Hidden beauty in plain sight- Liberating Structures- an elegant and flexible whole-person development technology

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Over the past six months, mostly out of curiosity to learn more about Liberating Structures (LS), I embarked in organising and being an active member of the design teams for a few LS immersions workshops with Keith McCandless, co-author of the book Liberating Structures. It has taken me to New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Argentina and Chile, where I met 100s of people focused on exploring new ways of facilitating for inclusiveness, innovation, and tackling organisational issues. As I travelled the 13-hour plane ride back home to New Zealand, I realised something momentous, that LS seen and used in its totality is “smart whole-person development technology”. I purposely use the label of whole-people technology as I see LS as the sum of different techniques, methods and processes that can be implemented to create conditions for whole-person development at all levels.  

Let me explain why. Firstly, the structures are grounded in proven and well-researched methodologies which had gone through a process of atomisation to reach its core essentials and gifts. Some of these methods (structures) rely heavily on dialogue to generate new insights; others give you a shortcut to experiencing “complexity” without having to delve more in-depth on the theory. Every single structure starts with a provocation or question to the group, followed by a set of steps based on unique LS design principles. Each structure on its own is of value, however perpetuating the description of LS as a repertoire of 33 facilitative patterns that foster innovation, inclusion, and problem-solving fall short of what the structures as a whole can do for an organisation or a group that actively works with them. The sum of its parts is exponentially more significant than each of these facilitative patterns on their own. Moreover, the LS repertoire caters and delivers a tailor-made response to the complexity of being human. It also nudges participants to generate insights, make discoveries, creating a rich context for people to do qualitative shifts in their perspective and re-think how they make meaning of the world around them (vertical development).

Making room for something new

The first morning of an LS immersion is all about emptying your cup or getting you close to a beginner’s mind. The well-known Zen story about Nan-Chi, a Zen master who is visited by a scholar who wants to learn more about Zen, is a perfect example of this process. The master invites the scholar for a cup of tea. The scholar talks about Zen while the master listens quietly and pours the tea. The scholar notices that the master continues to spill the tea on the cup, even though it is overflowing. The scholar tells the master that the cup is full and that no more will go in. The master replies, looking at the cup, “this is you”, “how can I show you Zen until you empty your cup.”

The process of self-emptying or kenotic act happens in the first few hours of every single immersion session I have attended. It manifests as some mental struggle. It depends on the background of the participant; some spent time comparing how LS “should work” according to one’s world view or practise. Other people are looking for the plugin, either the exact sequence of steps or wherein their process should they plug “this LS”. L&D folk seek the learning objectives/outcomes of the structures; some want a definition to anchor their learning; others want to know what best practice is. Hence if Keith is facilitating, there is something to learn, I can’t learn from anyone else.

The struggle for many is that there is minimal explaining of the mechanics and a lot of “experiencing”. The experiencing is joyful, through precisely ambiguous invitations that leave ample room for many answers to co-exist and where all answers are fit for purpose. In a complex world, one single answer is not enough!

A possibility

If you are working in the people development space, you know that asking people to suspend judgement or “empty their cup” to create space for new learning is a hard thing to do. However, this is possible by using a string or series of structures, that enable people to make their discoveries. The magic is that participants create their conditions for these new insights, with little interference from the facilitator. LS allows for people to develop themselves; in fact, participants can engage in self-discovery within a group.

These contrasting moments build on to each other to create a different range of insights among participants during a two- or three-day immersion programme. It is not surprising that many people choose to do not one but several immersion sessions. Every time, new insights emerge.


Most participants move on from this state of mind to be able to experience moments of joyful liberation. Keith uses a variation of J. Sternin’s quote that encourages people to act their way into new thinking, not think their way into new acting. During the workshops, people take part in “evidence-making” for themselves, rather than collect evidence based on someone else’s experience.

Unleashing everyone

The first time I read the words “unleash everyone”, I was Yeah Right! To my surprise, that is what happens during these sessions. I have had many “aha” moments, one of those that is a gem to be shared is experiencing what in physics they call the first law of thermodynamics or the law of conservation of energy, that is that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

At the beginning of these immersion sessions, people perch themselves in strategic positions, and there is an uncomfortable silence. Pens are set and ready to capture what Keith has to say, but in my experience, Keith limits his instructions to a minimum, and we are right into the first LS, suddenly, the room explodes with noise. So, you wonder, where did all that noise, energy and enthusiasm came from, and if the principle holds, i.e. that energy is not created or destroyed, we need to wonder why our workplaces do not vibrate the same way. All that energy is always present. From an organisational point of view, we seem to have managed to keep it under lock and key. Then we wonder why people aren’t more productive. With the help of LS, we can create a container where people willingly share, harness, produce results and move towards action with others. 

Learning from and with others

During the debriefs using another liberating structure called 1,2,4-ALL, participants start getting a hint that they can learn from one another and not just from Keith or the design team members. They learn that by doing certain routines in a repetitive manner and quick succession, it leads to more clarity and refinement of thought. And at the end of it all, they are learning, and they are unleashing a different type of energy, which is usually trapped by the used of more conventional methods such as presentations, updates. However, some participants do struggle, because in their mind they can’t make sense how it may be possible that out this chaos of milling around, talking to strangers about the same thing, one can learn, and they do. Active and reflective listening skills are honed, people start asking themselves different sets of questions, and real dialogue emerges around how to move forward.

The complexity of mind development

For those of us working in this space, LS offers us a “Holistic toolkit” to create a context where adult mind development can happen, i.e. a quality shift in perspective or way of thinking. Jennifer Garvey-Berger, the well-known author in the area of adult development, talks about, three distinctive ways in which we can do that: Asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, and seeing systems. These three ways or movements are consistently used in most if not all the structures. Another challenge that we face when designing vertical development experiences is that they are psychologically spacious. I mean, it caters to the needs people have at different levels of mind development from the self-sovereign to the self-authored and beyond. The most frequent remarks participants make about LS are that they not only find them useful but also liberating and insightful. My observation is that LS create experiences that provide the necessary balance between challenge and support while having fun.

Inclusiveness

All structures give participants ample opportunity to contribute. LS works well with different cultures, as the responses to the challenges are localised, there is minimum “outside” cultural interference. It caters to both introverts, extroverts and everything in between by providing several opportunities to do small learning experiments of how to use a non-preferred style. And of course, the use of LS encourages and amplifies thought diversity, all ideas, solutions and ways to manage dilemmas are welcome. In a complex world “a single, perfect solution” can be counterproductive.

 

Seeing the big picture

For me, what LS makes possible is the transformation of the way we are and how we work together. It helps us build bridges of understanding and provides the space for all voices to be heard while nudging us towards concrete action. It is also a joyful process, as discoveries about ourselves, others and the broader system emerge. You can think of LS as all the elements needed to create a wave such as water, wind, sand. However, just as a wave that reaches the shore, no two waves are the same. 

At a more strategic level, it provides a holistic framework to learn how to adapt and become agile. We can use LS to do high-level strategic work; we can engage communities to co-create localised responses; we can raise the level of awareness of what is working or not. We can file away our change readiness questionnaires and use a string of Liberating Structures to do just that. We can use LS to revise our otherwise static plans, prioritise work and ensure that our purpose remains clear.

The ROI of time and money allocated to developing internal capability is exponential. Liberating Structures operates under a Creative Commons license which means you can use the structures freely, but cannot commercialise them.

Futureproofing our organisations


There is much talk about futureproofing our organisations. Here is a way to follow that rhetoric with some action around the people space. This new world that is emerging is not just about AI; it is also about distributed and collaborative power. Jeremy Rifkin, the social theorist, lays at our feet the most significant challenge in the people space, the fact that with the emergence of distributed and more collaborative relationships, our organisations will move away from hierarchical power toward lateral power. You can use LS to start creating a container for people to experiment –by being part of, creating movement and action where power is distributed, and collaborative relationships are forged one interaction at the time.

Magic without black boxes

I hope that I have shared enough for you to be curious and decide to attend an LS Meet Up, go to an LS Immersion gig nearby, put some budget to create the internal capacity to bring LS into your organisation or area of domain. If you are a consultant, you can transform your practice or workshops. LS puts a spring on otherwise tedious subjects and revolutionises the development of soft skills. LS supports getting traction in resolving pointy issues, to setting and reviewing your business strategy. LS is multipurpose, much like an excellent swiss knife.

I am unsure if there will be an opportunity for me to collaborate so closely with Keith in the future. I will always remain eternally grateful, for his patience, for accepting with good humor my loving provocations—code for challenging his thinking, his compassionate responses of “stop that”. Now I embark on another journey, guided by Henri Lipmanowicz, the other co-author of LS, in translating some of this body of work into Spanish with another dozen souls across three continents.