and insights arise so quickly and serendipitously that they may be missed or neglected. See #2 Insert Punctuation in Your Strings to amplify the scope and speed of learning. Many LS capture evidence of progress as it is unfolding [e.g., Ecocycle, Critical Uncertainties, 25/10 Crowdsourcing, Reverse Kanban]

Over the Horizon: Less Mystery, More Magic

Designing with creative adaptability in mind invites more messiness while generating more trust, vitality, and connection among group members. Despite the high degrees of variability at the micro-scale and the diversity of participants, LS helps people hold the collective experience together. Metastability and generative relationships at work. Tapping into the complementary nature of our brains helps draw out more learning adaptability in groups of every stripe. Expanding the range and speed of learning helps deepen curiosity, strengthens relationships, and expands adjacent possibilities ad infinitum.

Exploring complexity science insights has given us more confidence in ourselves and the capabilities of groups. And, we have only scratched the surface of what is possible. There is no end in sight.

In addition to the role of complexity science concepts, we gain confidence by practicing with others in the Liberating Structures community. Each new LS design experience is always and never the same. Through years of experience, aspects of the work are always similar and each LS design experience is unique, never the same as any other. Maestro and novice experience the very same joys and challenges. In this way, everyone is invited to join in exploring as we demystify this magical territory.

We call for more rigorous observation and evaluation of LS. A few handfuls of studies and evaluative efforts have been completed or are underway. Developmental Evaluation approaches seem particularly well suited to complexity inspired efforts to enhance group performance. If you have a study or evaluative effort in mind, we would be thrilled to help.

We hope this article encourages you to be both more adventurous AND more disciplined in your LS practice. Our rallying cry, less mystery~more magic!

COMMENTARY: Below, we invite fabulous colleagues to comment on the theme of this series, “What gives you confidence to include and unleash all voices?” We have, without mercy or dispensations, limited their contribution to 250 words.

One slice of the far flung LS network and community of practice (Kumu map)

What gives me confidence is the experience that Liberating Structures do most of the work. Even when I mess up the invitation, or don’t explain the steps clearly enough, the quality of the interactions and the depth of the outcomes still exceeds anything that would’ve come out of a group conversation. For me, as someone who frequently works with (large) groups, this has been liberating on many levels. Where I used to hide behind over-preparation and perfectionism, I have learned to rely on the structures to take the strain and the creativity of the group to make it work. It has made my use of Liberating Structures more playful and joyful, and participants seem to reciprocate that in their interactions.” — Christiaan Verwijs, Scrum Master & group facilitator, founder of The Liberators.

“I love how this triplet article creates a conceptual basis, a link between “hunch” and “approach” (and vice versa), and ways to string practice into design necklace from single beads. My observation is that our 21st century and its linked risks-possibilities cannot be approached, and indeed are unwittingly exacerbated by, conventional approaches where control, predictability, and confinement are creating waste and marginalization of ideas, people, creativity, and resources. This article creates a door for the practical-pragmatic-skeptic as well as the creative- imaginative- conceptual in any group, and as such, it’s a map for both inviting unity and creating diversity. Turn it loose! Let it flow and multiply! Larry McEvoy, MD Founder, Epidemic Leadership

I used to look for and write about “community indicators,” things that gave me a sense that a community was functioning well. Your prompt about “what gives you confidence” made me think about indicators that tell me that I’m making forward momentum towards my/our purpose. I guess that could translate to confidence, but as someone for whom experimentation, risk and change is a desired state, it may mean I simply trust the universe.

Here are some of my “confidence” indicators. For myself: I try it and I want to do it again (getting past novelty); I feel the practice addressed the purpose in front of me; and, the practice supports the values I aspire to in my work.

For others with whom I am interacting: good feedback; positive feedback to me personally (yes, I have an ego… I might as well admit it); people want to do it again; people want to learn it and do it with others; people report success using it with others; and, validation from my mentors, coaches, teachers, people I look up to.

So I guess this means there are a range of indicators that keep me moving (positively) forward. I notice as I write this that they are more types of feedback than intellectual rigor. Nancy White, Full Circle Associates

There’s a moment that manifests when you’re working with larger, much more diverse groups. The squabbles and haggles and negotiations across various groups suddenly give way to an emerging solution. Out of all the options and the confusion an idea emerges. It’s like a collective mind suddenly comes to a realization. Things fall into place. Previously half-baked ideas suddenly fit perfectly and become valuable. Criticism is voiced and integrated quickly. Excitement takes over. The participants can’t wait to implement their idea.

The solution itself is useful but the process of getting there even more so. Someone else, a single person, might have been able to come up with a similar solution. But it would have been their solution, not the group’s. When you include and unleash all voices in shaping next steps you don’t only create great content. You create bonds, relationships, shared excitement, shared experiences. Over time these are much more valuable than a few isolated ideas. Johannes Schartau, Agile Coach-Consultant, Holisticon

In the early days, a small voice in my head would nag me while I designed or facilitated. It spoke to fear, ruminated on doubt and blasted me with hypothetical scenarios. I would prepare for all of the “what if’s” and unbeknownst to me, I was keeping all of the control and therefore, all of the responsibility for the success of the initiative (and consequently, I was hogging the learning too).

When using Liberating structures, these voices have faded into the distance, the responsibility is shared and my clients are owning more and more of the learning and direction of the work. When the voices creep back, I pause and I ask my clients, “What are you noticing? How is this interaction different from others?” It is in their answers that I find confidence again. Each time a participant shares their observations and learnings, my understanding in the value and impact of this work becomes richer. Astrid Pruitt, Learning Designer & Facilitator, Management Savvy

My confidence to practice LS is rooted in three things: success, pain, and curiosity. LS maximizes the possibility of early “success” both in terms of results and in participant’s willingness to replicate their use of LS in other contexts. I work in a lot of highly structured environments that don’t always promote risk-taking. People often ask how to get permission to use LS in these organizations — I think what they are really asking is how can they build their own confidence to try. Nothing builds confidence like success. When people experience the liberation ~ responsibility these structures create, they will want more.

This is linked to my second motivator: pain. Let’s face it, the way we most often do business is painful. It is painfully boring, painful in the way it saps our energy, and painful that we cannot make progress on things that matter most. Once the pain point gets high enough, you have to try something different. Once you try something different that not only relieves the pain, but actually lets you feel supported, validated, and heard, it’s hard to go back.

This leads to my third confidence builder: curiosity. LS provides a structure for you to create a space where people fully contribute in a meaningful way. You just have to be curious enough to continue to dig deeper. You don’t have to be right, brilliant, in control, or anything else. You just have to be willing to set the structure and be brave enough to fully listen. Tim Jaasko-Fisher, JD, MA, Owner, TJF Consulting, LLC

Resources and References


A deep bow to the Plexus Institute and our first reviewers — Liz Rykert, Professor Dan Pesut, Maggie Chumbley, Kavan Peterson, Nancy White — and the fabulous Leslie Stephen (editor extraordinaire).



Keith McCandless

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