Meet Keith & Fisher from Liberating Structures
Conversation with Keith McCandless and Fisher Qua & Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius
Christer: I am very happy to finally have this conversation with you. Could you please share with those in our audience who may not know who are, where you come from what you do – and of course the connection between the two of you?
Keith: I help people in organizations innovate and manage complex challenges. Co-authored “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures – Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation” (2013) with Henri Lipmanowicz. Born in Cincinnati Ohio, I hold a Masters in Management of Human Services from Brandeis University in Boston and a BA from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. I live in Seattle with my wife Annie and Deacon the whippet with talent to amuse.
Fisher and I found each other through mutual interest in healthy communities. He reached out to me for advice about designing a conference. I suggested eliminating all presentations and using Wicked Questions to organize explorations among the participants. He took me seriously. Soon afterward we realized we lived in the same neighborhood. Together, we launched the first Liberating Structures (LS) user group in Seattle (2012) and co-led a series of local immersion workshops.
Fisher: I’m based in Austin, Texas and for the past decade have loosely maintained a consulting practice that grew out of my work in community health & wellbeing. I am especially compelled by projects that involve aging & education. Keith has both lovingly provoked and gently guided my development as an LS practitioner. It is both the primary set of methods I use when facilitating and the lens that shapes how I understand group interactions.
A conversation with you both could take on many different directions as I have experienced first-hand, but I wanted to draw the attention towards Liberating Structures and again for those who may not be familiar with the concept: Could you please introduce it, what it is, how it came to be and how it is used?
Liberating Structures (LS) are designed & specified methods that offer a meaningful way to begin including and engaging more of every person’s voice in shaping the future. Liberating Structures (proposes) tiny-yet-principled shifts in five mutable elements:
- the kinds of contribution people are invited to make;
- the ways that participation is shared and distributed;
- and, the habits that govern how time, space, and number of people in a group get configured
Cumulatively, these small-and-simple changes affect the quality of results & relationships that get generated while simultaneously addressing many of the unwitting choices that stifle creativity, imagination, and intelligence.
The LS repertoire consists of 33+ practical methods that introduce deliberate changes in the elements mentioned above. Each LS is meant to be versatile enough for anyone to use in a wide array of activities and situations.
We have come to trust that most people wish to productively include and unleash everyone but do not know how. We believe that using Liberating Structures makes it relatively easy and practical to start.
Icons representing 33 Liberating Structures
You both have supported Kaospilot for quite some years now, could you please talk to us how it started – it was through Pete Sims if I remember correctly – and what you have contributed with over the years?
Keith: Yes, Pete invited me to introduce LS to Team 23 in a 3-day immersion. He included two Team 22 Kaospilots to join him on our design team. With LS, the design work is preparation for co-leading. Astrid Pruitt, Anna Forrest, and Pete jumped in with total abandon. Never had I experienced a client group so predisposed and prepared to liberate. Within 45 minutes of launching the workshop with the full class, Astrid and Anna gave me the signal I desire most: “Keith, we’ve got this.” All previous speed and depth records were smashed.
The experience was so wonderful, I wanted to include Fisher. He is an educator at heart, dedicated to self-authored learning, and wildly inventive in a way that matched Kaospilot culture.
Fisher: Pete has had a profound influence on me as a practitioner and educator. I believe that Pete and Ian Prinsloo were exploring the relationship between improvisation and the systemic transformation work that Reos Partners does. Through that Ian, Pete, and Keith linked up.
Since first being invited to join KP in Aarhus, I have mostly partnered with student design ensembles on the facilitation of their Enterprising Leadership Practice reviews that happen twice a year. We have the great fortune of working together then 4-6 times over the course of their KP education and I get the privilege of seeing them taking increasing responsibility for their learning, self-leadership, and capacity to work with complexity. As a result, I get to develop quite personal learning partnerships with them and stay in touch informally with many of the team members. Some invite me to provide guidance and sparring around their various projects and so get to see how the full range of experiences they accumulate at KP turn into a personal expression of their practice.
I remember when I first heard Liberating Structures and how it intuitively struck a chord in me and indeed I imagine many had the same experience, but could you please talk to us about what your experience is when working with different organisations – what seems to go easy, what may be more difficult – what do they appreciate, what is different afterwards?
Keith/Fisher: We have worked with an incredibly diverse array of .com, .org, .gov, .edu and .net organizations (e.g., NASA, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Smithsonian Institution, UN, Apple, World Bank, Microsoft, Library of Congress, Mayo Clinic).
Over the last 20 years, I have noticed working groups practicing LS become more creative in how they pursue purpose. Fear, resistance, and division decreased. Deeper understanding and empathy co-evolved among participants. Teacher and student learned together. Consultant and client co-developed solutions. Doctor and patient shaped recovery. Suddenly, divergent perspectives were being explored productively and new opportunities were popping into view. Simultaneously and mutually, participants are shaping their future together more generatively.
We also saw groups struggle to withstand the tide of traditional practices. Snap back to old patterns resurfaced from time to time. Distributing control remains hard for everyone. LS invites you to both immediately shift your own practice and in the same moment offer that opportunity for others to do the same.
Fisher: Henri & Keith are deeply committed to the principle that control must be distributed. They are deeply suspicious of solutions that can be concealed or obscured or misinterpreted as specific to a person or a skill of especially talented individuals. The result is that they both emphasize the need to be simultaneously shifting your own practice (by using LS) and at the same time making that opportunity explicit and welcoming for others to do the same. Changing your own behavior/habits AND supporting others to do the same is demanding especially when we have grown accustomed to lazier forms that don’t require as much attention or awareness on our process.
As I have had the privilege to follow LS and you for some years now, it seems to me that this is growing and as such it would be interesting to get your perspective on that? How do you see the practice; indeed, community grow and develop? What would be desirable?
Fisher: Yes, the spread of Liberating Structures as a practice and community is a surprising development that I think Keith and Henri hopefully anticipated, but couldn’t predict. A few ways that we observe the practice & community growing & evolving:
- While LS are initially attractive to many people because they work well in large scale interactions (think 100’s of participants), they also apply in our smallest interactions – from a few people to even individual work. There has been significant exploration around using LS at the personal scale. This dimension of practice has added a greater sensitivity to the role of autonomy in each LS as well as practically helping people take more responsibility for getting themselves organized.
- As people develop familiarity with the existing LS methods, more seem to become curious about the logic behind and below them. There is increasing engagement with both the LS principles and the DNA that Keith & Henri described as the design elements they used to specify each method. The result is both a growing repertoire of novel & reworked methods that people are adding to the LS repertoire as well as thoughtful dialogue about the role of principles in our work. Keith recently published a wonderful collection of stories and reflections on the LS principles.
- Finally, there is a lively and rich conversation about unexpected ways people are adapting everything about LS – from specific methods to the principles to the purposes and logic Keith & Henri inspired – for their local scenario and situation. As people move the use of LS into other contexts, new paradoxes, challenges, and questions emerge. Making sense of these together brings a certain vitality, creativity, and closeness that many people in the LS community seem to value. It feels as there is a collectively held practice that is animated by each person’s engagement, enthusiasm, and contribution.
In terms of education, there a ton of trends and tendencies going on, from digitalisation to self-directed learning, to questions of life-long learning to un-learning and so forth. I am curious about your views on education through a lens of LS? What could it support, strengthen and maybe alleviate?
Fisher: Education has always been an incredibly complex endeavor – even if our approaches to teaching and learning are sometimes compressed/mechanised. The past year+ revealed how acute the complexity really is and helped reveal the amount of underappreciated labor that goes into creating the conditions for learning to unfold. Teachers of every stripe found themselves tending to the enormous range of needs necessary to address for people to show up and be able to participate successfully.
I think that this past year helped everyone understand that the purposes & ambition of education are entangled in so much more than the content of what is being learned. In this regards, I belive that LS has a contribution to make in that it both upholds the importance of content while changing the ways that we interact with and take responsibility for authoring our own conclusions about it.
Kaospilot is a school of leadership and entrepreneurship. I am curious about how you see overlap in LS philosophy and approach with Kaospilot – as you see us?
Fisher: I see KP and LS as sharing a sensibility & aesthetic. The principles of both overlap neatly – from the sense of adventure, curiosity, playfulness, rigor, care, purpose, attention, community, and discovery – AND at the same time, both bodies of work encourage people in rejecting the stated principles in preference of authoring their own. Both provide a loving way of support while at the same time providing a way to discover for yourself what matters to you. I remember Pete emphasizing discernment in the KP philosophy and I believe LS shares this – discerning & matching a method to the context at hand, relying on the group’s capacity to generate and then discern options & choices, the capability of each person to discern for themselves what feels right.
Keith: As experience with LS has grown, I have noticed group members’ confidence in each other blossom. With more freedom and more responsibility distributed among members, formal leaders can “let go of all the weight on their shoulders.” Leaders can refocus on activities that build social capital: bridging across groups, weaving cross-functional relationships, and exploring strategies to succeed in plausible yet unpredictable futures. The result of refocusing is more distributed entre- and intra-preneurship among group members. Everyone is exploring more adjacent possibilities with all their imagination unleashed.
There has – at least in our community – been a lot of focus on culture. May that be how to foster a culture of innovation, or how to nurture a supportive culture, or a culture of belonging, inclusion, and diversity and so forth. And if I think back to some other organisations I worked with and for some decades ago – it was all about structure (at least not a word about culture). Given that both are important, I wonder about your views on culture(s) in structure and structure(s) in culture – and maybe particularly in relation to developing or changing structure or culture. What would be your thoughts on this?
Keith: For me, culture co-evolves via the interaction of purpose (why we exist), principles (what we say), and habits (what we do). Habits tend to shift and adapt most quickly. Purpose and principles endure over longer periods. Kaospilot culture upends creatively all three but what stands out is the willingness to change habits. This accelerates and deepens cultural change. You are acting your way forward through tiny micro-structural shifts in habits. This is why I am so excited about your school.
Kaospilot culture gets summed up in this Drawing Together image from a student in Team 23. Circle = wholeness, Rectangle = structure, Triangle = goal, Spiral = change, Star-People = relationship.
So much of Kaospilot culture is visible from the moment you interact with anyone connected to the school. Here is a collection of some favorites from our shared time in Aarhus.
Finally, as you both are so much devoted to help others to grow, to accomplish and become – I am curious about yourself – what would be significant to you if that came to be? Or if that is too hard, what is next on your own development journey?
I am taking ½ step back from my consulting business to explore what shapes this the body of work and its evolution. I am writing about principles, scientific origins, and evaluation with members of the global LS community. Exponential growth in LS across diverse domains has sparked my interest in minimum specs for maintaining fidelity in practice. Including more people in doing this work is not simple but it seems worthwhile. LS can make a bigger contribution in addressing climate change and social justice initiatives. It would be significant if I can get my arms part way around this challenge.
Fisher: Lately, I am interested in the many new & old ways to work with narrative. Cynthia Kurtz’ Participatory Narrative Inquiry is providing much input in this regards. I am also curious about ways to integrate and pay attention to other forms of knowledge & intelligence – especially those that are embodied or related to artistic expression. I also find myself experimenting quite a bit with different ways to work with time – those that are anatomic and variable rather than based on the perfectly predictable emissions of electrons. And, my relationship with KP continues to remain vibrant and significant. It is the place that renews the creativity in my practice and affirms my commitment to the kind of work-in-complexity that is both absurd and serious.