by Keith McCandless and friends
Preamble: I am 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 pandemic’s upheavals in our social fabric, what tenets do we hold to be true and 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 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. 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.
In Part 1, we focus attention on how members of the Liberating Structures (LS) community of users and allied groups are influenced by LS principles as they face up to big challenges while drawing out a world that welcomes all voices. Experienced leaders share vignettes specifying how certain principles guide their work in classrooms, board rooms, court rooms, and across dinner tables.
Part 2: Exploring and Specifying Principles: Why Now?
Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior. Dee Hock, founder of VISA
As we restart post-pandemic life and reopen activities, I am revisiting a hunch that including all voices can generate more enduring solutions to a host of entangled challenges. Clarifying the role of principles — and the degree to which they are shared — should shine more light on how we can effectively face up to complex challenges while creating a world welcoming all voices.
Additionally, the LS community of users is evolving and digging deeper. In the last ten years, efforts to spread LS have focused on shifting habits: learning “how to” skillfully introduce new methods and replace conventional practice in a way that sticks. While many LS methods are quite simple, a ticklish first step involves helping people notice the unwitting ways inherited patterns exclude people, stifle creativity, and over- or under-control. LS can replace cultural patterns so common they are both “invisible” and “tenacious.”
Rather than developing new habits, here I focus attention on the guiding role of principles. As LS use has spread and evolved, users have been asking more questions about the ideas and concepts underpinning them. Deeper questions include:
Are we leading and operating in a way that makes it possible to work at our highest purpose and potential? Are LS well matched to work addressing social and racial injustice?
How will we organize this meeting, project, or activity to truly include and unleash ALL voices in shaping next steps? Are we designing with principles in mind? What can we do when there is snapback to conventional patterns?
How fully are we living by our principles? What needs more attention? Given our experience so far, what seems possible now?
With years of field experience using LS and related methods, practitioners have made thousands of observations and discerned patterns in play. This led to thinking about what guides practice moving forward. Through ongoing inquiry, users are developing into “chefs that no longer need recipes.”
This has happened in two ways. First, users have discovered each other and formed critically creative communities on LS using Slack, LinkedIn, and other platforms. Secondly, users are beginning to speculate about the deeper foundations of their work. What are the roots? What are the principles?
With these questions tugging on our curiosity, the search begins in earnest. The ten LS principles published in 2013 are one place to start. Our search may also help allied groups and movements experiencing similar dynamics.
Making A Transition to a More Welcoming World
LS practice and principles came alive through active engagement. The path is co-evolving, iterative, and mutually shaped. Table 1 offers guideposts marking the way. The middle column contains statements about what is valued but not often practiced because conventional structures make it too difficult. We call those statements Must Do’s to emphasize that they can guide action and behavior. We say the values are espoused because we frequently find, in our fieldwork, a clear gap between what is said and what is done.
In the right column are statements describing common behaviors and practices. We call these statements Must Not Do’s to emphasize that they stifle inclusion, trust, and innovation. We characterize them as unnoticed or autopilot behaviors because they are often unexamined habits — such as the Big 5 conventional practices — so familiar that they are easily overlooked. If they are noticed at all, it is by people who are excluded by the practice.
Over the last 10 years, I have noticed working groups that are able to live by these principles becoming more creative in how they pursue purpose. Fear, resistance, and division decreased. Deeper understanding and empathy co-evolved among participants. Teacher and student learned together. Consultant and client co-developed solutions. Doctor and patient shaped recovery. Suddenly, divergent perspectives were being explored productively and new opportunities were popping into view. Simultaneously and mutually, participants were shaping their future together more generatively. [Part 1 vignettes illustrate this transition]
We also saw groups struggle to withstand the tide of traditional practices. Snapback to old patterns resurfaced from time to time. As experience with LS grew, views about leadership evolved. We noticed group members’ confidence in each other blossom as more freedom and more responsibility were distributed among members.
The principles helped us describe these common patterns, dynamics, and transitions unfolding across all our experiences with groups.
Origin Story: Digging Deep for Principles in Practice
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice that failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. Ronald Laing, Scottish psychiatrist
You might think LS principles preceded the practice or were transcribed on stone tablets from on high. Far from it. Henri (my wily co-author) and I worked for eight years trying to help groups organize in a new way before there was a hint of a book or explicit principles. We gathered evidence of effectiveness and gained confidence directly from liberating experiences with clients and learning groups. Our clients and partners encouraged us to write and publish. We resisted and dawdled for years.
Once Henri and I started writing, we dug deeper into our experience. We revisited our favorite stories and reexamined field observations in finer detail. The writing focus was on describing “how to” learn and apply the 33 LS interaction patterns. The big challenge was to make our implicit experience explicit so others could use it consciously.
We discovered that more of our practice was unconscious and unexamined than we expected. Oh my, there was more hard work to discern what was important and what could be ignored. This sharp revelation sparked the creation of the five design elements and the framework for describing each LS with minimum specifications. The challenge was amplified because we were aiming for a “plug-and-play” guide for everybody to use every day in routine activities.
In the midst of writing, Henri and I were working with the Foundation for Community Vitality (FFCV) — a small foundation of leaders aspiring to restore and protect vitality of all life in the Yellowstone region of south central Montana including the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. The leaders were exploring complexity science to help find more enduring solutions to their persistent issues. We had been invited over a few years to help design a leaders’ learning network. The fit with LS was perfect. Trusting relationships were formed quickly and a handful of LS were prototyped during network meetings.
During one meeting, a FFCV board member named Harvey Stewart commented, “Clearly, Liberating Structures are guided by principles. What are they? Will they be part of your book?” Henri and I looked at each other and I said, “Hmmm, that is an interesting observation. Yes, but the methods stand on their own merit. The principles arise out of practice.” I was fending off. Harvey was very skilled in asking the deeper, often inconvenient questions. Only after the meeting did we decide to add LS principles to the book.
Drafting the principles required still deeper digging. We were inspired by complexity science and had learned together with an interdisciplinary mix of scientists and scholars. We found universal complexity principles drafted by physicists, ecologists, technologists, academics, and spiritual leaders useful and mind-blowing. Those authors described how order and novelty arise out of messiness in their particular domains. However, they did not translate lofty concepts to everyday human organizing activities.
We were inspired by pioneering efforts to translate these big ideas to how humans manage. EdgeWare, a great book about organizing in healthcare, was published by colleagues in the Plexus Institute. This was the work we wanted to build on and advance. The prospect made me swallow hard: generalizing our messy personal experience to the level of explicit principles felt risky AND worthy. So, we got to work drafting principles.
We arrived at ten short statements plus a set of must do’s and must not do’s for each principle [see Table 1 above]. Most of the insights arose directly from what we unleashed in our field practice viewed through a complexity science lens.
Via LS TRIZ (one of the most popular LS), participants generated the raw material for the “Must Not Do” column in Table 1. A TRIZ invitation like “How can we be sure the members of the group will all be present but their minds will be absent?” quickly uncovered the unwitting ways conventional patterns over-control, stifle creativity, and exclude. And, we had used TRIZ hundreds of times in diverse settings across two dozen countries. Rocket science was not required to retrieve these observations.
The “Must Do” column arose from users who reported on their experience using LS in their work. From the start, we heard dramatic stories of turnarounds and transformations. We asked to be included in our clients’ local work so we could see the action unfold. We collected stories and cajoled leaders into writing about their experience. I had drafted a handful of field stories for the book. This was source material for Must Do’s. Again, a complexity science lens helped to sharpen observations and describe how people were organizing in a new way.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Nelson Mandela
Closing and A Recommendation
While it was hard work for me to examine my own practice, the principles were hidden in plain sight. Stealthily accumulated through shared experience, ready to guide us at any moment. Quietly waiting to be noticed… then shouting, “Boo!”
To this day, the principles feel bold and worthy — steps forward toward a world welcoming all voices. The work feels like a purpose higher and more infinite than what I imagined would shape my life.
I recommend the very same approach to you. Read Part 1 to see how maestro-practitioners are shaping the path to a world more welcoming to all voices. Make your intuitive and implicit experience explicit so it can be consciously applied by others.
What you are, the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world. J. Krishnamurti (philosopher)
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.”
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.