Some introspection about what ‘Liberating Structures’ are to me, and a little more…

As we are getting prepared for the October Liberating Structures Festival, more people are wondering if they should come over, unsure as to what Liberating Structures (LS) are, what they might do for them etc.

So among organisers (us five here in the picture) we also decided to reflect on what LS mean, meant, might mean for us in the future. It is likely that all of us go through this introspective exercise sooner or later, hereby just my very own go at it,  in the spirit of sharing  our  inner  reflections…

What are Liberating Structures to you?

What are Liberating Structures? There’s different lenses I use to look at them.

The whole of what I’m going to say, combined, amounts to a strange artefact that seems to have a lot of power and yet I haven’t figured out most of what that power entails.

On one level, it’s a celebration of paradox and ambiguity, the idea of confusiasm (enthusiasm with confusion/being as happily confused as you can get, because that means you’re out of your square box) and embracing a lot of subtle elements of complexity (strange attractors, gradual then radical shifts in state/us etc.) and never just accepting to settle for the obvious, because the reality always displays more nuanced shades of grey (and colour).

On another level, it’s a structured approach to system change, and not only that but actually a very simple approach to it, in the sense that anyone can just ‘plug and play’ with LS without e.g. having 20 years of facilitation practice. On another level, it’s a very well thought-through set of facilitation and participation methods that enrich any facilitator’s practice, and offers them a depth of options and a strong invitation to stretch and adapt these very structures. I think the combination of all of the above is also what makes Liberating Structures a movement that is shaking small networks and large corporations in novel ways, adding spice and irreverence in the most unexpected ways. ‘LS inside’ is a near-guarantee of a fun and disruptive ride (and for a sharper focus and meaningful change though, not just for the sake of disrupting).

Can you share a short story of a time when you recently used them and something interesting happened? Why was that an important experience for you?

I mostly haven’t used LS in a strict/pure way as in the only reference and background to my facilitation practice in a given event, but I’ve meshed it in countless times, in fact nearly every time I facilitate I use at least one structure here or there and typically about 2-3 per day. Most recently I worked with a collective focusing on a complex development program in 10 countries and with 5 core partners and many alliances. They came together for their ‘country leads week’ whereby they invited the country coordinators to come and reflect on their work and make sure they don’t miss key opportunities going forward.

In the process design I ended peppering the agenda with a number of Structures. There was one particular session where the ‘owner’ was very ill-prepared and getting slightly anxious about getting it right. We discussed various options and I realised that there was a key issue preventing her team and the whole group from moving forward on this particular aspect (policy engagement) because of the relationships between global, regional and national teams.

After some conversation and exploration, we decided together to throw plans away and she accepted to give a try to ‘What I Need From You’. Something as simple as expressing what you need from others had just never been part of their conversation front and center. The session was in some way cathartic and the seed of a crucial change for the entire programme in cultivating relations, all the more so as they were getting focused on ‘Southern-led management/leadership’ for the next phase of the programme. 

What was interesting and important for me was how a step away from ‘what we have to do’ towards ‘who is in the room and what do they need from each other to develop a stronger ecosystem’ was both simple, complex, liberating, structured, and a peek into what is possible by stepping outside our routines. And it was all made possible with relatively little process ‘scaffolding’ (instructions etc.). It epitomises the power that comes with using these structures, sometimes out of necessity.

Using LS to explore our relationships and all these other things that matter beyond our immediate mission

Using LS to explore our relationships and all these other things that matter beyond our immediate mission

What’s an idea that’s been obliquely haunting you for a while? Something that seems just out of reach, elusive, or difficult to describe. Now’s your chance!

A couple of things come to mind in relation with Liberating Structures: power and difficult conversations, and sustainable outcomes. 

On power and difficult conversations, I’m still trying to understand how LS is really attempting at cracking down these informal power structures when so much remains under the surface – and the other part of that conversation with myself is in relation with the fact that many structures are relying heavily on sense-making in smaller units/groups, away from plenary moments, though the latter are still very important to ensure everyone is contributing to the same conversation. How to marry the luxury of smaller conversations and the necessity of consensual plenary moments remains a key point for attention. 

The other aspect is around sustainable outcomes and what happens to decisions and commitments made during any process that included LS. 15% solutions is an attempt at that, and I love it, but the question of how our energy remains sustained, how much we follow through with commitments we make in the space of a gathering (be it virtual or physical), how sure we are that what we have decided is understood, agreed upon and implemented, remains also a point of attention that is crucial in the way we conceive of collaboration and systemic change. How can we stretch existing Structures? How can we come up with new ones and enrich the DNA/structure of the Structures to have the opportunity to really encapsulate that dimension? 

This might just be one of the things we end up doing on our coddiwompling day at the Liberating Structures Festival.

Find out more about the LS festival in The Hague (7-11 October)

Get your tickets for it!

LS Festival (image credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Internalising facilitation in everyday life, in Africa and globally – an interview with Ed Rege (PICO Eastern Africa)

Ed Rege (Credits: unknown)

Ed Rege (Credits: unknown)

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Ed Rege (of PICO-Eastern Africa), an organizational development expert and a well-known facilitator in Africa and worldwide, and a former trainee of Sam Kaner. Ed also happens to be an ex ILRI-staff and not just any staff but a geneticist who rose to become the  leader of ILRI’s global Biotechnology Program. His story about using facilitation is fascinating and his plans are big. Here below is the interview…

What is your understanding of what facilitation does, or is helpful for:

The biggest challenge facing institutions these days is the inability for people to speak with each other constructively, meaningfully and productively. And yet stakeholder engagements are increasingly seen as a critical tool for working together, strategizing and problem-solving. This is complicated by the fact the globalizing world means increased multicultural stakeholder mixes which raise issues about ‘understanding each other’, ‘are we going together?’. Facilitation helps people do their best thinking while taking into account their differences so it’s a big deal, at family level, in teams, in institutions and across institutions in partnerships.

What has been your personal trajectory in the world of facilitation and how are you using that skill now?

I find facilitation such a powerful tool in almost all aspects of my work (leadership training, strategy development, project development and implementation processes, etc.), but also in my personal relationships with individuals and family. Indeed, facilitation is useful in all manners of communication where there’s a need to discuss openly without shying away from the fear of hurting each other, or being misunderstood.

I use facilitation in various situations to make sure that people productive interactions e.g. in a bar conversation, in a family discussion, in office meetings  etc. My trajectory has been to really popularize the use of facilitative skills in programs and organizations. In this regard we (PICO-EA) have had the opportunity to support various continental level processes.  My vision is to help create a large number of competent facilitators that can support development processes in the continent – and eventually a pan-African community of practice on process facilitation.

Ed Rege facilitating a meeting (Credits: ILRI)

Ed Rege facilitating a meeting (Credits: ILRI)

What do you notice as interesting trends (if any) in the world of facilitation?

First of all, the recognition that facilitation is not something you pick and do but you need real training in, and the recognition that people need it to the point that institutions are bringing in experienced facilitators and trainers.

Secondly, even though  you don’t need to be a content expert to support a process, it is increasingly clear that to be effective a facilitator needs to understand the key issues; one therefore needs to do some research in order to support meaningful conversations around issues. Good facilitators tend to be those that do that homework.


What are your plans in the future?

I have one big dream: that every institution, particularly in agriculture and rural development, have access to a facilitator physically and within their reach. We (PICO-Eastern Africa) are beginning to develop different kinds of facilitation training courses to make that happen. I would like, in the next five years, to be irrelevant – when we have a large enough number of good facilitators across the continent.  The focus is on developing a pool of very good facilitators, particularly focusing on Africa, and to have a forum where these people share ideas and learn – the Community of Practice.


What would you advise young wannabe facilitators?

I would advise them first that they ensure they do a good training to be introduced to fundamental facilitation skills and secondly that they internalize and use facilitation as a life skill; and to increasingly use that in an integrated way, as a ‘way of life’ e.g. the way you manage your team, the way you are with your friends, etc. and this way you are practicing and improving through just about everything you do! It becomes second nature so you don’t have to struggle in a facilitation situation.

They should look for a mentor, for a mentoring that helps them look up to and study those problems, co-facilitate etc. so it really speeds up their confidence over time.


Any other thing you’d like to mention?

I’m now convinced that facilitation should not be considered as ‘another’ profession. We say that communication skills are needed by everyone (even though we do have communication experts). That is the way I feel about facilitation. That is a realisation that I really now value. It doesn’t matter if you are an architect, medical doctor etc. If you are working with a facilitative person, you will feel it. And since it doesn’t cost too much to become a facilitator why not pick up the skills and make it a practice in your life?

Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes

Agile KM for me... and you?

Wearing my 'Suspend your judgment' suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB) Wearing my ‘Suspend your judgment’ suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

I can gladly say I am now one of the 4500 or so people that have been privileged to be formally trained by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at work on ‘Group facilitation skills – Putting participatory values into practice’. And it was a hell of an experience!

So what a fantastic opportunity for me to interview them on what they see as ‘facilitation’ and how they see it evolve, as well as the connections they see with knowledge management. 

No more word from me now, just enjoy… 

Do you see some fundamental trends in facilitation practice over the recent past?

Sam Kaner (SK) When “group facilitation” originated, it was one component in a deeper insight about the powerful role of face-to-face groups as a transformative medium for changing the culture of the organization or community.  The skills…

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