More Magic, Less Mystery

Keith McCandless
12 min readMay 17, 2020


Sustaining Creative Adaptability with Liberating Structures [Part 2 of 3]

By S. Fisher Qua and Keith McCandless

Life must be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards. Soren Kierkegaard


Through a three part series, we shine more light on our experience 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.

Link to Part 1: Sure LS Works in Practice; What About Theory? And, link to Part 3 Design Advice: A Rhapsody for Strings ]

Part 2: A Hunch Taking Shape

In Part 2 of this series, we share field observations and describe creative adaptability in action via a typical LS-TRIZ experience focused on healthcare innovators exploring “how to” reduce unhealthy behaviors. Further, we share 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 metastability at the macro-scale (experienced as creative or useful results).

Field Observations: A Closer Look at LS Magic

When using Liberating Structures with very diverse groups all over the world, the level of engagement and the quality of the interactions goes well beyond our expectations. It appears that people immediately start working with more of their intelligence, imagination, and creativity. The vitality unleashed is irresistible and undeniable.

You can hear it in the excitable pitch and rhythmic cadence of conversations. You can feel it as kindhearted gestures that punctuate storytelling activities. You can see it as group members lean far forward into small group conversations. You know something unusual is happening when participants plead for more time, ignore the next set of instructions, and eagerly embrace a bit of confusiasm (i.e., a state of euphoric uncertainty that something different is possible even if it is a bit fuzzy at the moment).

Full Engagement Photography

Lisanne Lentink with her curious camera

You can see vitality unleashed in photographs. Lisanne Lentink, a photographer in Utrecht, has been documenting LS workshops. Take a look. Lentink says, “I love taking pictures of people when they are fully engaged with others. And I’ve noticed that Liberating Structures are very good at creating opportunities for pictures like that.”

Participants take photos of their collective work rather than the slides of the expert presenter. Computers closed, cell phones idle. It often is very difficult to get people to leave their meeting or class. Participants report they feel excited, exhausted, and euphoric.

We have observed a similar vitality arise in groups of 2 to 800, in multiple domains of work, and in diverse communities across 5 continents. Teachers and students in classrooms, workers and executives in meeting rooms, citizens and public service workers in community meetings, clinicians and patients in healthcare settings, and parents and children in families are included in our observations. So far, it seems the possibility for unleashing this vital pattern has no limit.

Frequently being both co-leader/facilitator and participant, it feels a little like working in an improv ensemble loaded with fabulous players. There is total absorption and effortless concentration on what is unfolding in the moment. The next step and the path forward are shaped as the interaction unfolds, tapping a wider dynamic range of intelligence, talent and social inventiveness. Surprise and serendipity are put to serious work on the most entangled challenges facing a group. Participants enter a pattern in which every action and insight arise serendipitously from the last. It feels similar to a highly creative individual flow state but is shared among participants in a group. A collective state in which adaptive actions are simultaneously and mutually shaped.

We aggregate these observations into a descriptive phrase: creative adaptability, a seemingly effortless flow state of heightened consciousness and generative productivity achieved within a group. Creative adaptability seems like magic and yet with a little practice the collective flow state is reproducible in many diverse settings.

To maintain this magic and lessen the mystery, LS Principles offer a first step toward descriptive language. At first glance the principles may seem apirational or dreamy. However, we have noticed in field observations that individuals and groups using LS are:

engaging in seriously playful curiosity; unleashing self discovery in a group; amplifying freedom and accountability; failing forward productively; believing before seeing; building trust as they go and, practicing deeper respect for people and local solutions [see the full set of LS Principles].

Ten principles guide LS practice and evaluation

However, the Principles only start to describe the pattern of how people enter into creative adaptability. To take LS design the next few steps, a handful of complexity science insights [see Part 1] can shine more light on what might be happening and what might help advance practice.

Hints Leading To A Hunch

A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something. Frank Capra

As we considered our design experiences through the lenses of complementary pairing, learning adaptability (range + speed), adjacent possibilities, and requisite variety, we asked ourselves questions. For example, does our practice of LS design invite people to:

  • explore the complementary nature of what appears to be contrary or paradoxical?
  • allocate time to deliberately organize their own thinking AND the opportunity to act their way serendipitously into new thinking with others?
  • cycle rapidly between slow, deliberate processing AND fast, generative ideation with the goal of revealing possibilities where none seemed to exist before?
  • generate a diverse array of options and actions to match the complexity of challenges?
  • balance considerations of that which is constrained AND what is made possible as a new landscape co-evolves?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The cart should not come before the horse.

Our hunch about the horse is — wait for it — the LS microstructure does all the heavy lifting. The five LS design elements, what we call micro-organizing elements in LS, make it possible to more productively explore complementary pairing, to tug the threads of adjacent possible futures, to boost the range and speed of learning, and to increase the variety of responses required.

At the microstructural scale, each LS introduces purposeful variability around the organizing elements of our interactions. Deliberately, each LS plays with or increases the variability of the organizing elements that compose our interactions. These five organizing elements, dubbed “LS DNA,” are present in every interaction. They include:

  • Specificity of an invitation, question, or task
  • Distribution of participation
  • Configuration of groups
  • Arrangement of space
  • Sequence of time

It is our hunch that by paying close attention to the composition of these five organizing elements, it becomes possible to design 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).

To illuminate how microstructural “LS DNA” enables complementary pairing, learning adaptability, adjacent possibilities, and requisite variety, we share a typical TRIZ experience below.

This TRIZ engages a group of primary healthcare policymakers, clinicians, philanthropists, and innovators in exploring “how to” reduce unhealthy behaviors of patients with chronic disease. We recommend viewing this video summary from CIMIT (Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation & Technology in Boston) before you continue reading. The title of the gathering is “The Primary Care Revolution.” The video helps to make tangible some of the qualitative attributes of a creative adaptability.

[] Specificity of the invitation, question, or task

From the outset, TRIZ invites an exploration of paradox and contraries. Participants are invited to stop current counterproductive behaviors to make space for innovation. To start you must stop. The very essence of TRIZ suggests that contraries may be complementary. In TRIZ, starting~stopping is a complementary pair.

In our CIMIT TRIZ, participants are invited to design a perfect adverse system to be sure patients’ health behaviors do NOT change as a result of interaction with primary care providers and the health system. TRIZ has three segments with invitations for each activity: 1) What can you do to get the unwanted result — no behavior change in patients?; 2) In what way does your current approach to primary care resemble the perfect adverse system?; and, 3) What kind of revolutionary action can you take to stop the counterproductive activities?

In Part 1 of TRIZ, participants are invited to “go wild” generating and sharing devilishly clever counterproductive strategies. Top ideas included: make appointments hard to get; use technical language not understood by patients; be extremely fatalistic (your genome, not behavior determines health!); make payment for all preventive health strategies an extra expense; blame patients for their bad behavior; make it possible that a rectal exam could happen at any time during a primary care visit (this got the biggest laugh).

Seriously playful engagement is present immediately as the activity begins. The invitation sparks laughter and curiosity around a chronic and complex challenge in primary care. The invitation is precise (everyone knows what they are being asked) AND ambiguous (there are many valid answers).

[] Distribution of participation

Everyone is included in exploring counterproductive behaviors. Doctors, nurses, patients, advocates, policy-makers, and administrators. No one is excluded. Rather than separating the expert/novice, leader/follower, and decider/doer, TRIZ includes all voices together in shaping ideas. As TRIZ begins, you may only be able to see counterproductive behaviors in others. However, as the activity unfolds, participants see similar patterns of behaviors shared among many group members — both in yourself and scaling across vertical and horizontal group boundaries. Infectious laughter spreads as individuals and the whole group recognizes they are unwittingly complicit in enacting a very unwanted outcome via shared patterns. Paradoxical as hell. And, a productive beginning to creative adaptations (creative destruction in this case).

In this TRIZ, participants represented a diverse array of roles in healthcare. The CIMIT meeting focused on how to foster more innovation in the context of a primary care revolution. An attempt at requisite variety via the diverse roles of participants. Each has a different take on what constrains or holds the current system in place.

Additionally, participants were seated in groups of four without regard to formal seniority or position. Each person offered their unique unique perspective — like fitting pieces together in a puzzle — as the strategies started to take shape. Simultaneously across the groups, a friendly and productive competition for which group could come up with the most devious-yet-effective idea emerged. Each member seemed to see the whole system and the role they played in the drama of failing to influence unhealthy behaviors.

[] Configuration of groups

Each of the three segments of TRIZ begin with individual reflection, immediately followed by a paired conversation, a foursome, and an opportunity for any group to share an insight or idea important for everyone to hear (1–2–4-All). As participants hear unique contributions from others, their first idea shifts a bit, then expands and evolves through each step of the progression. The number, diversity, and inventiveness of possibilities mushrooms exponentially. It feels too fast and a little out of control. Including every voice quickly sparks more possibilities. The speed and scope of learning adaptability is fueled by drawing out the unique perspective and experience of each person. Everyone is trying to make sense of the cacophony of voices.

In the CIMIT TRIZ, groups reported different insights and ideas. By starting with individual reflection for 1 minute, participants had multiple choices to focus on a personal experience getting behavioral health advice, their experience providing a consultation, or their experience trying to influence health behaviors from the policy or procedural perspective. The first two-minute paired conversation was full of surprises and efforts to make sense of each other. No overthinking was possible. In foursomes, the variety of possible themes blossomed with everyone searching for a cunning idea to pop into view. In the All of 1–2–4-All, people mentioned something about the unique character or composition of their group and the trajectory of their conversation. Additionally, many groups made immediate links to the ideas of other groups. The foursomes very quickly gained confidence in generating novel ideas, growing stronger and sharper in each successive round.

[] Arrangement of space

Accentuating a sense of community and intimacy, chairs were arranged in groups of four without tables, tightly arranged like a Paris cafe. The goal is to make quick transitions possible and nearly effortless. First, you have a pen and paper to jot down a quick note to yourself. Then you have options to talk with one of three potential partners. Chairs without a table make this as simple as making eye contact. In each round, you have a new choice to make. Again, only requiring eye contact and a quick alignment of chairs. When reporting an insight or action to the larger group, confidence arises from the intimate pattern developed through multiple interpersonal exchanges. Through this physical arrangement and iterative cycling, group members generate shared meaning and social proof together.

In the CIMIT experience, you can see people reporting insights and actions that resonated with other groups around the room. Additionally, while one person from a group is speaking you can see support offered by others in their own group. Passing the microphone is easy because the chairs are arranged in close proximity. Eye contact and physical proximity seem to enable quick and fluid handoffs among small group members offering additions or clarifications. A fast, iterative and nonlinear pattern excited the participants.

[] Sequence of time

In each successive round, work is distributed in cycles that are both rapid and iterative. Repeating 1–2–4-All goes a little deeper and generates more variety as participants anticipate the repeating pattern. Individuals lose track of time but use it more productively. Each person is drawing on and re-assembling more of their past experience. Self- and collective-discoveries flow together. A familiar idea gets turned inside out by another… and then recombined with yet another adjacent piece of the puzzle that works independently. Acting and thinking are entwined in a way that makes it difficult to identify the sources of decisions and movement forward. Heretofore unexplored adjacent possibilities open up for all to see. The future seems to be shaping itself via a creatively adaptive flow state.

The CIMIT invitation in part 3 of TRIZ — “What kind of revolutionary action will help stop these counterproductive behaviors?” — invites people to take action where none seemed to exist before. Flowing from the first two TRIZ segments, clarity about what now seemed possible to stop flowed effortlessly. Actions shared during the All included: stop making all appointments only 15 minutes; remove communication barriers between patients and primary care providers; stop making access to primary care available only when convenient to providers; stop gatekeeping access to other clinical providers; and, stop co-pays for drugs and other behavioral health therapies.

Reflecting on the experience, participants commented on: the infectious laughter; the playfulness within and across groups; the depth of interpersonal connection; the velocity of insights generated; and, the imaginative yet actionable results. Magical.

Closing Part 2

In this TRIZ example and in field observations generally, it is our hunch 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 LS-TRIZ 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.

In Part 3 of the series, we build on A Hunch Taking Shape by offering 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?”

*Complexity Science concepts:

Complementary pairing: contraries tend to be complementary (Kelso)

Learning adaptability: the range and speed of learning can be a proxy for vitality (Dardik)

Adjacent possibilities: possibilities tend to expand as you explore them (Kaufman)

Requisite variety: variety in responses should match the complexity of challenges (Morgan)

Resources and References



Keith McCandless

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