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?

Related stories:

Time for comfort HERE and NOW – Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (2/4)

In the previous post about ‘time’, I covered the topic of time as a driver of process design. In this second post, I want to look at time as ‘the measure towards creating a comfortable space to reveal ourselves’ on the spur of the moment.

Time is perhaps the most uncomfortable unavoidable element of our life. Ditto with time at work and in our engagements and interactions…

We constantly clash against time, in the spur of the action: not enough time to chat, not enough time to hear everyone, not enough time to fully explore a topic, not enough time to get to conclusive statements, not enough time to take a proper stab at a decision-making process that leads to sustainable agreements (here quoting language dear to Community At Work) not enough time to do it all…

Part of it has to do with how we may have designed a particular engagement. And then part of it is a reflection of how we are and how we go about time, and how we need it to fully express ourselves.

Our Twitter-sized and TikTok-paced modern lifestyles increasingly require us to shorten time for this or that, to divide our attention to ever more things. We are children in the candy store and have difficulty to focus at all the great things we need to do, want to do or simply that come our way…

Let’s face it: we really do need time. And yet not one uniform version of time, but several parallel pacings and timings.

quiet days (des jours tranquilles)//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Individual time to compose ourselves

Not all of us have fully developed thoughts on just any topic. In fact, most of us don’t have that. Some of us are introverts and need individual thinking time to gather their thoughts, some of us are simply thinking more slowly, because we’re distracted or focused on emotions or other aspects even more than on our thoughts.

It does help to make sure that our interactions also allow us to find that individual time. A check-in does wonders to get people to break the ice with each other, but it can also serve the purpose of gathering and composing ourselves. An exercise like ‘Spiral journal‘ can really serve that purpose, among other options. Veera Hyytiä talks about similar ideas in this blog post.

Creating individual thinking time for people before socialising, as embedded in a lot of Liberating Structures, also goes a long way to create ways for us to find our own groove and tune in to the situation, the people, the topic at hand.

And even, as my multi-stakeholder collaboration buddy Paul Barrie recently invited us to do at the start of a virtual study cycle session, getting people to think about what conditions they may need to be fully present and not distracted by the many invitations and notifications online, is helpful to give ourselves some time to simply ‘be there’.

Time in pairs to develop our conversation, and develop our trust

Stepping forward from individual time, we also need time as pairs of people to have a conversation that goes beyond platitudes and helps us more fully reveal our whole self – disclosing the conversation in our head. Because that time is really listening with intent, with the meaning to understand, and perhaps even empathise. Following the ‘art of conversations’ that Celeste Headlee brilliantly outlined for us.

Other things that can help? Active listening (I do disagree with Celeste about the fact that paraphrasing is not helpful). But also understanding how our patterns of supporting each other can create a better conversation, such as Helping heuristics.

But at any rate, we also do need time to share our ‘first draft ideas’, to draw each other out to find out more, to listen and support each other, to balance the air time among us, to develop the conversation to different corners and new heights…

Time in groups to hear everyone and ‘get somewhere’ (or not)

One step forward and we are in small groups – or even the full plenary group – and there again we do need time to feel comfortable. Because there are more people that need to be heard, understood, integrated.

Of course this is the most challenging space to give time, because there are annoying communication patterns (like these ‘four kinds of people who ruin academic conferences‘). And if there’s a need to elaborate on each other’s thoughts and to ‘get somewhere’ specific, there is more pressure to be efficient, but it’s not always possible. When we try to shorten the time, quicken the pace, cut people off, we ruffle their feathers, we run the risk of getting them to clam down, we may even irritate or disengage them. So it’s risky business to seek efficiency at all costs.

And sometimes the best conversations are not with a productive aim in mind. The ‘Bohm dialogue‘ established by David Bohm is a fresh take on how we structure our conversations, and it really invites us to slow down and really speak truth and honesty without trying to impose our views or advocate etc. There is a lot of value in there, as there is in the art of the unhurried conversation that Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters are championing.

Then again, time is precious and we can’t always just go on and on and on. And sometimes we do our best thinking in quick iterations. This is also the hypothesis behind a lot of Liberating Structures (LS).

In any case, the hidden wicked question here is somewhere along the lines of ‘how is it that we have an objective to achieve in a given time and at the same time we want everyone to really engage their authentic self and to find a solution together?’

Combining times, pacings, and transitions

The art of creating ‘comfortable time’ might lie at the junction of all of the above. Whether we are together ‘strictly for business’ or because we want to develop and deepen our relationships, we may have to find a mix of individual time, slower time in pairs or even in groups, quicker paces, or first draft thinking iterations à la LS. Because in doing so we are also offering ourselves different options to let our thoughts and emotions develop, intertwine themselves, and let new options and questions come to the surface.

And in doing so, it helps to be mindful of transitions between different pacings. Because we also need time to adjust our mind, our lived experience, to the different settings we are in (individual, together, with the full group) and to the deluge of ideas that might have just happened.

The LS ‘punctuations’ (back to back listening, flocking), or changing ways of interacting (e.g. by drawing together, by silently interacting as was done a while ago by the Never Done Before collective), or simply a breathing exercise, a change of location can really help readjust ourselves, all together. The breathing exercise that Nancy White offered us to do in the middle of our KM4Dev Knowledge Café on Liberating Structures turned out to be a life saver at a moment when lots of people were just overwhelmed with a very high pace / high energy sequence.

Whose time are we following?

Exactly like we may wonder whose feedback is at stake, we should wonder who is dictating the pacing, how we negotiate for more time, or less time, how comfortable we are with the pacing, how uncomfortable we are and how helpful that might actually be or not…

The political nature of time reveals its true nature when we realise who controls time and why. And we should all be aware of that question, because it bears on the trust that develops between people and also vis-à-vis the people sponsoring an interaction.

Questions to sharpen our practice around ‘time in the moment’

So in short, what are some guiding questions to accommodate comfortable ‘time in the moment’:

  • Who is defining and controlling time and pacing in our interactions and why?
  • What process is there to check whether the time indeed feels comfortable and productive for individuals, groups, the plenary collective?
  • What process is there to renegotiate the time there is for this or that segment (and who is bearing the implications on the rest of the planned time together)?
  • Is there attention to the time that people spend with themselves, in pairs, in groups etc.?
  • How much of your planned interactions is on the side of getting to a productive end as opposed to having an ‘assumption-free’ dialogue (see short video below) or cultivating deeper relationships, and how is timing and pacing geared up for that?
  • How is the set of conversations unfolding before our eyes informing our theory of how right timing and pacing is?
  • Are there cultural elements to be aware of, about the group’s preferences to install a comfortable conversational time?

And as a bonus, one little video about David Bohm and his invitation to suspend our assumptions in dialogue, as the ticket to elevating our conversations and relations – which is what we are ultimately seeking beyond whatever time we give ourselves for a structured conversation…

Check trainings on ‘Group facilitation skills’ and ‘Multi-stakeholder collaboration’ offered by Community at Work here.

For Liberating Structures, find the whole repertoire here, and feel free to join us on the upcoming Liberating Structures immersion workshop (January-February 2022).

“Everyday process literacy” – en français dans le texte (et en audio)

Yes, I blog so often in English that some might forget that my native language is French.

And recently I had an opportunity to use it. Indeed I had the honour of being invited by Lily Gros (on LinkedIn), on her fabulous podcast ‘La Licorne‘ which celebrates ‘extraordinary collective moments’ of learning, realisation, inspiration, intense experiences or feelings.

In that episode – all en français except for a few English words here and there – I’m exploring little insights of ‘everyday process literacy’ and how that might be useful for all our interactions, at work and even in life…

With a big bow out – as ever – to Sam Kaner and his Community At Work tribe for quite a few insights that he/they shared with me, and for the general body of work that these pioneers have done on (collaboration) process literacy throughout various decades.

For now, if you feel like having a short break, dans la langue de Molière, here is a piece that might be interesting and fun. And if you have interesting stories to share – in French still – feel free to contact Lily, she’s good, she’s fun, and her podcast deserves a lot of attention because she’s really onto all kinds of interesting reflections!

Also a big thank you to Myriam Hadnes who is organising the next ‘Never Done Before‘ facilitation festival in November. She’s the one who got Lily and myself in touch with each other. Thank you Myriam!

Now for the podcast episode:

The episode in question: https://lalicorne.buzzsprout.com/1516522/8867579

Want to work on your own process literacy?

By the way, talking about everyday process literacy, we are on our way to starting the promotion of a new Liberating Structures Immersion workshop in January, so how about you join us and bring your friends to join the silent revolution in the making?

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…

Related stories

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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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?

Wrong!

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:

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: https://thecreatorscompany.com/event/liberating-structures/

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

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/

Troika consulting – I help you, you help me, everyone helps everyone else, now and forever…

All evidence points in the same direction: the best way to be happy in life is to be a little less concerned with oneself and to be a little more caring about others.

This is one of the many touches of magical light of the Liberating Structure ‘Troika Consulting’.

What is Troika Consulting?

Troika Consulting is a simple ‘peer support’ participation format. Set up in triads (or ‘troikas’, ie. groups of 3), everyone gets to get some free support (‘consulting’) on an issue they’re facing. And the support givers become the support receiver in one of the three rounds of consulting.

How does it work?

As explained on the above-mentioned page, here are the -very simple- steps to it:

  • Invite participants to reflect on the consulting question (the challenge and the help needed) they plan to ask when they are the clients. 1 min.
  • Groups have first client share his or her question. 1-2 min.
  • Consultants ask the client clarifying questions. 1-2 min.
  • Client turns around with his or her back facing the consultants
  • Together, the consultants generate ideas, suggestions, coaching advice. 4-5 min.
  • Client turns around and shares what was most valuable about the experience. 1-2 min.
  • Groups switch to next person and repeat steps.

Troika Consulting in practice (Credits: The Liberators)

Troika Consulting in practice (Credits: The Liberators)

Find out more about it here.

What’s the magic behind it?

I find formats such as Troika Consulting an incredibly powerful mechanism for different reasons:

Much like a ‘peer assist’, not only the person being helped (the ‘assistee’) gets valuable advice, but others get help too in the process since the tips come out openly.

The brevity of the different steps, and in this case of disclosing the ‘case’ or ‘issue’ forces the assistee to formulate their question or request for support more clearly and crisply. It also helps them ask for help (it’s not easy).

Unlike a peer assist, Troika ends up being much more of a conversation between the two helpers, and that opens up more ‘informal’ insights that people might shy away from in a more formal and open format.

Because everyone turns to helping others and being helped, it creates a reciprocity bond that really builds up relationships without emphasising it. And that, to me, is really one of killer features of Troika Consulting. It’s the power of hot and fuzzy disguised as (nearly) evidence-based, objective support. So much for the human connection skeptics 😉

Because of the structure and forced ‘silence’ for the assistee, Troika also  stimulates our ability to listen carefully – something that we can never emphasise and practice enough 😉

By the same token, it also removes the defensiveness that the assistee would probably display otherwise. This absence of defensive reactions stands for suspending judgment and it encourages the two consultants to be more genuine, to keep going deeper in their conversation and to generate insights that can potentially lead to real breakthroughs that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

And because this Troika happens without any external support, it actually stimulates any group using it to build their capacity to self-organise and, for all the good reasons mentioned above, to keep doing so in ever stronger and deeper ways.

I have used Troika Consulting many times now and have always been surprised at how powerful that little technique is both at helping, gelling, surprising, energising, challenging people with one another. And the applications are nearly limitless… how about some Troika Consulting in your next class / book review / sports team game / friends’ get-together / holiday planning / family gathering ;)?

If you don’t know where to start with it, let me know and I’ll be happy to help!

 

LS Festival (image credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Troika Consulting will be one of the Structures that we will be exploring during the upcoming ‘Liberating Structures Festival‘ (7-11 October, The Hague, The Netherlands)…

 

 

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)