Wicked Questions, /confusiasm/ and diverse richness at their best

Wicked Questions is one of the original Liberating Structures.

It’s not as straightforward as 1-2-4-all

It’s not as directly productive as Troika Consulting or 25/10 Crowdsourcing

It’s not as deep and complex as Ecocycle Planning or Panarchy

It’s not as creative as Drawing Together, Improv Prototyping or Tiny Demons

So what is it?

Life, the wicked questions way

Wicked questions is a lens for life. And not just any lens: it is a confusiastic lens. A lens that invites the rich diversity of our myriads of ways of being and doing…

It builds upon the assumption that in complex work, there is no silver bullet, and putting all your eggs into one basket is the surest way to fail. Wicked Questions, instead, invites us to consider the paradoxes we are facing, however uncomfortable these make us.

So indeed it is actively enthusiastic about the confusion it may breed.

It puts us in front of our complexity, in front of our choices, and it encourages us to hold the confusion there. It does not rush us to a response, a solution. It asks us to pause and think, feel, acknowledge: our reality is richer in hues than we tend to admit to ourselves…

Why (and when) is it helpful?

Wicked Questions is logically a helpful reflex to get at the start of something, for a group to realise and process the complexity of its agenda or reality and of itself as a group.

As to why it is helpful, Wicked Questions addresses many issues:

  • It helps everyone understand the diversity of perspectives in the room. As such it’s a non-threatening way to introduce non dominant perspectives. I’m thinking here of the specific perspectives of e.g. women, youth (or elderly), specific ethnic groups, specific functional groups, partners (vs. project team) etc. etc.
  • It goes beyond that by quelling the either/or thinking to embrace more of a both/and approach that not only recognises but actually invites more diversity in the conversation, thus more ‘data’, more brainpower. Therefore, it potentially helps create more sustainable solutions
  • Already at an early stage, Wicked Questions helps be more creative by imagining more complex solutions based on more options…
  • In its very process, it reveals many other nuances that, even though they may not be factored in the top Wicked Questions here and now could prove helpful to channel further down the line
  • Individually, Wicked Questions invites us to bring our whole personality, rather than just one facet of ourselves (e.g. the manager in us, the worker/colleague rather than the person we are etc.
  • Perhaps most importantly, it gets us more confusiastic. As human beings, we tend to like putting things, ideas, people, in neatly labelled boxes. Wicked questions forces us to hold combining opposites, to withhold the confusion that this creates and to stretch our mental elasticity… This allows us to accept more easily the messiness of life, and of people. So it also helps us accept more confusion and frustration in dealing with each other
  • With this confusiasm, it brings in another creative feedback loop: our acceptance of confusion makes us more likely to go beyond business as usual and beyond our first-draft ideas. It helps us rack our brains together and imagine even bolder, more daring, ambitious, off-the-wall, downright insane ideas that could be the next game-changer…
  • Finally, in holding that diversity and stretching the limits of our patience and tolerance for confusion, Wicked Questions even holds an element of relationship and community building. If I am able to see the importance of an opposed view point, I can value the inputs of anyone else in the group and appreciate their contribution to making our collective work more robust…

Doesn’t it feel inviting enough to use Wicked Questions then?

How does it work?

Actually, I don’t find Wicked Questions a very graceful structure.

It always feels a bit clunky and leaves me wanting for more, but for whatever it’s worth, here are the standard steps…

  • Introduce the concept of Wicked Questions and give a few examples e.g. “How is it that we want our conversations to be liberated from conventions and simultaneously we want to make sure we introduce structure in our conversations to make them productive?” (5 minutes)
  • Individually:
    • List all the activities that you do or realities of your work (5 minutes). In the original instructions this step is skipped
    • Identify in your list some activities or realities that seem to be opposed or in paradox and alone formulate a Wicked Question in the form of “How is it that… And at the same time…” (5 minutes)
  • In groups: sharpen the Wicked Questions and select the most wicked questions of them all (if focusing on collective Wicked Questions) (5 minutes)
  • All together: Share your best Wicked Questions in plenary, agree on the most Wicked Question and further refine it/them (10 minutes). The idea at that stage is to discuss, compare, sharpen the questions to make them perfectly wicked.

Notes from my practice – how to make Wicked Questions work even better?

Embracing paradox isn’t easy, that’s why Wicked Questions don’t always come easy, especially the first time around. So here’s a couple of tips that could help make the process easier and more effective, based on my own observations:

  • When listing realities / activities / intentions, either restrict yourself to one of these (indeed choose either realities, activities, intentions, attributes) OR when getting items into paradoxical pairs, pair up similar types of items. e.g. pairing intentions ‘How is it that we want to help everyone individually to become more comfortable at voicing their opinions and at the same time we want to help groups thrive as self-facilitating and collective-focused groups’ . Although I realise that this might be constraining too much, but perhaps for a first attempt it may prove handy?
  • Spend more time in helping each other refine the questions and make them wicked – this could be made even more helpful by introducing a prior step of ‘helping heuristics’ to help everyone find their preferred style of receiving help/advice and of giving it. You can find other ways to combine it with other structures following this post by the Liberators.
  • Revisit the Wicked Questions you selected as ‘most wicked’, even during the same workshop/session. It’s a way to test out whether we have already reached the optimal level of ‘wickedness’ or we can bring in some more… The Agile process applied to WQ!

Now you just have to try it and apply it in your work!

My friend Nadia already offered some very concrete ideas about this.

And for that matter, when it comes to trying, you can put both feet in the same direction 😉 Or perhaps you prefer to ponder this Wicked Question at this stage: “How is it that I am keen on releasing the power of paradoxes with Wicked Questions and at the same time I am afraid of being overwhelmed with paradoxes?”.

The LS gospel (based on principles) would say: “believe it before you see it”.

Fear not, jump and happily fail forward, we have many more (interesting) paradoxes to deal with further down the line! And you’ll see that we already embrace Wicked Questions in many aspects of our life and work 😉

And if you want to experience it first-hand with some help, join our Liberating Structures Immersion workshop (June 14-15, July 5-6)

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The why, what and how of ‘9 why’s’

When not to partner, when not collaborate? (Drawing credit: Olivier Cornelissen / ILRI)

Whenever you can do something alone, without anyone’s help, just indulge yourself.

No need to embarrass yourself with collaboration. As the saying goes: “want to go fast? Go alone”. Because collaboration takes time. It’s not a ‘need to have’; collaboration is rather something that is unavoidable for high stake and/or high complexity issues.

But whether you go the lone wolf way or the collaborative way, one thing you can’t afford to miss is ‘why’ you’re doing this.

Well, actually you can spare yourself that trouble. Just that you may be wasting your time.

So why are we doing certain things? Why are we doing this activity? Why are we working in that position? Why do we like what we do (or not)? Why does it feel like what we’re supposed to do?

These are all good questions. And the reason why we all deserve to ask ourselves about the 9 why’s every so often. Asking ourselves why is generally a good idea

9 Why’s is a specific methodology from the Liberating Structures (LS) repertoire.

Why 9 Why’s?

If you consider that the single most cited mistake (in the Workshops work podcast of Myriam Hadnes) made about meetings and workshops is that they don’t have a clear purpose, 9 Why’s aims precisely at clarifying what purpose lay ahead of you. It follows the Simon Sinek’s gospel of ‘start with why‘.

I don’t think there’s any simpler way to lay this out… What makes sense?

What is 9 Why’s looking into?

9 Why’s doesn’t settle with asking why once indeed. It doesn’t have to ask precisely 9 times ‘why’, but the point the microstructure is trying to make is to get to the bedrock of our purpose.

It could be our collective purpose – and 9 Why’s can be an syncretic message combining various individual takes on the collective purpose.

It could be our individual purpose.

It could be as our personal or collective mission statement, or it could be what is motivating a one-off activity etc.

How to run 9 Why’s (originally) and what is not always working so well about it

These are the standard steps from 9 why’s in the original LS gospel:

  • Individually, list what activities you are spending time on (2-5 minutes)
  • Interview each other for 5 minutes each, starting with ‘what are you working on?’ and asking ‘why is that important for you’
  • Switch between interviewer and interviewee after 5 minutes
  • While interviewing, take notes about what the interviewee says that matters to them (“Take notes for your partner – capturing and documenting important statements, phrases, fragments, or words that might help them compose a description of their purpose”)
  • Begin writing your purpose statement e.g. ‘my work exists in order to…’, using inspiration from the fragments captured by your interviewer
  • Potentially mix pairs into a quartet to share statements and/or important insights that
  • Invite the whole group to reflect on ‘how do our purposes influence the next steps we take’ for 5 minutes.

The intention of 9 Why’s is wonderful.

The practice of doing it is, however, rather irritating.

Indeed after a rather short while it becomes really annoying to keep hearing ‘but why does this matter to you?’. Even more so to just keep hearing ‘why?’

Repeatedly asking ‘why’ tends to put people on the defensive. Indeed it feels like they have to defend the reasons that motivate their actions and at the same time it makes them feel like they haven’t thought it through. No one likes to be put in a negative light.

On the interviewer part there is a risk of transforming into an inquisitor that is tormenting the interviewee, rather than supporting them.

And finally, another limitation is that the structure may pan out differently if you focus on a personal / individual purpose or if you are asking people to define their collective purpose…

How to run 9 Why’s more effectively?

If working alone (e.g. on your purpose statement):

  • Individually (3-5 minutes)
    • List the immediate purpose(s) coming to mind about what you do
    • Also list activities that describe your work
    • Feel free to add your own meta commentary about what gives you energy in doing this
  • Interview each other (5 minutes)
    • Hear first the bits and bobs that the interviewee has noted down for themselves and what their immediate purpose seems to be
    • Ask them their 9 why’s by using a variety of sentences and tactics e.g.”
      • What for?
      • Because…?
      • Tell me more…
      • And the next step here is?
      • What is your ultimate goal with that?
      • Is that the rock bottom of it?
      • When everything is said and done…
      • And the gist of this is…?
      • And this is significant in the sense of…?
      • Is that contributing to something even more important?
      • You may also beat around the bush with ‘What if…’?
  • Switch roles following the same process (5 minutes)
  • Share your fragments, notes etc. with the interviewee and each compose your own purpose statement (5 minutes)
    • If time allows, offer your own purpose statement to the interviewee, from the best of your understanding and synthesis capability
  • Challenge each other to come up with a statement that feels like the most complete (5 minutes) and if this doesn’t feel sufficient, re-do the 9 Why’s from the place you landed with at the end of the previous iteration.

If working on a common purpose:

  • Individually (3-5 minutes)
    • List the immediate purpose(s) coming to mind about what you are collectively trying to do
    • Also list activities that describe that collective work
    • Write all of these on different post-its or virtual notes
  • Interview each other (5 minutes)
    • Hear first the bits and bobs that the interviewee has noted down for themselves and what their immediate purpose seems to be, and stay with them until they feel complete with their 9 why’s
    • When you feel they’ve exhausted their first draft thinking, ask them about their 9 why’s endorsing a complete supporter role, and using a variety of sentences e.g.
      • What for?
      • Because…?
      • Tell me more…
      • And the next step here is?
      • What is your ultimate goal with that?
      • Is that the rock bottom of it?
      • When everything is said and done…
      • And the gist of this is…?
      • And this is significant in the sense of…?
      • Is that contributing to something even more important?
      • You may also beat around the bush with ‘What if…’?
  • Switch roles following the same process (5 minutes)
  • Share your fragments, notes etc. with the interviewee and try to compose a purpose statement that emerges from your pair (5 minutes)
  • As a pair, meet another pair to form a quartet to discuss your purpose statements and to compare the nuances. the fragments you used and discarded etc. (5-8 minutes)
  • As a whole group, hear the different purpose statements, meta-plan/organise all your listed activities/purposes on the wall, and if needed and possible come up with one general purpose statement for the group, building upon the collective statements, fragments and ‘debris’ that are there… or delegate some people to do the next 8 Why’s based on all the contributions of everyone?

A final tip, in order to make this even more effective, you might want to run ‘helping heuristics‘ to identify what is your preferred heuristic to help and to being helped…

Just give it a try, and find out how meaningful, liberating and extraordinary it is to hit the true purpose of what you/we are trying to do and achieve! Perhaps, like me, you will get to see 8 Why’s as not just a method, but a go-to lens that precedes a lot of good things…

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea

(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

A reflection, a self-disclosure, and an invitation…

🫵🏼 My Monday reflection, clarification and Invitation 😝…

Join the revolution of facilitated collaborations!

Before I proceed with the invitation, a quick *reflection* and a sort of self-disclosure *clarification*:

The reflection 🤔

————–

FINALLY, people are really waking up to the power of #facilitation. Between the boom in ‘facilitator communities’ #NDB [https://neverdonebefore.org/] being one of my absolute favourites), the recognition of the need for these skills, the multiplication of books and other resources about it online and analogue, the discourse of people around me is really changing towards appreciating and investing in the value of facilitation. It’s one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic which had us face big questions about our collaborations when we all had to learn to structurally move these online (I blogged about this here).

The clarification ⭐

—————-

So here is the self-disclosure piece before really getting on to my invitation:

People might see me as a ‘Liberating Structures’ practitioner and only that. It’s not true. I actually borrow from various ideas and approaches (particularly Community At Work / Sam Kaner’s school of participatory decision-making) but also a bit from the art of hosting, Deep democracy and the various bits and bobs I’ve gleaned along the way observing the giants in that field.

👉🏽 But the reason why I keep banging about #liberatingstructures (LS) is that it’s really an incredible repertoire that helps you shake your collaboration, communication, engagement, leadership etc. in various ways, even your personal life (as I posted last week).

LS don’t require 10 years of facilitation experience to pay off. They are plug and play and they transform the way we think, talk and work together. And they are very versatile. I mean, it’s a no-brainer to invest in them and the return is manifold, also because they bring a much deeper transformation than just using another toolbox.

The invitation 🫴🏼

————–  

So here is my invitation: get curious, read about LS (on the LS Slack group, on the LS website, in local communities) but even more so, practice with them, explore them, immerse yourself in them. Join the many organisations that have tried it and have been changed forever. Only with my partners Nadia and Ruben we have brought it to the The Global Water Partnership (GWP), the University of Utrecht, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, ResultsinHealth, Amideast, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and other CGIAR centres and programmes, World Wide Fund (WWF), Feedback Training & Consulting, and obviously in less overt ways in pretty much all the events and collaboration processes I’m involved in.

💡 The best way to get a good hang of it?

And the best of it? After the training, we are personally happy to help you in myriads of ways to keep the fire going.

🪄 It’s time to liberate our structures, structure our liberation and give this magic a shot. Join the cruise!

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Structuring our everyday liberation, because facilitation magic is not just for the workplace

It often feels invasive, particularly to the close relatives and friends of facilitators, to see facilitation ‘stuff’ (exercises, lenses, props) being applied to personal, private, moments.

It’s a pity really, because facilitation is a life skill. And it is magical too. It helps us improve our own and our bilateral or group communication, our empathy, our patience with silence, our staying focused on the other party and listening intently, our ability to build on each other’s point etc.

And on top of all of that, there’s the actual facilitation ‘exercises’ or structures or participation formats that can really help for ourselves (alone) and for our chats with other people, whether bilaterally or in larger groups.

Let’s take Liberating Structures and look at many ways that they prove handy in everyday life:

Liberating Structures - LS in Development

Individually:

  • Get some answers about what feels stuck and what feels like it’s not moving fast enough with Ecocycle Planning – oh and you could even review your relationships through that lens 😉
  • Think about what really matters for: your travel list, what you hope to get out of everyday, principles of parenting, conditions for saving money or investing, the criteria that matter to find a romantic partner, this new project starting… I mean, with Min Specs, the possibilities of applying this ‘bare essentials’ approach are nearly endless!
  • Face your own demons and de-dramatise how they play up in your mind with ‘tiny monsters/demons
  • Embrace paradoxes rather than function in simplistic ‘THIS OR THAT’ mode with Wicked Questions
  • Imagine the future and find resilient ways of dealing with the risk and uncertainty with Critical Uncertainties
  • Etc.

Bilaterally:

  • Hear the unfortunate moments of not feeling respected, and get an opportunity to understand, and explore together how to prevent these moments from happening with Heard Seen Respected
  • Find out what your preferred way of being listened to or listening to is with ‘helping heuristics
  • Approach any question with a creative visual through Drawing together
  • Help each other find out what is the rock solid foundation of something that has true meaning for you with 9 why’s
  • Etc.

And on that note, Myriam Hadnes had already shared on LinkedIn how she could use Liberating Structures to go on a date.

In groups of 3 or more:

  • Find and offer help to each other’s daily or more complicated problems with Troika Consulting
  • Understand how you can do things with each other better (say in how your organise your family chores, how your group of friends is going to prepare for this trip or birthday party together, how your scouting association or book reading club is getting projects on the go) with ‘What I need from you (WINFY)’
  • Realise together, before it’s too late, what toxic behaviours you and your relatives / friends / neighbours / sports mates are occasionally guilty of and what to do about it with TRIZ
  • Share a lot of stuff with a lot of people in relatively little time and with a lot of dynamics and energy using Shift & Share – this could be handy for a local fair you organise, or even virtually with a group of friends that hasn’t been together for a while etc.
  • Etc.

And all of these are combinable, and then some more!!

So what are we waiting for?

Indeed, I would really advise everyone and anyone to explore Liberating Structures, and facilitation more broadly. You will find a wealth of life hacks and ideas to live a healthy, productive, successful, fun life!

Are you interested to find out more about Liberating Structures, get a proper feel for them, understand more deeply how they work and how they could transform your life?

Come join us at this upcoming immersion workshop 3-4 + 24-25 November (online)

And we get to meet each other and open up our little backpack of magic together!

Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Heard, Seen, Respected

(It’s been now seven years that I’ve been actively and 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).

Heard Seen Respected

Today is a bit of an exception in this series, because Heard Seen Respected is not among the most obscure structures, but it may not get the visibility that it deserves because it’s one of the most emotional structures in the LS repertoire. Perhaps because of that, it’s also one of my favourite structures.

What is the purpose of Heard Seen Respected?

It happens to everyone to, every once in a while, feel either not heard, seen and/or respected. It’s so commonplace it’s actually mind-boggling. It also shows there’s a long way before we share more of what is going on in our life.

Heard Seen Respected (aka ‘HSR’) is there to:

  • Help people share these moments with one another and thereby a) just acknowledge what happened b) lighten their heart (“a problem shared is a problem halved”), c) process their grief
  • By doing that, focus on what is brewing inside of us before getting on with fixing, solving, acting. That is a crucial prerequisite
  • Understand what were, and what could be generic, factors that made these unfortunate moments happen
  • Realise how common place such experiences are
  • Analyse how we can avoid these situations in the future, for ourselves and others in similar situations
  • Potentially find solutions and even a catharsis for these moments
  • Invite emotions in our reflections, mobilise the ‘memory of our body’ in that process
  • Stimulate our deep listening to each other, and our empathy
  • Develop, stimulate, enable a culture of emotional feedback as a whole
  • Ritualise and normalise moments of acknowledging, sharing and processing these feelings
  • The LS website also indicates ‘help managers discern when listening is more effective than trying to solve a problem’

How does it work?

There are variations of it – one version is offered below, from the LS website – but essentially they all involve a pair and the following steps:

  • A short time telling a story of when you were NOT heard, seen or respected (about 5 to 7 minutes for each person)
    • When listening, practicing quiet presence (listening, not responding, possibly asking non-directive open-ended questions to draw the storyteller out)
    • When talking, selecting a story that is not the hardest and focusing on the facts, not on blaming the situation or other people
  • An optional, but very useful 5-minute step, of revealing what it felt like to recount that story, and to listen to it…
  • An even shorter time (3-4 minutes, or larger in a larger group as below) debriefing what happened and ideas we have to prevent more of these stories from happening…

The steps are summarised below

So this structure is incredibly easy to set up…

Read more about this structure on the Liberating Structures website.

Who could really benefit from it?

This is the thing: pretty much ANYBODY can benefit from it. Regardless of age, sex, ethnic group, geography, function. Whether at work or in (personal) life. Obviously, the more privileged the less it may be necessary but even white-haired white men can benefit from a moment of disclosure on the pains of their past.

We ALL feel invalidated, and almost rejected at times. Yet rejection is one of the deepest fears we have as human beings. HSR is helping everyone unpack that experience.

Beyond this universal value, in places of conflict or tensions between ‘groups’, Heard Seen Respected adds even more value by giving texture to the lived experience of each other. But even in places where seemingly no conflict arises, there are always mental frontiers and places of rejection. In a former organisation I worked for, the same HSR session helped two colleagues deeply apologise to each other, and revealed in stark contrast, and tears, the experience of one person from a different origin than the majority. HSR is deep, much like the whole Liberating Structures repertoire…

HSR, one of the most deeply liberating LS structures? (Image credit: Michael Nir)

What is liberating about it?

Like many LS, Heard Seen Respected is brought about by a very simple means: a couple of stories that are exchanged by two people. And indeed that simple step helps us trespass into another deeper, meaningful, heavy and yet hopeful dimension: the land of invisible scars.

HSR is liberating because:

  • Our pains become fears, and naming our fears diminishes their power – following the same logic as with ‘Tiny Demons’, another LS which I will explore here at a later stage…
  • Re-living that experience is helping us not flee from the pain but inhabit it, live it, feel and sense it again, without the emotional charge of being in it. It helps us activate our brain to analyse it also, and it may bring about different emotions again…
  • The forced ‘listening’ which is present in many LS is helping us get present, focused, attentive, intentional, supportive, empathetic. In the fast-paced world of social media antechambers we need to regain that attention, that slow pace and space that is the soil for trust, bonding, collaboration
  • The empathy that it develops is particularly crucial here;
  • It brings us to reflect together, co-solving the conditions that lead us to these moments of not respecting each other;
  • As the last reason exposed above, it helps us understand once again more deeply that fixing problems is sometimes not the way to go. That instead we have to acknowledge the pain, the suffering, the situation of somebody else before we can have a rational conversation together. And that that acknowledgement is probably overdue in many cases, because we tend to jump the guns and race to action and business, when our bodies, minds and souls are sometimes not even capable of getting in motion…
  • And last but not least, the shared experience of zooming in through our suffering history brings us closer together, it heals, melds and reveals relationships, and that is also the key to future liberation…

How to stretch the structure further?

There are various strings that can naturally incorporate Heard Seen Respected:

The applications are nearly infinite with HSR, but here are a few just thinking out loud here and now:

For managers and subordinates that want to hear from each other how they are not being helpful to each other.

For groups that have gone through a crisis or a major challenging moment, a big reform, a collective trauma, a pandemic etc.

For teams that want to improve the quality of their communication (the ‘tuning’ part of STAR).

For multi-stakeholder collaboratives that need to build stronger empathy and understanding of the different (groups of) people involved.

As part of a retrospective, after-action-review, assessment or evaluation.

For anyone keen on improving their empathy, social intelligence, communication…

The website also offers this daring variation: To bravely replace ‘HSR’ with ‘Loved’ 😉

At any rate, give it a try, and see for yourself 😉

This may be a unique Liberating Structure, and it’s nuclear power in bubble of speech…

Want to find out about HSR and Liberating Structures at large? Come join our immersion workshop in November!

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Get a real, deep, dynamic hang on what you do and who with through *Ecocycle planning*

Ecocycle Planning‘ is one of my absolute favourite structures from the Liberating Structures repertoire.

What is it?

Ecocycle planning is a structure that gives you a peek at your activities and/or relationships, mapped onto an ecocycle (the graph you see below). It helps you understand where each of these activities or relationships is in its own lifecycle. Looking at the whole picture gives you a hint at what you might want to rethink, push forward, invest int, let go of etc.

Ecocycle Planning | Liberating Structures | Cycle de développement, Planning  vierge, Les déterminants
Ecocycle planning: deeply helpful, dynamic, conversational… and so much more!

Why is it such a hit for me?

Maybe it’s because it’s deeply helpful: Ecocycle planning is a ‘what-so what-now what’ about your activities or relationships bundled in a dense but done as a very neat and visual exercise… and then it reveals many insights: about individual activities (or relationships), about your whole portfolio, about decisions you are not making, about the risks associated with doing ‘business as usual’, about what you could/should seriously invest in, and what you could/should let go of. About what you might want to move forward with. Combined with panarchy it reveals a whole new world about how innovation and transformation comes about and how agency in one sphere is connected to deeper, more systemic change in related spheres or levels.

Understanding what relationships/activities are – the conversation is rich (photo credit: O. Cornelissen / ILRI)

Maybe it’s because it’s dynamic: we tend to think of our work in rather static terms. Like things are set and don’t evolve. But it’s anything but true: In fact all activities and relationships are going through their own lifecycle, and ecocycle planning helps us see the direction some of these are taking, or should be taking. It’s also dynamic as it helps us realise where we want to see more direction, speed, change and how to put our intentionality into moving things in the right direction.

Maybe it’s because it is a great conversation tool: Like a theory of change or a strategy, it’s not so much the end result (the ecocycle plan) that you end up with that matters, but the conversation about how everyone in the group sees things and makes sense of the collective journey. It’s the collection of points of view, the agreements and overlaps, and the differences and outliers that reveal the richness of your activities and/or relations. And sometimes it’s just like the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ (as on the illustration here): different people will have a different take on what the same relation or activity looks like, because they look at it from a different vantage point.

How does it work?

The ecocycle planning framework is structured in four areas (and two traps): birth, maturity, rigidity trap, creative destruction, renewal, poverty trap.

You start ecocycle planning by first listing all activities (or relationships) that matter, numbering them, and when you have your list ready (with probably a manageable list of about 7 to 40 items, though there’s strictly no lower or upper limit), you place them where you think they fit on the ecocycle.

When that is done, you analyse the ecocycle – alone or indeed preferably together with whoever has that list of activities or relationships in common with you. You both analyse the placement of individual activities, of the entire portfolio, you inspect the patterns that emerge, the risks and opportunities that you see stand out, the actions that might need to be taken. You confront differences of view with your peers, and try to come to an agreement on what fits where, and possibly document that conversation for future reference, as ecocycle planning gains from being revisited over time.

But then doing ecocycle planning for the first time does not quite feel natural or easy. It’s a lot to swallow at once. It’s often confusing to feel what each phase really means. So a little journey through it comes in handy…

Walking through the ecocycle to get a feel for it.

The first time I was ‘formally’ introduced to ecocycle planning, it was face-to-face, with Fisher Qua and Anna Jackson, and we did a physical walk (backwards, walking behind) through an ecocycle made of a rope on the ground. At the time I thought the idea a bit quirky but worth a try in the ‘yes and’ spirit, but didn’t quite see the deeper point behind, other than that it was fun to do!

And only recently it became more obvious to me that there is value in getting a real feel for it, not just going through the motion of the ecocycle, but seeing this as the eternal recommencing journey that it is. So let’s walk this through together and see what we come across… And let’s take the example of activities here, though a very similar logic applies for relationships.

If you start your journey at ‘birth‘ you have basically started all the activities that are in that quadrant. They may be more or less advanced. They may have just started (they’re right at the beginning of birth, right under the poverty trap which we’ll come back to later)… But they have started, they are being implemented, they’re happening. They may be good or bad activities, helpful or not, but they’re a concrete thing now.

As these activities are getting more stable, experienced, they progressively move towards the ‘maturity‘ phase. When they reach full maturity, these activities are the ‘bread and butter’ activities, the daily activities that matter and show that you have developed some mastery at one/several thing/s. They are what people recognise you and come to you for. These activities become the staple of your work, perhaps the main source of income or the main time investment for you. They’re the bulk of the work, and usually what you are mostly – sometimes indeed solely – focusing on.

But as you keep changing, and your context with you, some of these mature activities prove perhaps less relevant. They may become a bit of a burden, a series of pans tied to your ankle that prevent you from walking gracefully towards more important or more exciting matters. Perhaps these activities are no longer needed. Perhaps you have lost interest in them. Perhaps someone else can do them better. Perhaps none of the above, but there is something else that you should keep busy with and keeping these ‘mature activities’ prevents you from investing in these other activities.

That’s when you hit the ‘rigidity trap‘. You are stuck in a place where you just can’t let go of some activities. You may have known all along that you should dump them, or you may discover this starkly for the first time when analysing your ecocycle, but in any case the rigidity trap tells you that there are activities that need to be discontinued – at least the way they have been carried until now. It’s time to take one decision… to symbolically kill your darlings and make space for what really matters.

Create Focus With Ecocycle Planning - Business 2 Community
Ecocycle planning in action – with the typical functions involved (entrepreneur, manager, heretic, networker (photo credit: Nancy White)

If you dare taking that decision, you are in the ‘creative destruction‘ area. Here, you have made the step of accepting that some of your ‘business as usual’ is no longer so relevant. And you need to either stop it entirely, or modify parts of it (how it’s done, who does it, why it’s done etc.). The word ‘destruction’ may make you think that this is radical but it doesn’t need to be. A typical example of creative destruction that I often witness is the annual report that companies have to produce, and every so often need to modify to keep it fresh and interesting. The annual report as a standard (annual / perennial) activity remains, but the way it’s done is different. The process of creative destruction is sometimes long and chaotic, and is often confusing. You first need to draw lessons, to identify the wheat from the chaff, and to decide what needs to be adapted, or entirely abandoned.

As you progress in that thinking, you slowly but surely get into the ‘renewal‘ phase where your ideas are crystallising and gelling into something entirely new, or modified, compared to its previous avatar. It’s the moment of conceptualising what might become a new or next activity. The closer you get (physically, on the ecocycle) from the ‘poverty trap’, the more clearly conceptualised the activity is. At some point, you know exactly what your next activity should be like, all the ins and outs. You just haven’t launched it yet. But you’re ready. And maybe in this renewal area you have a whole bunch of ideas at different maturing stages. That tells you something about how creative you are, but also at how much of a ‘plant’ or scientist you might be – staying the conceptual world – as opposed to an entrepreneur that makes an idea come off the ground.

What separates you from the birth of a new activity is the ‘poverty trap‘. The stage that delineates the decision between – as Sam Kaner et al. would have it – “the world of ideas” and “the world of actions”. We all have many ideas that never see the light. For a variety of reasons: no money, no time, no capacity (qualitatively, so the actual knowledge, skills and capabilities), no approval or authorisation etc. It takes courage, skills and some resources to turn an idea into an effective activity. That said, there’s no problem either to have lots of ‘ideas of activities’ in the renewal area. You let it simmer. Gently does it. At some point you’ll be able to invest in one, or some, or all of these ideas. Until that time, keep stirring 😉

And when you get over the poverty hurdle, you start another cycle, with ‘birth’.

It’s a beautiful, and wonderful journey across this ecocycle… And once you embrace it, it becomes a fundamental part of how you see what you do and who you engage with, at work and/or in life. It’s an incredible epiphany.

What have you noticed yourself, using Ecocycle Planning? Where does your curiosity go with it, regardless of whether you have experience with it? And what are you waiting for to give it a go?

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Enjoy a simpler life with ‘Min Specs’, the “Marie Kondo of Liberating Structures”

Aah… What delight there is in simplicity!

And yet it’s the most difficult thing, isn’t it?

To quote a few very well-known voices from the past:

“The art of publicity is a puzzle of complexity”

(Doug Horton)

“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful.”

(Marie Kondo)

So yes, there’s that: all that clutter that stands in the way. And while Marie Kondo has made it her mission to physically declutter your house, another tiny revolution in the making is there at your doorstep to de-clutter pretty much any area of your work, or life even. And it’s all there, unpretentious, ridiculously easy to understand, and ready for the plucking and enjoying. Its intriguing name is ‘Min Specs’.

What is ‘Min Specs’ and how does it work?

Minimum Specifications is one of the original 33 Liberating Structures and it offers a wonderful way through complexity: keep it simple stupid, declutter away, focus on your non-negotiables!

How does it work?

Whether you work alone or in groups, the idea is the same: with Min Specs, you look at one ‘thing’ (an issue, an object, a service, a concept) and first list the ‘maximum specifications’, ie. all the features – or specifications / specs – that in the ideal world you’d love to see being part of that thing.

Whether it’s technical specifications for a piece of software or manufactured good, conditions for a project (or team, or trip etc.), characteristics you’re looking for in a job, or principles for pretty much anything, Min Specs always starts with that big listing.

And then comes the piece of magic that is actually one of the deep lenses of Liberating Structures: get rid of whatever stands in the way of what you really need.

So the second step of Min Specs, once you’ve worked your way through your big list, is to go through that list again and relentlessly inspect every item you have on your max specs and wonder: “If I violate/don’t keep this particular item (or ‘spec’), will I/we still achieve the overall goal?”. If you answer yes to any of these specs, they should disappear from your list.

Whatever is left is your set of essentials, ie. your list of Min Specs, the few (ideally 3 to 5) non-negotiable specs that really have to be present.

Of course, it may not be perfect and the practice might show some gaps and improvables, but at least you’ve got a nimble plan to get going with, and that makes it easier to review too.

How does Min Specs work deeply on you?

Try using Min Specs a few times, and you’ll notice the DNA of that single structure is slowly seeping into you. Indeed, like its dedicated mushroom illustration, Min Specs grows in the dark and keeps on replicating itself in every department of your work and life, because it’s that essential.

And you may start seeing really endless applications for it.

I’ve used it myself e.g. to:

  • Decide what are ways for me and some colleagues to work together and respect each other in that collaboration;
  • Structure a report with the most essential chapters/sections;
  • Organise the types of notes (content, process, follow up etc.) I want to keep track of during a meeting;
  • Decide what to keep and what to chuck away on my desk to have an inspiring desk and office (so the real Marie Kondo);
  • Filter out the points that should be part of every ongoing check-in meeting within a client organisation;
  • Think about how I want to spend every single day of my life, following a few simple principles;
  • Look at essential aspects that I want to guarantee for the education of my children, together with my ex-wife;
  • Develop my absolute bucket list of countries that one day I would like to visit…

So as you can see the possibilities are rather open, or even endless…

And then Min Specs stops being just a ‘structure’ and it starts being almost a principle of life. Min Specs almost becomes one of your own life’s Min Specs.

And as happens so often, you also start seeing feedback loops and reverberating effects of the LS repertoire. The Min Specs spirit is nested within Ecocycle Planning and within 9 Whys, it’s meshed in with WINFY or 25/10 Crowdsourcing, and it finds natural connections with e.g. Wicked Questions, What So What Now What etc.

So here’s an invitation to explore this little, simple, yet deep and powerful structure to start decluttering your life and work.

And in the process we can give a bow out to Marie Kondo for helping us appreciate what we’ve known all along:

…that Less is More…

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Read other posts about Liberating Structures on this blog, including a set of posts about ‘Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens)

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?

Stretch
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?)?

Otherwise…

  • 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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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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Multiple facets of Liberating Structures: interview snippets with Anna Jackson

In preparation for the upcoming Liberating Structures festival, we (organisers) have been interviewing each other to hear each other’s impressions on what Liberating structures mean to us, the groups around us etc.

I had the privilege of interviewing Alpinista Consulting delightful diva Anna Jackson  and we brushed over a number of topics. Find four small interviews covering:

  1. Getting started (and changed with Liberating Structures [LS])
  2. How vital it is to work with other people using LS
  3. Overcoming resistance to LS (and other seriously playful approaches, arguably)
  4. Changing our approach to LS over time, how our focus may change to specific elements

Better still: come meet Anna (and Fisher, Nadia and myself) at the LS festival 7-9 October in The Hague, The Netherlands (register here)!

Here for the interviews:

See more interviews from our team (and more to come still) – Nadia interviews Fisher:

Find out more about the Liberating Structures Festival: https://liberatingstructures.eu/the-hague-ls-festival/

Register for the Liberating Structures Festival: https://liberating-structures-the-hague-festival.eventbrite.com/