Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Integrated autonomy

(It’s been now six years that I’ve been actively and more centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at some of the not-so-common structures from the LS repertoire).

Today, I’m focusing on another structure I’ve hardly ever used: Integrated Autonomy.

This is both an excellent way to get my head around it properly, stretch it to imagine how it could be pushed and adapted, and imagine how it might work for groups that don’t share context – because many structures that thrive on shared context are typically sidelined in open workshops and that’s a pity.

What is the purpose of Integrated Autonomy?

Somehow echoing the logic of Wicked Questions, Integrated Autonomy invites teams and groups to ponder this wicked question: “How is it that we can be more integrated and more autonomous at the same time?”. Most organisations tend to either put the focus too much on integrating everyone and everything, or leaving everyone too autonomous.

This LS poses that embracing both aspects is much more conducive to a resilient group and more creative and productive results. It is thus naturally good for exploring strategies, for finding a balance in the way a decentralised organisation is operating, for attending to tensions between two different factions of an organisation etc.

How does it work?

Contributors involved in this LS draw a list of activities that are experiencing tensions between…

  • Integration and autonomy
  • Standardisation and customisation
  • Competition and cooperation

They then choose one of these activities and list down reasons for integration (list A), reasons for autonomy (list C) and identify which activities boost both integration and autonomy (list B).

They get on by pondering what could be done or adapted to move any item from list A or list C to list B.

Read more about this on the LS website.

The whole structure (face-to-face) takes 60-80 minutes to be appplied.

Who could really benefit from this LS?

Any team or organisation that is:

  • Developing a strategy and wants a more robust and resilient approach
  • Decentralised and needs both the headquarters/central agency and decentralised offices to work well together
  • Reviewing its decision-making procedure and wants to offer some level of delegation
  • Encouraging innovation and wants it to potentially emerge from anywhere in the system

As you can see, this is again typically a ‘team LS’, as in “a structure that is particularly designed for teams to operate more successfully”. I offer a few options to stretch it, particularly for groups that don’t share the same context…

What is liberating about it?

The liberating features of Integrated Autonomy

It helps everyone point to and express their boundaries, their needs for freedom and independence, which Dan Pink would describe as one of the three attributes of personal drive in (working) life.

Behind all of this, the ‘Trojan horse’ effect is that it brings people to discuss the very political question of ‘power’ and that in itself might lead to really confusing, annoying, difficult conversations, but necessary and potentially extremely liberating ones, at that!

Integrated Autonomy also encourages open and all-embracing ‘and-and’ (growth) thinking rather than narrow-minded ‘either-or’ (fixed) thinking… Integrated Autonomy is blatantly seeped in the spirit of Wicked Questions.

It is by nature inviting everyone – however close to or far from the centre – to find themselves in the whole system.

It is a creative structure that is requesting contributors to identify strategies that cater for both ends and to think about little twists that push a unidirectional strategy to get bi-dimensional.

Because of its paradoxical nature, Integrated Autonomy is a robust ‘living strategy’. It is not likely to get us to just think and forget about it. It keeps a live focus on the strategy. In that sense it follows the dynamic lens of ‘ecocycle planning‘.

How to stretch the structure further?

A few ideas of how this can be used either differently or slightly beyond its original comfort circles?

Stretching the structure to find new angles and uses (photo credit: Steve Snodgrass / FlickR)

In a group that is not a coherent ‘group’ (ie. a composite group of people randomly joining the same session):

  • Integrated Autonomy can be still used to to explore how that group acts as a coherent group for parts of the session (e.g. for debrief), or relies entirely on the individuals (thinking about their own context), and where things come together in between (ie. the breakout groups, )…
  • It can be tested with a fictitious case study of e.g. a large international company that has a global headquarter and some country or regional offices and how the two are operating together. Always a very interesting conversation about power.
  • As usual, it can also be used with individual cases discussed in parallels in pairs or in small groups. However there are generic questions that are worth drawing out (through a Spiral Journal, 10×10 writing or otherwise):
    • Has the balance historically been much more about one side?
    • What can we do to ensure we keep paying attention to both these dimensions?
    • Are we looking at the right two dimensions (perhaps use 9 Whys here to explore more deeply, or indeed Wicked Questions to get to the bottom of the dichotomy here).
    • Who (think Discovery & Action Dialogue and positive deviance) has managed to bring about this type of dual approach very well and what are the factors behind that success?)?


  • It can also be preceded by Wicked Questions and focus on the two paradoxical dimensions of a Wicked Question to follow the same logic of understanding what caters for one end of the wicked question, for the other, and for both ends. For instance ‘how is it that we are seeking to raise grown up and grounded kids that stand on their own while at the same time trying to teach them some important principles of life’: you can then unpack the what part caters for getting them grounded, what part gets them to be taught, and what lies in the middle.
  • Combined with ecocycle planning, it can also give an idea of the activities in the portfolio that matter for the individual, for the organisation or for both at the same time, and can thus provide a sense of prioritisation…
  • If used with a common context group and with both parties present, Integrated Autonomy can lead to a bit of an ‘us vs. them’ dynamics. It could be useful to bring a user experience fishbowl in the mix to really understand the respective perspectives in parallel.

No training workshop I’m planning will tackle this structure soon, but together with a little group we are cooking up some deep dive sessions on rare LS such as this. If you’re interested in joining one on integrated autonomy (or another no-so-common-LS, please leave a comment here 😉

If you’re interested in getting properly introduced to Liberating Structures you can always sign up for the upcoming general immersion workshop in May-June.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your own experiences, twists, tips, tactics to use Integrated Autonomy in fun, serious, playful, hopeful, productive, healthy ways 🙂

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My 10 commandments of group facilitation

Principles, principles, principles…

I’m not fond of rules. I don’t like constraints. I do like ‘strange attractors‘ and boundaries that guide our path, whether secretly or overtly.

Principles do that. So I guess I’m a person of principles.

And as I’m pondering this excellent post by my friend Nadia von Holzen on the 10 principles of Liberating Structures (LS), I want to offer, hereby what have become some of my ‘commandments’ of facilitation over the past few years.

Using again this amazing LS body of work and other instrumental sources of inspiration such as Community At Work‘s incredible living legacy, I’m thinking it’s a good moment to offer my 10 commandments of facilitation, based on my own practice and experience.

It’s likely to become a living list which I may update here and there in the future. Though even now this list comprises some fundamentals that I believe prepare someone doing facilitative work to do and be the change they want to see as part of their work…

So here we go…

1. “Stay out of the content, manage the process”

This one doesn’t come from me but from Community At Work’s seminal ‘Group Facilitation Skills‘ training. And it’s pretty fundamental. Not all facilitators are neutral in the content/process dichotomy. Some allow themselves to mingle in the conversation and share their opinion. Others influence the direction of the conversation (even from a process perspective). And yet I can only honour this commandment and recommend it to others, because the role of a facilitator is, to mirror Sam Kaner’s mantra “to help everyone do their best thinking”. Meddling in that process and taking a stand from content perspective means sending mixed signals: you may value certain points of view that are close to your own. Ultimately, it means there is no integrity to expect from the facilitator.

2. Be the one person that works in ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE’s interest

This is perhaps the second commandment from Kaner, Noakes et al.: not only is a facilitator majorly involved in managing the process, but also in nurturing healthy and productive relationships among the contributors present. By focusing on the process and not adopting any bias in any conversation involved, the facilitator can free themselves to pay attention to how everyone is doing, and to protect the safe space and time of everyone to express themselves. This is fundamental, as it goes to the core of what facilitation is about: the practice of skilfully collaborating.

3. Along the way, develop everyone’s process literacy

This one comes much more from my own practice, directly. Now that I’ve started to write about process literacy more centrally it’s only logical that this becomes one of my 10 commandments: As facilitator you (expectedly or arguably) possess a strong process vision, a lot of process knowledge, and have developed critical process skills. All of this is extremely helpful to have. So how about getting every group you work with to benefit from some of that? Make the process scaffolding visible, explain the principles or reasons why you have managed this particular process bit or not. Share your process language and invite others to see the value of this meta-stance. Every individual, every group, every community becomes all the stronger along the way.

4. Whenever you can, involve and co-facilitate with others

Directly in line with the previous principle, seek to work with other co-facilitators, preferably people that are members of the group you’re working with. This way, not only are you sharing a little bit of process literacy with everyone, but you develop – crucially through joint experience with them – a lot of that process literacy with one or a few people that will directly play a co-facilitative role in the process. A great learning and discovery, not just for them but for you too. Still be mindful of the dark side of co-facilitation, but then actively involve others relentlessly, you’re making everyone smarter this way!

5. Do not fall in love with your own interests, desires, hobby horses – it’s not about you but about THEM

It is very tempting, when designing a process, to get attracted to this new participation format you’ve been bound to try out or adapt, or this new visual tool you want to get your head around. Exploring the edges of your repertoire is great, it relates to another commandment below about self improving, but behold this: Is this approach you’re suggesting something your group really needs, or is it something you have suggested to please your curiosity? Very often, groups don’t need the most sophisticated approaches, tools, bells and whistles. Something simple but solid usually does the trick. Use other safe-fail avenues for pushing your limits. When working seriously with a group – especially a group that pays you to do this, honour your commitment to them and keep thinking about what’s in it for them. Time, and time, and time, and time again.

Group facilitation – It should be more than you, in quality and in quantity (photo credit: Mathias Weitbrecht)

6. Remember your inner yoda – embrace your ethical self

When in the room, facilitating, you have no space to colour your statements politically or ethically. But upstream, when designing the process, it’s your every right – and perhaps duty – to follow your own code of ethics. And I’m thinking particularly about how you look at dynamics of inclusion, diversity, representation, transparent decision-making. Is the plan really paying attention to everyone the way it should? Is it complete? Is it doing due diligence? Is it not reinforcing entrenched power patterns, and perhaps even creating a climate of distrust etc.? Be very mindful of how you contribute to a healthy (or not so healthy) environment and dynamics in the groups you work with by not asking some critical questions upfront.

And this leads me to the next commandment…

7. Be mindful of who you are – the ‘self as instrument’

The ‘self as instrument’ is again a principle from Community At Work. Know yourself and work with yourself in the room. Know what triggers you both positively and negatively. What is likely to make you over enthusiastic and less risk-savvy, and what will rattle you. Understand the “communication styles that bug you” (C@W, still!) and the ones that you display yourself (with a tinge of TRIZ here). Meditate perhaps, so that your inner eye remains open and alerts you to emotional triggers that affect your judgment and your integrity. The more you know yourself, with all your weaknesses and your strengths, the more you are able to serve others fully and unconditionally.

8. Be the facilitation that you want to see in everything you do

Don’t limit your facilitation practice to the events and collaboration initiatives that you end up working on. Apply it to your life, to your working and wherever desirable your personal relationships. Be supportive, be helpful, listen actively, be mindful of outcomes, be collaborative. When you breathe what you preach, people trust you all the more, because they can see that you walk your talk and respect your work and approach. And bonus, doing so you might even cheekily bring people to taking an extra step of slight discomfort that they might not take otherwise, though that’s matter for another blog post…

9. Self-reflect and self-improve

Maybe it’s the heritage of my knowledge management profile, but I firmly believe that much like a lot of facilitation is getting groups to reflect on everything, you should also reflect on how you’ve been doing this or that, what you did well, what you did unexpectedly, what was good, bad, ugly and lovely in all of that, and what you can do to get it even more right next time around. As the LS gospel goes “Learn by failing forward”. Growth thinking drives the best facilitators, and the pie is always getting bigger. So have your portion now, and then some more! Yummy learning! And at that, you might need the feedback of others to help you cover your blind spots and help you grow, which paves the way for the last, but certainly not the least of these commandments…

10. Work with (many) others, and be grateful!

Facilitating is inherently collective. And it takes many people indeed to go through successful collaboration, even during just the space of an event. So go out there and find your partners in crime. Involve the sponsors, the people in the room. Whether they help design, co-facilitate, document, manage time, manage technical platforms, review the works, the more you involve others, the more active the entire crowd becomes and the more likely they are to invest more of themselves in the time together, and in building quality relationships with each other. Besides, it’s sheer pleasure – well, with some spicy moments ha ha ha. Don’t stop there, thank them, and once again show that collaboration scaffolding: it wouldn’t be possible if all of these people, all of you hadn’t been involved.

It’s a beautiful job to facilitate, and I hope you enjoy these commandments, and perhaps apply some of them or share your own here… What are your 10 commandments of facilitation?

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Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Generative Relationships / STAR

It’s been now six years that I’ve been actively and more centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at specific structures from the LS repertoire.

Today, I’m getting started with some structures that tend to be used slightly less, among others because they require a shared context. One such structure is: Generative Relationships STAR.

What is the purpose of Generative Relationships / STAR

STAR looks at four characteristics of teams and helps its members assess how well they do on each of these characteristics, so they can identify adjustments for the gaps that they see. The four aspects are:

  • Separateness (and differences): How diverse is the team in its composition
  • Tuning: How well team members manage to listen to and learn with each other
  • Action: How frequently/intensively the team acts together on opportunities and/or innovate
  • Reason/purpose to be together: How clear it is for everyone in the team what the purpose of that team is and are its benefits

How does it work?

Working with a compass map, each team member develops their own version of the compass, then compares it with others and they negotiate how their whole team picture actually looks.

Then they discuss what are the pattern results of their STAR compass mapping in terms of how they work together.

Based on that, they identify some steps to become more functional etc.

Read more about this on the LS website.

The whole structure takes about 20-40 minutes to be worked out.

Who could really benefit from this LS?

Obviously, any team can benefit from this, and teams are the primary locus of this LS. But the STAR logic can be extended to small organisations and networks also. It’s helpful for team members, primarily, but also for managers, for consultants working with that team or group. It’s particularly helpful for groups of people that bring in partners from different organisations, to really understand how they manage to work together and make the partnership a reality.

Also: Particularly helpful for team retreats and capacity development, for interpersonal communication, for identifying the basis for strong collaboration. For weak teams that need to get their act together, and for high-performing teams that want to identify their edges and next focus.

It’s generally useful for anyone wishing to understand group dynamics and team composition better also.

What is liberating about it?

A few features from STAR are quite liberating, even though not uniquely in this LS:

  • The conversation about assessing the team, and collectively negotiating how the team itself operates, looking at the -sometimes wildly- different individual assessments, is always a great opportunity to surface differing perspectives. That conversation is in itself worth more than the eventual result of the negotiation.
  • The creativity that it requires to consider the STAR compass map and characterise the collaboration patterns of that group is great. Hidden patterns are revealed. Alternatively, while the patterns themselves might be recognised, STAR offers a basis to explain the deficiencies/edges of that team.
  • The initial assessment (the teams’ collective STAR compass) paves the way for further, future, deeper explorations of the team dynamics.
  • The compass map points in the direction of either developing the capacities of current team members, or of bringing in people that might stimulate either of these dimensions.

How to stretch the structure further?

While this is meant to be used by groups of people that effectively work as teams, it can also be used alternatively:

It can always be used individually reflecting on our respective teams, and bouncing ideas off with others, possibly preceded by Helping heuristics to offer the most adequate type of support to each other in doing so?

Even for impromptu teams (e.g. the group of participants in a public workshop), STAR can be used to reflect on useful variables of a well-functioning team. It could even be done as an exercise to get that impromptu group to understand how they are operating together and to keep that in mind as they further explore their interaction patterns…

The 4 variables of STAR can arguably be replaced by other dimensions of teamwork that matter e.g. their process literacy, their emotional intelligence (which is perhaps one of the elements in tuning), their recognition and pride, their stability as a team etc.

It can be stretched onto families (or even groups of friends) that want to understand how they function with each other.

We will be working with this structure in the upcoming general immersion workshop in May-June by the way.

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Process literacy perks: The participants, as ‘leaders in the shade’

With this new year’s resolution to blog somewhat more than I’ve done in the past four years, one of the biggest and nicest endeavours ahead of me is to finally write a series of posts about ‘process literacy’ – following this seminal post. I’m getting started with this series today, focusing on the benefits of process literacy in relation to different types of people/functions involved in collaboration. In this post I’m exploring the benefits of developing process literacy of (and for) the participants of a meeting or collaboration.

Who benefits the most from process literacy? Of course you might say facilitators and other people who operate most of the time in the ‘process’ realm.

Well, there’s much to say about this, for sure.

Though how about the majority of people that will not end up organising, chairing, let alone facilitating meetings – indeed let’s even just think about meetings here, not even broad collaborative initiatives.

So let’s look at meetings that involve process literate participants.

Cultivate fruitful interactions, collaborations and meetings through making everyone a key actor (Image credit: Atlassian)

You might still wonder: What is the benefit of having participants that have developed strong process literacy when there’s a facilitator taking care of the process, and better still: it’s their job!! – right?


Of course, you can always work with a group that has no understanding of process literacy whatsoever. You don’t NEED it to get where you want. But let’s just say it will take more time…

Let’s examine some benefits of having process literacy as distributed as possible, borne by as many participants as possible:

What becomes possible when process literacy is distributed among participants?

Here are just some very real possibilities…

A handy flowchart (download link here to the left) (image credit: Atlassian)
  • Everyone attends meetings as they know exactly why they attend that meeting (ever seen this handy flow chart about organising a meeting or not, by the way?).
  • They have also a good understanding of the topics and outcomes that are aimed at for this meeting. And if they don’t, they ask questions about it upfront, preventing ill-conceived meetings and inviting the organising team to do a better job at realising why they are organising the meeting themselves.
  • They have realistic expectations about what can be achieved in a meeting and are thus not going to shoot for the moon in a two-hour online meeting (or even an eight-hour face-to-face meeting for that matter).
  • They also clearly understand what is expected of them in terms of dynamics: whether to understand, share ideas, co-create solutions etc. This greatly enhances expectation management for everyone around.
  • They are aware of their own expectations, objectives, communication style, and are capable of factoring this into the group dynamics somehow, instead of focusing on themselves only and letting their emotions rule the game.
  • They create consistent and warm norms that help everyone find their place in the group and contribute, respectfully though potentially in disagreement, and they set examples of behaviours that others can follow to further contribute to this fertile atmosphere of collaboration.
  • They collectively manage time in relation with the overall objectives to accomplish, not just mechanically. And in breakout groups, they are able to keep their eye on the ball of ‘what is it we are trying to accomplish’ rather than just ‘what are we discussing at the moment’.
  • Although they may have some ideas about how to run this or that process, or come up with an alternative way of achieving the objective at hand, they are respectful enough of who’s ‘running the show’ at a given time to make that happen.
  • They really pay attention to each other and to managing relationships, because they understand it’s key to the present and future of that work.
  • On the other hand, if things are going horribly wrong, they will call it out and ask for a serious facelift of the process at hand – even all the way to cancelling or adjourning the meeting.
  • And a real bonus here: You can turn participants into facilitators – whether for break out groups, or even (segments of) plenary sessions.
So what are we waiting for to get into a more process literate collaboration? (image credit: QualitDesign)

…and I can get to think about other benefits still, but you get the gist…

In essence, with process literate participants, you have a group of ‘shadow’ facilitators that understand what it takes to move forward with a complex agenda. They make you that much more likely to achieve the results you set your eyes on. You can count on these ‘leaders in the shade’ to bear the collective process and its integrity every step of the way.

This is of course an idyllic picture, a unicorn in the realm of meetings (sigh…) but it sets a vision for what we should strive for. A bit like communication, process literacy is really everyone’s business, or it should be.

Obviously, the reverse picture of the above is also true, and that’s why there’s a lot of benefits in getting the entire set of participants to develop their process literacy rather than dealing with the ills of process illiteracy…

How to cultivate that process literacy?

Well, that’s my holy grail, and I’m getting started on my quest after some successful but rather random errands in the past.

What is sure, approaches that aim at involving and unleashing everyone, such as Liberating Structures, are key in this endeavour. But many more avenues are worth exploring.

Do you want to join my round table, noble knight of distributed intelligence?

Related stories:

Liberating monitoring evaluation and learning Structures? Two ‘why bother?’ interviews…

Now all posts related to specific (training) events will be posted on my company’s website ‘’. Here’s the latest, and it created a lot of fun!

Ewen Le Borgne

If you are a professional working on monitoring, evaluation, learning (MEL), whether in international development cooperation or otherwise, you might be looking for interesting ways to reinvent your profession in a COVID context that has made direct contact exceedingly rare and difficult and has thus made all that good MEL work very challenging… Here’s an interview that might be of interest, with a totally impartial take since it’s myself interviewing myself 😉

And if you want to skip it and directly get your tickets (I warned you arf arf arf), simply click here.

Bonus interview (with a mystery guest) at the bottom!

So you think MEL is in need of reinvention?

Well, I’m not the one saying this, I’m not even a MEL specialist myself (though I used to be). But my friends, former colleagues and the graduates from the last such immersion who operate in this field are…

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The enduring power of Liberating Structures, online, and outside of meetings

“The silent revolution in the making”…

That’s how I describe Liberating Structures (LS) because its open source nature means it is being unleashed across all continents, sectors, domains, communities and its simplicity helps to quickly get picked up. Great news, considering the amount of meetings and conversations that could do with more freedom, more structure, more balance between freedom and structure, less ego, more co-creation and collaboration…

Now, the natural – or rather the typical – realm of Liberating Structures is that of meetings. It applies to all group configurations that could do with more diversity, innovation, spice, fun, focus etc.

Interestingly, however, Liberating Structures also have an enduring power beyond meetings. They offer a lens that reveals different patterns of interactions, patterns of doing and of being.

Kindly invited to introduce ‘Liberating Structures for online work’ at a recent event organised by the DGroups Foundation, I have gathered some thoughts about what makes LS so interesting and powerful even when it’s not applied to synchronous interactions such as meetings.

Hereby are the key ideas and slides that I will introduce. With 10 minutes given for this, I am not really able to do a typical LS approach (do it and think about it later), as it would really reveal too little about the depth of LS. However I am inviting the audience to review these ideas and to practice with them any time.

The power of LS to liberate our online structures

Liberating Structures help us pay attention to everyone’s intelligence – they sanctify the agency of self-organising groups

Even outside of meetings, we need to keep an eye for inclusion, diversity (for innovation, among others), and everyone’s engagement in whatever brought us together in the first place. Liberating Structures breathe and live this through and through. Many of the LS start with individual reflection, allowing everyone to make up their mind, not just those that are quick to think and talk. And crucially, not paying attention to the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) only. This type of thinking, encapsulated by the principle ‘Include and unleash everyone‘ is a fundamental shift from all vertical structures that we have largely inherited from the industrial age, to this date. It’s time to flatten our world.

Liberating Structures challenge us to go beyond our comfort zone, to fail forward and creatively kill our darlings

The LS principle ‘learn by failing forward‘ is challenging us to try things out, experiment, in small, agile waves. Quick feedback loops, learn and adapt, fail fast and often. In the realm of meetings this means daring to crawl out of the ‘Big 5’ that LS erected themselves against (ie: Presentation, managed discussion, status update, Brainstorming, Open discussion). Outside meetings, Liberating Structures are still challenging us to reflect on ‘what is possible?’, ‘what could we try out differently’? They remind us there is no point in keeping stale and overly comfortable practices… No reason to stay trapped in our rigidity (think Ecocycle Planning).

Embrace ‘safe fail’ rather than ‘fail safe’…

Liberating Structures engage us to cultivate paradox as a source of rich diversity, rather than confusion

As a species we are not particularly inclined to seek confusion, ambiguity, opposition etc. We like things to be harmoniously recognisable and interacting neatly, or not intersecting with one another too much so that everything seems ‘pristine’ – probably a mechanism to cope with the chaos that is in our mind at most times. Keep everything in a separate box again. And yet there is so much value in recognising the fifty shades of grey areas in our life, in accepting that we are not ‘homo economicus’ but ‘homo sociologicus’.

In the Liberating Structures language, this is the territory of ‘Wicked Questions‘. And it’s a secret door to being more mature in our approach, embracing both ends of a spectrum and accepting that, in some mysterious way, these opposites might be combinable for a solution that takes into account a richer diversity.

Or indeed as a Wicked Question: How is it that we welcome and encourage complexity and at the same time we seek simplicity in everything we do?

Liberating Structures invite us to add just enough structure to have more choice

The term ‘Liberating Structures’ is itself a ‘Wicked Question’. It’s about embracing both liberating and structure. We might quickly understand that LS are emphasising freedom, liberation, but actually never without a certain degree of structure, without a certain degree of responsibility in the process. It’s about the ‘Minimum Specifications‘ that make or break what we are focusing on. Getting away with no structure is a recipe for disasters, so what are the non-negotiable minimum specifications that can really deliver? It’s another way of decluttering a la Marie Kondo, just focusing on the minimum to keep to get us to the next level (of harmony, productivity or whatever else we are seeking at a given moment)…

And in an ecocycle planning kind of way, LS invite us also to review our relations and activities dynamically, again to create more choice…

Liberating Structures make space for our whole personality and its quirks to be accepted as it is

Another – and hereby final, though by no means exhaustive – aspect of LS is in inviting our personalities in all our wholesomeness. Liberating Structures are not resorting to our intellectual self only, as too often is the case in the ‘serious’ workplace 😉

Here you are invited to bring your creative self (Drawing together), your emotional self (Heard Seen Respected), your musical and empathetic self (Back to back listening), your kinetic self (Flocking), your theatrical self (improv prototyping), your coaching self (Helping heuristics). Make way for what makes a person, all the different shades of our very own elephant (and we are its seven blind men)… And it is a delight to be able to use these many facets of who we are… It’s also put to good use.

How about some serious business?

Oh, did I mention ‘fun’? Think dancing with your tiny demons, talking with pixies about what you can change about yourself, embracing dystopia with TRIZ, addressing thorny questions with Mad Tea party… with Liberating Structures you are in the middle of serious fun, or fun seriousness, however you prefer looking at it 😉

Because indeed: why should we afford to kill our inner child when instead we can kill our darling ideas? Why should we settle for unimaginative business as usual when we can indulge in some serious transformation, together, while having fun?

How is that all too often, even outside of meetings, we are not giving ourselves the absolute minimum structure that we need and at the same time we are not seeking ways to liberate ourselves from the slavery of ‘office groundhog day’? How is it we are looking forward to this 2021 as the clean slate with a keen heart and at the same time we are trying to build on all the amazing stuff we’ve (also) learned in 2020?

That is a wicked COVID question!

Now here’s for the presentation…

Join us in either of these two upcoming Liberating Structures Immersion workshops:

Happy 2021 – and here’s to sharing many more conversations!

Dear you,

I have left you alone over the past year(s). Perhaps you’re even very happy about it ha ha. Perhaps I’m just talking to myself 😉

In any case, as this new year is finally with us, with a pretty dramatically iconic 2020 behind, here is to a happy 2021, hopefully a very different kind of year, though building upon the great experimentation and learning we’ve also done in this Corona year past.

For me, this is not a promise that my blogging will become a solid practice again, but I am really hoping to find time to do it on a more regular basis and to reflect on the beautiful, amazing, new, quirky, deceptive, crazy, stupid, enchanting stuff that lies ahead of my path.

I hope you tag along for a while, and help me make this blogging a shared experience, an enjoyable conversation space…

For now, I wish you health, love, happiness, success and whatever wild dreams you may have…

(photo credit: CTN News)

What trust, experience and a bit of ‘failing forward’ can do…

Sometimes, a process design job is not all that grandiose, but it just plays people to their strength and is a beautiful combination of energies and intentions.

(photo credit: CTA)

(photo credit: CTA)

I just emerged a few weeks back from one of these experiences. And the beauty of that was the fact that this could have all gone down really badly hadn’t it been for a dedicated team, some good ideas in the process design, and a need to unite energies. All stars were aligned. Even better when it’s one of the swan songs of CTA and it’s nice to leave a collective signature that makes us all look back with joy at what just came out.

What was the job and what was special about?

Over the last 40 years, CTA has used a wide range of communication tools to reach out to rural communities, such as rural radio and printed media. It was no surprise that CTA organised this ‘Communicating ICT for Development Workshop‘ from 15 April to 7 May 2020 as one of the many workshops it has organised.

What was different? CTA is closing this year, after nearly 40 years of action to promote agricultural transformation in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific countries.

What was also special was that CTA was my first client ever as freelancer, with exactly the same team (Chris Addison and Chipo Msengezi),  and this job also brought me back to work with my former ILRI boss and (still) friend Peter Ballantyne, who himself knew Chris and Chipo very well. A funny coincidence, which wasn’t one.

And more prosaically, what was also special was that we didn’t have loads of time on our hands for quite a process to set up, contracting to do, all activities with quite some project folks and external communication specialists to rope in quickly.

The basic idea was to learn from four projects using Blockchain in agriculture, to understand what they were trying to achieve and how they would go about communicating their work, their blockchain experience, their results etc. Peer learning and sharing to distil some broad lessons learned for other people and organisations interested in using ICT applications (and in particular Blockchain), communicate it and scale their work up.

The choices we made

With only a few weeks to go before everything would be completed, we set out to organise three online meetings:

  1. A first two-hour meeting to get everyone together and for the project leader to learn from each other’s Blockchain experience, aspirations, questions etc. with communication specialists around to observe.
  2. A one-hour meeting to get everyone prepared to work in teams and get to the bottom of comms so as to understand what would seem as best comms options for the projects to communicate their work to their partners and intended audiences, and to communicate to potential investors that might be interested in scaling these projects up.
  3. Another two-hour meeting with everyone again to report back from the comms work and draw general insights about how to communicate ICT projects more effectively.

We went for Zoom as our video conferencing platform (mainly because of the breakout room functionality), and Google Drive as our folder structure to keep all presentations, notes, recordings etc. available for all involved. Simple.

And we planned a process design that would be quite simple:

  • Very short presentations (7 to 10 minutes)
  • Reflecting back, sometimes in breakouts, sometimes in plenary
  • Getting peer-assist type support via Liberating Structures’ Wise Crowds
  • In the final meeting we also had a bit of a scenario-based insight harvesting session.

Mixed with Zoom breakout rooms this was meant to be a simple but easy set up that would allow everyone to quickly interact, share insights etc.

And between the second and the last meeting the teams organised themselves to fill out a Powerpoint template to report back on the comms options that seemed useful steps forward. All in all, simple but quite effective.

The process as it unfolded

There was a smooth transition throughout:

  • The plenary work entailed very short presentations which helped keep everyone focused and engaged and find out more about technology, other projects and applications, about communicating ICT etc.;
  • The break out sessions kept everyone on their toes, thinking and sharing, learning, getting to know other people etc.;
  • The parallel team work to develop the comms options helped delve deeper and prepare everyone, despite limited time to do it all, and they reinforced the dynamics among team members, with perhaps a small element of positive competition.

We organised also another quick check-in among all teams in between meeting 2 and 3 to make sure everyone was on the same page and progressing well enough.

The result

Each project team – bar one that just couldn’t schedule more time for this, fair enough – gathered interesting feedback on their project pitch, on their comms options, on their possible ways forward.

The comms specialists were able to learn much more about Blockchain and garnered additional ideas for their media and channels.

A small network of people was able to engage and develop a budding bond that – who knows – might creatively flare up again in the future.

CTA managed to deliver all of this in very little time.

Although I certainly wouldn’t call our results spectacular, given the time we had and the level of high engagement required both in the meetings and in the team work, I am personally quite happy with our results.

Failing forward insights?

This experience taught me a few things:

  • No matter how rushed things might seem, it’s still possible to pull something together;
  • Trust among the organising members, and experience/expertise to let everyone play to their best strengths is the key to success;
  • Zoom breakouts remain an incredibly powerful and energising feature which, according to Chris “left me more energised after two hours of meeting than after many of the one-hour meetings I attend”;
  • The simple logic of helping each other unlocks so many insights so quickly. Wise Crowds was great to get everyone to receive insights in no time.

Next time around, I – and I think everyone in our group – would plan things ahead of time to get them properly planned, get even more people around and draw more extensive lessons that can be re-planted directly in appropriate networks.

But for something that started off two months ago, and finished after 3-4 weeks, this edition gave an ok song to the CTA swan, and proved once again that ‘in trust we trust’ 😉

New aspirations for new world, new me, new we, new then…

So that’s it, we didn’t leave this up to chance or change anymore, we pivoted and decided to give our next Liberating Structures immersion workshop totally online.

Join us at the online immersion workshop 6-9 July

Join us at the online immersion workshop 6-9 July

We had it coming. And things might change still over the next few weeks, but it’s really not likely that we can interact freely short distances away from each other come  July. So here we go for an online experience. So far the third (or fourth?) online immersion workshop of Liberating Structures only.

We will still focus on all the ‘social’ sub-worlds and domains in which our participants evolve, while keeping open to just about anyone. But in the process we’ll be bending the world of Liberating Structures to a few threads that seem to matter to us and could be a good fit for the people we hope will join us:

Acknowledging the new real, the new normal

Our first thread is to basically acknowledge that we are have indeed shifted our reality. We may not go back to the old reality, and both our environment, ourselves, our interactions have mutated and are forming up a different ‘normal’ that is still very much in mutation.

We’ll use Liberating Structures to accompany everyone on their journey to realising this and making the current reality a useful starting point for an exciting foray into the unknown and into promising new realities and opportunities too.

Finding ourselves and each other, online

So once we have acknowledged we have moved into another reality, let’s see where we are in it. Let’s gauge who we feel we are, what our next ‘me’ can look like. And despite the absence of hugs and the reality of physical distancing, let’s check in with each other and find  new ways to engage deeply and widely in this new reality.  Even if we are not eye-to-eye and face-to-face with everyone in this COVID19 world, we can find ways to be seen, heard, respected, appreciated, contributing, co-creating, trusting, guiding, coaching etc. I particularly look forward to this part of the journey. Liberating Structures have a lot to offer here too.

Multiplying our options

Now, realising that the new normal is here to stay is good, but even better is to leverage new opportunities that present themselves. There is just SOOOO MUCH out there that can be done by way of reinventing who we are, what we do, what we could do etc. And our creativity and energy and aspiration  and motivation are all set to be conjured up on this pathway. So let’s explore what we  can do alone, what we can do together, what we can do as new societies, how we can organise ourselves to to make tomorrow’s world a more humane, environmentally friendly, peaceful, open world.

From ecocycling our activities to dreaming out loud what our next moves can be and helping each other find out blind spots and hidden chances, Liberating Structures  offer many options to separate the wheat from the chaff…

Building our resilience

The final piece of this puzzle is at the core of Liberating Structures: how can we keep on adapting to shocks and change (as THAT is the new normal anyway) and embrace its mess, chaos, confusion and indeed destruction to shed our skin and keep a chance to reinvent ourselves perpetually? How can we better cope now and in the future, alone and collectively? We’ll explore the dynamics of personal and institutional change, of finding our balance and our ways to be more ‘complexity aware’ and ‘change-proof’ – not to prevent change from happening but rather to manoeuvre around it gracefully.

These threads might change. Even if they stick around, we may sharpen them. In any case some the ideas behind will motivate the design of this online immersion workshop. And all the while we’ll keep the structure simple.

I’m curious, as we are now diving into the deep end of that process design lake, and I hope you’ll splash with us in the lake!

Join us  online:

Get your ticket (the first 10 get a discount!)

The ambivalent curse of ‘being volunteered’

This is a rather common phenomenon in meetings – whether face-to-face or online for that matter:

An action point emerges, responsibilities are sought, no one directly jumps on it, eventually someone suggests one particular person to undertake that action; and usually, other people in the group mumble, nod or clap in agreement to that idea.

…obviously it doesn’t need to be so dramatic as this.

In our meeting context, what happens in our minds is rather:

  • Action assigned. Check! [Everyone is happy]
  • I’m out of the hook [most people think]!
  • Geez, I got caught (yet again?)! [thinks the freshly volunteered task-owner].

What is really happening? What are the implications?

Being volunteered is of course not very nice, as the image above shows. But beyond that obvious ‘missed opportunity’ of having said no etc., a number of things are actually playing out that make this volunteered business more ambivalent than it first seems at face value.

Volunteering to do what?

Anything, though the most typical tasks being delegated in a meeting are around taking notes, reporting, rapporteuring, sometimes chairing, sometimes time-keeping. Sometimes it’s about finishing a piece of work from the group after the meeting and I’ve witnessed in my life an occurrence or two when that was volunteered to people who were not even in the room!

Who gets volunteered?

Well, in my experience, typically, it’s younger people, and women. Add intersectionality to this and you would get young women being *very* likely to be volunteered. Except for chairing, when in many cases and groups it goes to the person with most chips on their shoulders, or more power as recognised by their peers, or more expertise in a given subject, or just because of patriarchal tradition it ends up being a senior guy. Not very process-literate if you ask me, as what you need is someone who fits the bill: someone with facilitation skills for chairing, someone with good writing for documenting, someone with good synthesis and public speaking skills for rapporteuring, and just anyone with a watch for time keeping…

Who volunteers others?

I have not documented this thoroughly but my (probably biased) perception is that it’s the photographic ‘negative’ picture of those chosen: the entitled, seemingly powerful, often white, men. They don’t have to be the most powerful but often they are quite comfortable in the group, don’t need to assert their authority, and feel, as a result, entitled to play around with others as if no one would question their natural good sense and extraordinary intelligence…

When no volunteer shows up

The scenario above is often made starker in break out groups when the group is instructed to find a volunteer to start with, and no one addresses that question at the start because it’s not a usual, nor pleasant conversation to have (despite how useful and important it is). What usually happens then is that at the end of the breakout time, in the rush of reporting back, the befuddled group tends to have its most entitled figure give the task to the least empowered person in the group. Sometimes it’s worse and everyone’s embarrassed not to have a volunteer and not to want to volunteer last minute either. That usually denotes a bad group dynamics meaning no one takes charge for either the process or the content.

What if being volunteered is being given power?

What people often don’t realise is that actually, taking notes, reporting back, chairing are all exercises of power. It can be so in a negative (corrupting) sense as you can hold the space and decide to slightly hijack peoples’ opinions to plant your own ideas and words and hope others in the group won’t stand up to your version of the facts. But it’s in a positive light also an exercise of collective power where you are holding a piece of your group’s process and reinforcing the trust and group’s collaborative muscle. So there comes some ambivalence: are you being tasked because you’re powerless or will you use this new power that is invested in you? Will you use it to your own advantage or to everyone’s?

Volunteering: the key to a better experience?

What most people don’t realise, is that instead of seeing volunteering as a drag, they should see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to be awake, active, engaged, present, listening, working with your group. You invest yourself in the gathering and as a result you tend to also emerge with a better experience of the gathering because you’ve partly made it yours. This is SOOO much better than coming to ‘consume’ an event. Especially if the event is not very participatory. So remember that most striking ambivalence: volunteering is a blessing disguised as a curse.

What should a facilitator do about this business of people being volunteered?

If you’re holding the space -whether online or face-to-face- for the entire group, what should you do? Watch it and let it be? Point to it and let it be? Intervene mildly to make it more ‘fair’? Downright assign volunteers on the spot? I don’t think there’s a readymade answer to this, it depends on your style and on the context. This is what my friends from Community At Work refer to as the ‘Accommodator to influencer continuum’. I tend to let groups deal with their own dynamics, but usually point to some of the aspects I’ve covered here, for them to be fully aware (and to build their process literacy).

What do you do in such situations, and why? What else do you see about this scenario I’m covering today?

What is sure, is that next time you are in a group that is looking for a volunteer, you know what to do in full awareness, and perhaps you decide to be that volunteer because you see the point of playing your part 🙂