More Magic, Less Mystery

Keith McCandless
10 min readMay 14, 2020


Sustaining Creative Adaptability with Liberating Structures [Part 1 of 3]

By S. Fisher Qua and Keith McCandless

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. Edin Phillpotts

Preamble for LS users: each person develops confidence in their work or practice through multiple sources. In this series, we explore the ideas and concepts that give us confidence to boldly practice including and unleashing all voices in shaping the future with Liberating Structures. We are not suggesting you need to study complexity science to get great results with LS. The concepts are built into individual LS and the repertoire as whole. However, these ideas give us confidence to take bigger risks. They are one important element in our personal design practices. Additional very important sources, not discussed here, include: co-leading with other LS users; exploring a long-slow hunch over many years and diverse settings; giving and getting help from peers in the community; and, the direct experience of being in the middle of positive change efforts. We invite you to explore the very same topic: what gives you confidence to practice including and unleashing all voices in shaping the future?


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 stability at the macro-scale (experienced as creative or useful results).

Part 3: Design Advice: A Rhapsody for Strings We offer design advice for LS users to generate and maintain peak levels of creative adaptability in their practice. Last, we invite commentary from colleagues by asking, “What gives you confidence to include and unleash all voices?”

With the series, our goal is to Illuminate more of the theoretical basis and the working hunches of our personal LS practices. If this missive encourages you to be both more adventurous AND more disciplined in your work with Liberating Structures, then it will have served our purpose.

Part 1: Sure LS Works In Practice; What About Theory

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play. Immanuel Kant

Over the last decade, we have deliberately developed and accidentally discovered ways to make generating and maintaining peak levels of creative adaptability more common, usual, and unexceptional. Rather than planning for something we only catch glimpses of on special occasions, we only want every LS user to generate similar magic for everybody every day. Years of observing and advancing practice makes us want to strengthen ties to theory. We have repeatedly explored the question with scholars, “Sure LS works in practice, but what about in theory?” in learning sessions.

Introduction to Liberating Structures and Complexity Science

Liberating [verb]: to be set free from unwitting patterns that exclude, stifle, and over-control

Structures [noun]: simple rules that specify how people are included and participate

The first generation LS repertoire consists of 33 practical methods versatile enough for most anyone to use for a wide array of purposes and challenges. LS methods spark lively engagement by minimally structuring the way we interact while liberating content or subject matter. Very simple constraints unleash and draw out creative adaptability, generating possibilities where none seemed to exist before.

Playful icons representing the first-generation repertoire of 33 liberating microstructural methods

When getting started developing LS, insights were derived from the milieu of sciences, theories, metaphors, concepts, and lenses informally referred to as complexity science or complex adaptive systems. We look back now at more than 20 years of cumulative practice with LS, making sense of our field experience by relying on similar insights.

Conventional science breaks things into smaller and smaller parts to gain understanding, equilibrium, and control. A machine or clockwork metaphor is in play. In contrast, complexity science explores how the parts assemble themselves and how patterns emerge from interaction among the parts. An ecosystem metaphor (represented below by a fitness landscape) is in play.

Complexity science focuses on relationship patterns among elements rather than the elements themselves. In complex systems — everything from the weather to sand piles to stock markets to human groups — order emerges or assembles itself without much central control. In a person, this self-assembly may arise from reordering a huge store of memories sparked by a single comment from a colleague. The patterns are open ended and often generate novel surprises. Control is distributed locally and may appear dis-ordered. In human interaction, LS makes it possible to gain from complexity instead of engineering it away.

Here is an overview of how to organize based on a more conventional “machine metaphor” and on a complexity inspired “ecosystem metaphor.” Like all metaphors they both illuminate and distort. The lists below are adapted from two complexity inspired scholars Professors Dr. Reuben McDaniel Jr. (UT Austin) and Dr. Ruth Anderson (Duke) who worked together to improve healthcare organizations.

Confidence to convert our observations into specific design advice (see Part 3) comes in large part from the emerging complexity sciences (CS). To do so, we’ll rely on a small handful of mind bending complexity science concepts to help describe our design choices, preferences, and tacit understanding of what contributes to creative adaptability. There are many inspiring leaders and concepts from which to choose. We have selected four that anchor our everyday design work AND spark our imagination.

Complementary pairing: contraries tend to be complementary

Scott Kelso, professor of complex systems and brain sciences, introduces a novel perspective of “complementary pairs.” Complementary pairs are those things, events and processes in nature that may appear to be contraries but are mutually related and inextricably connected. Such complementary aspects are dynamic and relational; both aspects of a complementary pair are required for describing phenomena. Kelso uses the tilde (~) to denote complementary pairs. Danish physicist Niels Bohr, says it best: contraria sunt complementa, suggesting that contraries are complementary.

Kelso’s brain research experiments show that the human brain is capable of displaying two apparently contradictory, mutually exclusive behaviors or tendencies at the same time. Coordination dynamics — a mathematical theory that reconciles the scientific language of “states” with the novel dynamical language of “tendencies” — describe the complementary nature inherent in human brains and behavior. In addition, the theory of metastability describes the brain’s ability to convert random or chaotic stimuli at multiple scales into stable patterns and conscious thought. Even more paradoxically, metastability endures across time even as the cellular networks continuously reorganize themselves.

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

Irv Dardik, a former vascular surgeon, developed one of the more dramatic and unusually attractive uses of this new science of complexity. He aimed to identify and isolate a single measure of human vitality and health. For him, vitality was an indicator of adaptability and evolutionary fitness across a range of terrains or landscapes.

His solution was to select Heart Rate Variability (HRV). What we find interesting about HRV is that it is assessing two complementary parameters simultaneously: both the range of our heart rate AND the speed with which we can cross that range. In a practical sense, this might look like an elite Olympic athlete pushing their heart rate up towards 220 beats per minute and then trying to drop it down to 40 BPM and immediately getting back up to 221 or 222 BPM and right away getting back down to 39 or 38 BPM. According to Dardik, this effort to both extend the range and accelerate the speed with which we could cover it suggested something important about the vitality of a person’s heart and body.

Of course, being a complexity scientist, he took it even further and started to investigate the underlying micro-patterns AND macro-forces that enabled someone to improve their Heart Rate Variability. Eventually, he published this work by introducing Heartwaves (you can read about it here) and even went so far as to map out the gravitational pull of the moon on our cardiological cells in order to identify the precise times of day when rapid cycle training could help someone improve their range. [Nutty stuff if you really dig into it. For anyone really ambitious, the Liberating Structure Panarchy may offer a starting point for doing your own mapping of how systems embedded within systems simultaneously and mutually shape each other.]

Adjacent possibilities: possibilities tend to expand as you explore them

Theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kaufman may be the most challenging scientist to grasp or grok. He proposes an “adjacent possible” theory to explain biodiversity on earth. Kaufman suggests that novel combinations of proteins in DNA open up as you add other new combinations — life keeps expanding into the adjacent possible. Life orders itself for free in a continuous process of coevolution, enabling and constraining biodiversity. The boundaries of what is possible grow as you explore them. Wow.

Scientists building on Kaufman’s insights have suggested that maximizing the rate of interdisciplinary exploration will increase the diversity of the adjacent possible. In human relations, Brenda Zimmerman elaborates on “producing new sources of value that cannot be foreseen in advance” via the generative relationships STAR. Steven Johnson has extended Kaufman’s concept to suggest that “the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future.” At the edge of the present state and current boundaries, the adjacent possible is an ever-expanding map of all the ways the present can reinvent itself. Innovation proceeds as a gradual, networked process in which slow hunches are explored and combined across diverse domains. Wow∞

Requisite variety: variety in responses should match the complexity of challenges

Gareth Morgan, a business school professor and theorist, applied the concept of requisite variety in managing organizations. He drew on the work of W. Ross Ashby in cybernetic systems. The cybernetic law of requisite variety suggests that if an organization is to be able to deal successfully with diverse challenges arising from its environment, it must have a repertoire of responses that match the variety of complex problems in play. Further, the variety of responses should increase in proportion to environmental complexity. And so, isolating yourself or your organization from the diversity of your environment diminishes your effectiveness.

Linking the idea to holographic organizations (each part should reflect or embody the whole), Morgan suggests that workers in separate business units should have multi-functional and overlapping skills to enable self-organizing or agile work responses. Further, working groups should possess collectively the full variety of skills matched to their complex environment while each individual has as much generalized or shared know-how as possible. Morgan highlights this tough management challenge: to adapt with agility, we need to be more specialized in how we respond to variations or surprises in the market while sharpening the generalist skills that enable effective operating and coordination. [Wicked Question alert!] However, this runs counter to common management practices that narrow or exclude variety to ensure consensus or alignment. Requisite variety in practice involves managing paradox artfully.

Closing Part 1

So, where does the research of these bold complexity scientists from far flung fields collide with creative adaptability and the practice of designing with Liberating Structures? These four insights have fueled a hunch about what helps generate LS magic and what helps us advance LS design practice (read Part 2). We summarize the conceptual insights in the following way:

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)

In Part 2 of this series, A Hunch Taking Shape, we share detailed field observations and explore how research insights inspire our design choices with LS. We define design as making choices about stringing together LS, advancing forward towards a purpose, shaping productive invitations, and sustaining creative adaptability over time.

End, Part 1 of 3

Keywords: Liberating Structures, creative adaptability, complexity science, collective flow state, interaction design, generative relationships, complementary pairs, learning adaptability, the adjacent possible, requisite variety, developmental evaluation.

Resources and References

Linking specific LS to complexity science insights



Keith McCandless

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