by Keith McCandless and friends
Preamble: I am deeply curious about the choices we will make as post-pandemic life restarts. I wonder what the pandemic has taught us and what principles will guide choices as we shape next steps. Now, given the upheavals in our social fabric, what tenets do we hold to be true? What simple rules describe how we will organize the world around us?
This two part article explores principles for managing and leading groups that aspire to include all voices in shaping next steps and the future. As we reopen, clarifying the principles emerging out of our practice will shine more light on the path forward.
In Part 1, we focus attention on how members of the Liberating Structures (LS) community of users and allied groups — spread across six continents and working in very diverse settings — are influenced by certain principles as they face up to big challenges while drawing out a world that welcomes all voices. Experienced leaders share vignettes specifying how principles implicitly and explicitly guide their work in classrooms, board rooms, and across dinner tables. Themes include how principles are: inspiring new leadership behaviors; guiding fidelity in practice; and building trust in a community made up of members who come from an incredibly wide array of backgrounds. Hold onto your hats and socks.
In Part 2, I discuss the role of principles in our work, the deeper questions emerging in the LS community, and tell a story about the origins of the published LS principles. I share that articulating the LS principles did not precede practice but rather arose from a sustained developmental effort over 10 years. Last, I recommend a similar exploration of principles for every person who is inventing inclusive ways to address the complex challenges we face.
Part 1: Principles Arising Out of Practice
Liberating Structures (LS) make it possible to begin including and unleashing every voice in shaping next steps and the future. When LS are used routinely to address shared challenges, participants respond in a way that increases vitality, generates options where none seem to have existed before, and cultivates trusting relationships. A vibrant world in which all voices are included and welcomed is taking shape.
Across geographic and cultural boundaries, we have observed similar results in boardrooms, classrooms, and across kitchen tables. A quiet global movement has taken root around this surprising power.
A portion of the power arises from principles that guide practice, connect users in diverse settings, and describe how the world organizes itself. The principles include both a published set of ten LS principles and implicit principles arising out of user experience. Up until now, very little has been written about the LS principles. With Part 1 of this article, LS practitioners and leaders of allied groups take stock of their experience as we reopen post-pandemic life.
This is a worthy challenge because the principles are hard to see. They are embedded within the LS methods. Users’ experience, validate, and evolve principles as they practice. They are difficult to deduce by logic alone. Most often, the principles are felt, inferred, and intuited. They are essential, emergent, and limited to a small number.
Nature is not economical of structures — only principles. Abdus Salam, Physicist
Commentary / Contributors
I invited fabulous LS and allied group maestro-practitioners to comment on how LS principles are influencing their work and life. These contributors have deep experience in a single diverse setting or in multiple settings and cultures. They are well positioned to weigh in on principles for groups that aspire to create a world welcoming all voices. As you will see in their commentary here, they are reflective practitioners to a fault.
I have, without mercy or dispensations, limited their contribution to 300–400 words.
The Operating System of Liberating Structures: Language of Deliberate Irony Spurs Deep Accountability
Arvind is Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor of Communication at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He led the first systematic investigation of LS in a Norwegian Business School. I call him the global “Johnny Appleseed” of LS: liberating classrooms with educators across 5 continents.
To answer how LS principles guide my work, I turn to Monica, a non-traditional Latina student who took my spring 2021 course at UTEP. For 16 weeks in a row, Monica and 22 others — comprising undergraduate / graduate students from multiple disciplines — participated in a 3-hour Zoom-enabled classroom.
“When this class started, I did not know I will go on a journey of self-exploration, vulnerability, and connectedness….The course format based on LS was engaging, nurtured by the collective wisdom of a supportive group, and a professor who provided that space…. This is the first class in my Ph.D. program that truly created a learning community — one of solidarity and connectedness, not competition.”
Monica’s remarks point to the enabling potentiality of LS to create the vital conditions for diverse participants to co-learn, co-create, and co-thrive. Undoubtedly, the ten principles of LS helped establish these conditions.
That said, deeply implicit (hidden from plain view) resides LS’ operating system (OS), coded in a language of “deliberate irony” — i.e., put “structural constraints” to “liberate” participants. Remarkably, this OS — designed as open source for boardrooms and classrooms — is coded in explicit and actionable language. After all, what could be simpler than implementing a 1-2-4-All?
Four decades in a classroom, including the latter half with LS, have made me appreciate the 10 LS principles and cherish the language and grammar of LS’ OS. If Monica and her colleagues found “liberation,” one only needs to examine the rich and textured LS grammar that guides interactions. The interactional notations include timing — beginnings, endings, transitions; rhythms — patterns for periodic contact; boundaries, all participants at once; container, a space to hold the group’s energy; and procedures — simple invitations to focus on purpose. Language distributes participation, creates connections, and animates collective intelligence. Learning occurs in the lived present moment. Everyone belongs and contributes.
What does the rich and textured language of LS’ OS do for me — an LS user? It makes me fully accountable to the 10 LS principles, and mindful that my primary role is to hold space — i.e., to create the vital conditions for all participants, without exception, to relate and thrive. It also calls upon me to muster courage — a moral strength — to honor the seemingly simple principle of “nothing about me, without me.”
Intentionally Equitable Hospitality as Manifested in Liberating Structures
Maha is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning & Teaching at the American University in Cairo (AUC). She is a full-time faculty developer and describes herself as “a learnaholic, writeaholic & passionate open and connected educator.” Maha produces a blog (with more on this topic) and inspiring videos to promote LS use in the classroom.
Intentionally Equitable Hospitality or IEH (Bali et al, 2019) suggests that facilitators of a space are hosts, responsible for welcoming every participant, questioning for whom the space might be hospitable and for whom it might not be. It entails setting intentions for equity and recognizing when our efforts fail for certain groups.
The most important LS principle for IEH is “Include and Unleash Everyone” and I find it embodied most in Conversation Café and 1-2-4-All. Conversation Café gives everyone equal time to speak and respond before open dialogue. The time element prevents anyone from dominating the conversation. This structure makes students feel heard in student-faculty discussions.
However, I’ve learned that equal time does not promote absolute equity. Some people speak slower, e.g. non-native speakers, and may need more time to express themselves. IEH would go a step further and give more time to those whose voices are less often heard; IEH would adjust the order of who speaks first and consider the impact of power relationships outside the meeting and their effect on safety within a conversation.
1-2-4-All helps with equity because it gives reflective participants opportunity to think privately before sharing, and gives everyone an opportunity to listen to their own voice first, something marginalized groups rarely have an opportunity to do, as they have been frequently bombarded with the dominant view. 1–2–4-All also means participants share first in the relative safety of smaller groups, getting a response and refining one’s ideas before sharing more widely, a process which can reduce anxiety.
Troika consulting is a special structure in terms of how it fosters equity through reciprocity. Every person gets to seek help and to offer help, no matter what their position outside that trio. This tends to work better among equals or complete strangers so that power differences from the outside world don’t interfere. But it can potentially be even more powerful if participants across a hierarchy were able to form a triad and learn from each other.
These LS structures temporarily suspend hierarchies, but do not necessarily challenge them beyond the particular meeting. It is important to ask how the relationships are altered beyond the meeting. For example, are conclusions reached during Conversation Café later used to impact a change in practices?
Why am I here?
Tim Jaasko-Fisher, TJF Consulting, llc
Tim started his career as an assistant attorney general in Washington State. He went on to help the courts improve their response to child abuse and has worked collaboratively to cultivate more civility in the legal system.
I work in a variety of systems. Some are small, some very large, some loose coalitions, and some tight bureaucracies. Many are all these things at once. I have the privilege of working on compelling issues like child abuse, childcare, and core issues of social justice. Despite the unrelenting commitment people I work with have to improve their communities and the world at large, I am often struck by the amount of time they spend in meetings or on projects where they don’t really know why they are there. It is not that they do not have a deep connection to purpose — they almost always do — but rather it is often very unclear how what they are doing in the moment connects to that purpose. So, I always like to start with the LS principle of “Never Start without Clear Purpose.”
Why, of all the places you could be and all things you could do, did you choose to be here, now. Do you really know why you are here? I think this is a critical first step to understanding why we are here. Good clear purpose hints at what might be possible in a way that excites everyone in the room when it is made visible.
Getting clear on your purpose almost always leads to a discussion of how we want to be together. This opens the door to making the unseen operating principles of the group visible. Clear purpose helps you see who the “everyone” is you will include. It generates safe bounds to fail within. Ultimately it builds trust through transparency. Clear purpose makes it more difficult for hidden agendas to hide. It provides an explicit opportunity for everyone to believe in what could happen long before they see it.
The Principles Alive in the LS Community of Practice (CoP)
Based in Seattle, Nancy is a community builder extraordinaire. With caring and a wildly playful imagination, she brings technology stewardship and savvy to the LS global community. Her digital habits and lightness of being have inspired innovations in adapting LS to online applications.
When Keith asked me to write about how we utilize the principles in our CoP, and particularly how I apply them as one of the informal voluntary community stewards, I giggled. ALL OF THEM, Keith, ALL OF THEM!
The LS principles are very community-friendly. You will see versions of them in many other communities, but particularly in CoPs with their emphasis on learning together. “Practice Self-Discovery Within A Group and Failing Forward”? For SURE! You should see the magnificent creations and messes we make in our experimental gatherings. “Engage and Unleash Everyone”? Yup, that’s why we try to welcome people from the start.
“Amplify Freedom AND Responsibility” is a fun one in the community. Want to do something? DO IT! Transgressions are few and far between (yeah, if you spam with a product you will feel some heat). Ask for help without showing you have done a little of your own homework? Someone will gently ask you to start with your homework — bring SOMETHING for people to respond to, but don’t expect them to do your work for you.
“Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions” shows up in the subgroups, both thematic and geographic. We engage each other as practitioners: there is little of the “I’m the expert” positioning. Space is held for everyone and anyone. I notice moments when I read something and think “that’s not right” and get annoyed, only to then discover that I have learned something, or I can just pass it by. Agreement is not the purpose. Learning, sharing, supporting are why we show up.
I particularly love “Emphasize Possibilities: Believe Before You See” because I take a learner’s stance in the community. Everything is possible. There is loving support and loving provocation. That is a learner’s dream and we support it by asking each other questions rather than shooting down ideas.
There is one principle, however, that may not show up as much. “Never Start Without Clear Purpose” may not jive with the emergent and spontaneous nature of a large, large network that has emerged around LS. In fact, the CoP is really those who show up and engage and some come with purpose, some just with curiosity. SO if we could amend the principle to “never show up without purpose and/or curiosity” then I think we’d be OK!
The Wonderment of Learning by Failing Forward
Originally from Peru, now based in New Zealand, Monica is an Organizational Development practitioner, facilitator, and coach. She is a dedicated explorer of complex systems, strategic thinking, and innovative work practices. She incorporates eclectic practices (including LS) that help shift mindsets, cultivate collective wisdom, and expand choices for individuals.
LS is a practice that brings immense joy to facilitation. It is not unusual to see participants laugh as they make their way through an LS string and make their discoveries no matter the topic. As a facilitator, it is easy to witness that including and unleashing everyone is possible. It is easy enough for any facilitator to get seduced by the oxytocin generated in the room. And here lies the sweet trap — becoming dependent on that magic “LS string” that replicates the same oxytocin hit. At times, one seems to work with the unconscious principle of avoiding “Learn by Failing Forward” at all costs.
When I have asked my clients what they have found most helpful and profound, it paradoxically has been when they are gently challenged to do it again when things did not go according to plan, and we need to start again. There are so many layers of learning to be uncovered when things do not go as expected. It requires a bit of courage, stepping away from trying to please people all the time and believing what is possible before you see it. As a practitioner this has allowed me to move beyond “LS eventing” as I work with groups in different settings, continents, cultures, and languages.
You may start with LS as a plug and play. Still, the richness of what is possible can only emerge from intentionality, from experimenting with saying less rather than more, as you try to be precisely ambiguous. From a deep understanding, that we will always be eternal apprentices. LS, for me, is a minimalistic approach to grow myself as I create spaces for others to flourish. However, this is only possible if I embrace “Learning by Failing Forward.”
When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards. Theodore Zeldin, Scholar
Leaning Into Power Dynamics
Based in Austin, Nakia is a community organizer, political social worker, and trainer with deep experience in anti-racism, leadership development, and policy analysis. She uses an interdisciplinary, anti-oppressive lens to examine power dynamics across social systems and help organizations, and municipalities find effective, human centered solutions for their work.
I love Liberating Structures, but it’s the principles that really draw me in. I am an organizer and antiracist educator and it is very principled work. I find that in both LS and in Equity work, if we lose the principles, we lose our way, but if we can lean into and always realign with the principles, we can help people create worlds that they never before imagined.
Liberating Structures themselves are fun and playfully serious, of course, but when we really start to think about what it means to, for instance …
“Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions.” Engage people doing the work and familiar with the local context. Trust and unleash their collective expertise and inventiveness to solve complex challenges. Let go of the compulsion to control.
… we can take those concepts further looking at a bigger picture of what power dynamics and root causes hinder us from fully embodying this.
Through an antiracist lens, this principle asks us to examine our society’s biases around who we think gets to have control of their own narrative, and how that affects the people who we are asking to speak. People closest to issues such as racism or sexism have often been conditioned to surrender their own narrative and use the lenses or stories given to them by whatever dominant culture abounds. For example, sometimes people will speak, but they have been told that their ideas do not hold merit, so they parrot the ideas of others, having no faith in the value of their own lens or experience.
The structures themselves don’t address this, but when we lean into the principles, they call us to deepen our analysis of what is preventing people from speaking (and what is preventing people from *hearing*), so we can create a new power dynamic that actually welcomes all voices into the room.
If we can start to address power dynamics and root causes, how much more liberating our discussions can be!
I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. Audre Lorde
The New Shines Light On the Old
Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius, Principal & CEO, Kaospilot
Kaospilot is an innovative school in Denmark that features a 3-year Enterprising Leadership Program. The program is designed to help students learn how to lead creatively through uncertainty and complexity. LS is part of their fabulous pedagogy.
There are two principles that are dominant at Kaospilot when it comes to cultivating leadership capacity and indeed students’ learning: meet the students where they are, and it is the student’s agenda. Where the first is drawn from Kirkegaard and speaks to how you actually can help someone and indeed make your expertise of value to the other, the second concerns the understanding of who is in service of what.
The concept of a principle came into the Kaospilot universe in 1997 through our work with the founder of VISA, Dee Hock. Questions and proclamations of values predated principles, but with the notion of principle, it suddenly became something more directive and actionable. The view of principles in service of purpose and as “codes” for how to design our work was a formative experience and something that indeed today is a vital aspect of who we are and what we do. Our principles though are not proclamations on the walls but embedded in our expanding reality.
There is a difference between the principles of the individual and the ones of the institution. When joining our institution, one also says yes to certain norms, behaviours, indeed culture. But one does not necessarily give up what one brings. Rather, there is a meeting of differences. Acceptance and respect of the other(s) become a central rule for participation and being seen and met.
As a leadership school we see the communal and individual as something that enriches and strengthens each other. At the Kaospilot, one principle is that people should create their own principles, as to pursue a life of purpose and develop their character as a leader more effectively. Sometimes we speak of discovering a principle, but it is more through engagement and active explorations that principles come into being. By crossing boundaries and generating the new, we also learn more about what we have thought to be true and important. An example is that when our students spend significant time abroad for their projects, they learn a lot about who they are and where they are coming from. The new shines light on the old.
Build to Learn by Failing Forward
With a background in nursing and design, Christi founded and grew a Human Centered Design and Innovation practice at Kaiser Permanente (serving an organization of 210,000 people in the US). With conviction and caring, she puts the human being at the center of every innovation effort. And, she has experience blending LS and HCD methods.
Liberating Structures are deceptively simple in how they present themselves. Learning how to use them with groups is amazingly easy. However, the conversations and emotions that they unleash are anything but simple. Over the course of my 20 years as a Human Centered Design (HCD) practitioner in large and complex healthcare organizations, I have gained a real appreciation of how important it is to introduce and support approaches that are easy to learn and apply. I believe this is how long-lasting change occurs.
HCD has 3 anchor phases to it, creating a shared empathy for each other, (re)framing possibilities, and generating creative ideas that are prototyped and evolved over time. When HCD is led well, all people can participate, contribute, and create new ideas and solutions together. However, there is a limitation. For people who have not been “trained well” in HCD methods/practices, it can be quite difficult to facilitate. The methods are often very nuanced and there is a definite learning curve to them. This is where LS shines. I believe that the LS principle of “Include and Unleash Everyone” is not just about the OUTCOMES of the work, but how it can actually be LEARNED AND APPLIED by everyone.
The LS principle of “Learn by Failing Forward” is the final principle I wanted to discuss, as this is a principle that I believe can be brought to life more by the use of Human Centered Design methods. The HCD Principle “Build to Learn” is made a reality in over a dozen core prototyping approaches that help groups bring new workflows, technologies, tools, roles, services, even policies to life quickly so they can be shaped by those ultimately affected by them.
Building workforce and community capacity is vitally important to building a world that welcomes all voices. Diverse voices should not just be invited to the table, but they also need the opportunity to host it. Further, diverse hands need approaches to bring shape and form to their ideas to give them life.
Imagine how much can be achieved when the accessibility inherent in the LS practices and the expansive range of form-making prototyping approaches in HCD come to life together. I know I will keep striving for this.
Lifting the Weight Off My Shoulders
Based in Buenos Aires, Ani is an enterprise Agile coach at a global consulting firm. Her leadership path includes deep dives into XP, Scrum, and Kanban. She is passionate and dedicated to distributing control of and participation in shaping next steps with colleagues and customers. The principle “Include and Unleash Everyone” guides her leadership decisions.
January 2021. It’s been a year and a half now leading the Organizational Agility practice. Keith and I have been working designing the first outing of the year where the whole practice would get together and look retrospectively at H2 2020 and look forward to H1 2021. I feel tired and overwhelmed. My calendar is cramped and the outcome (and output) of the things I wanted to achieve in 2020 doesn’t meet my expectations.
During the Outing, fifty members of the practice completed a virtual Social Network Webbing map. Each participant was asked to draw arrows to the person who they go to “when they are stuck,” “when they want to advance their work,” “when they need to know what is really going on,” “when they need to reach across functional boundaries” etc. At this point you’ve probably figured out what those networks looked like: a jam with my name in the center. And there were Post-its with phrases like “All the roads lead to Ani (Rome)” and “Rome can burn if not taken care of.”
It was so clear in those graphics why I was feeling tired and overwhelmed. I actually could feel the weight on my shoulders. And I felt a little bit ashamed. That was my responsibility and not what I wanted to achieve at all. I’d been trying to establish a peer government which necessarily requires including and unleashing everyone and I had failed, big time.
After thinking a lot about it I realized that I had something really powerful in hand that I didn’t recall using before: an invitation. I got people together, shared my vision, my invitation to be part of this peer government and how those network graphics had slapped me in the face. And then I listened to their reactions one by one.
Since then we get together every Friday. We end the week together. I specify some constraints that I trust can be loosened up as we move forward. I’m amazed by the results. I learn from them.
My new Fridays end in tears of joy and gratitude.
Reimagining Organisations, One Conversation At A Time
Lisa is a leadership coach with a passion for liberating self-managed teams. Born in the UK, she grew up in Southeast Asia. Lisa founded Reimaginaire to support organizations interested in new ways of working. She reimagines the future of work with global thought leaders via the fabulous Leadermorphosis podcast.
When I interviewed LS developers Keith and Henri for the Leadermorphosis podcast, they told me that books like Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux give people a sense of what’s possible but not much of a clear “how.” Liberating Structures are the “how.” The idea is that you can “act your way into a totally new way of organising,” conversation by conversation, building trust as you go. In these times of complexity and uncertainty, reimagining organisations will not happen with a top-down initiative thought up by a committee of a privileged few. For me, the future of work has to be inclusive and shaped by many voices.
Oh but travellers beware, for there are many pitfalls as we start to explore new ways of working and being together. One is that we think in false dichotomies. For instance, if we want to organise without traditional management hierarchies, we think we must reject all structures, all leadership, anything that resembles hierarchy. We let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, creating chaos, a lack of accountability, and ultimately inertia.
One of the beautiful things about the LS principles is embracing paradoxes. It’s about “Amplify Freedom AND Responsibility.” That magic “and” allows us to explore “what are the minimum constraints that will enable us in this exploration?”. Control in itself is not bad; but under-control can be just as harmful as over-control. LS allow us to reclaim these parts of ourselves and be conscious of them so we can put them to good use.
As Margaret Wheatley once wrote, we haven’t yet learned how to be in this new age of relationships. Reimagining how we work together takes courage because we are practicing new and potentially risky forms of interacting. You can see LS as examples of what INSEAD professor Michael Y. Lee calls “interaction scripts” — concrete guidelines for interaction that specify content parameters and participation rules for interaction. If we step into nothing when we try to create new ways of being together, we may unconsciously reenact old habits that are counterproductive to our aims. LS, though, can help us unlearn and relearn how to be together in ways that “Include and Unleash Everyone.”
Those who can most truly be accounted brave are those who best know the meaning of what is sweet in life and what is terrible, and then go out undeterred, to meet what is to come. Pericles
Closing Part 1
The principles illuminated in these vignettes give me hope we are a few steps closer to a world welcoming all voices. And, the way LS are being used in different domains gives me confidence we are making a contribution to leaders who aspire to include all voices in shaping next steps and the future. As Lisa Gill suggests, “For me, the future of work has to be inclusive and shaped by many voices.”
Given all the upheavals we are managing in this moment, I admire the ability of each contributor to dig deeply and draw out principles to live by. They are making their implicit, intangible, and intuited experience visible for each of us to ponder. Many thanks and a deep bow to you.
In Part 2, I build on these contributions and insights. I make observations about the role of principles, explore the deeper questions emerging in the LS community, and tell a story about the origins of the published LS principles. Finally, I recommend a similar exploration of principles for every person who is inventing inclusive ways to address the complex challenges we face.
Sources and acknowledgments:
Lipmanowicz, H., McCandless, K. (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press
The LS website www.liberatingstructures.com ; The LS App is available in the Google Play and Apple App Stores. Search “Liberating Structures.”
More articles by Keith McCandless
Keith is the co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation(2013). He consults with business, government, philanthropic, research, educational, and health organizations worldwide, focusing on how to address complex challenges and include everyone in shaping the future. Born in Cincinnati Ohio, he holds a Masters in Management of Human Services from Brandeis University in Boston and a BA from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.