The ever inspiring Nancy White just wrote a great post about criticisms and cures about Liberating Structures (LS). Together with LS festival partner in crime Nadia von Holzen we are actually planning to have an online conversation with Nancy on this topic, but Nancy’s post is already so rich that I can’t resist the temptation to riff over her waves of thought and add some of mine… a prelude to our upcoming online convo to take it to the next wave…
And in so doing, I won’t restrict this write up to the case of ‘Liberating Structures’ as such but to the broader case of ‘facilitated collaboration’ because the same criticisms can largely be applied. I’ve skipped the ones specifically about Liberating Structures.
Criticism: (facilitated collaboration) takes away all my control
Cure: Nancy is right on asking ‘so what’? and ‘do you like to be controlled, yourself?’. Most of us don’t like it. The thing is, it’s also not just a question of control or not control, it’s a question of making that notion of control explicit or not. In many cases, the people in charge know (or will eventually decide) whether they retain control over things or not. But for the other people in the room, when that is not clear, it creates a high transaction cost for participation.
And also – crucially: it’s about the dynamics you’re engaging with. If your point is simply to pass on some information to people, you can retain the control. If you are however genuinely interested in solving a problem together, control has to be shared. ‘Want to go fast, go alone; want to go far, go together’ and all that…
For me this also relates to a final point: if we are interested in connecting all nodes of our collective brain together, then we have to make that possible by illuminating those nodes, giving them the means or creating the space and time to empower themselves – and that rubs against control once again. Control is fine, for small, petty challenges. The real ‘wicked’ problems of our times, the ones that require true collaboration, they cannot be addressed with control, but with the magical combination of our energies and possibilities, when everyone plays like a jazz ensemble ‘in the groove’…
Criticism: Meetings are fundamentally a waste of time. I don’t need to learn how to design and run better meetings, I just need to get rid of all of them.
Cure: ‘Purpose’ says Nancy, as in ‘mind your purpose’ and she’s totally right! What happens with a lot of meetings is that they are called for without a clear idea of what needs to happen, without an approach to design and process them, and they tend to rely on ‘how we have run meetings thus far’ rather than ‘what are the outcomes we (should) strive for, and what does it take to achieve our intended outcomes’?
Like so many other examples (Powerpoint presentations, annual reports, team building exercises, participatory projects etc.), bad meetings give a bad name to meetings. Meetings are not bad in and of themselves. Bad practices about them have contributed to entrench a durable bitter taste about them.
The reality of collaboration around complex issues is that meetings are key moments that reveal the health and sanity of any group working together. Such meetings require that purposefulness, strong design, and to be honest in many cases they may require quite some meetings. We can’t oversimplify the nature of some of our endeavours.
The seed of hope is in how we are conceiving of our meetings: the what, the why, the how, the who etc. And that is where facilitated collaboration can unlock incredible potential.
Criticism: As an NGO or international development organization, we don’t have the luxury of going to capacity building workshops. We are too busy address others’ capacity building needs.
Cure: Nancy addressed most of this in her response. I would simply add that this has much to do with prioritising what really matters and strong time management accordingly. Identify what you really want to do/achieve, what you want to let go of, and once you have found your sweet spot, invest in your own capacity (as group, team, organisation, network etc.) to make it happen. And think creatively about how capacity development happens. It doesn’t need to be training, it can be about tapping into the positive deviants’ practice within your group (and you can even use one Liberating Structure to explore that: Discovery Action Dialogue).
Criticism: People are getting totally annoyed with me breaking them down into groups, doing 1-2-4-All and all that. Come on!
Cure: That is a common issue, and boils down to various degrees and shapes of ‘resistance’: resistance to change, resistance to interactions with strangers, resistance to new habits, resistance to what might be assimilated to ‘un-serious, unworthy, un-professional’, resistance to structure (as opposed to the ‘open discussion’ for instance).
There are various degrees of solutions to these layers of resistance, from getting people slowly used to feeling ever so slightly uncomfortable with subtle change, to letting people play with their own theories and getting them to see (and believe), to removing the formality or ritualisation of facilitation (or even the process scaffolding of explaining what a given participatory format is called etc.). This is what Anna Jackson was also suggesting in a recent interview about dealing with resistance to Liberating Structures.
Criticism: Complexity is a buzzword or indicates a mess so big we can’t deal with it. I’m done with complexity.
Cure: Yes I can totally relate to the eyes rolling when hearing complexity converts open up the book of their prophecies etc. The point is though, that complexity is real, pervading all aspects of our lives, and we have been exposed to many of its manifestations:
- Today’s (complex) problems cannot be solved with yesterday’s solutions – no need for a blueprint…
- Patterns repeat themselves across scales and give us some indications about how the complex world evolves.
- We don’t need to complexify things, but we also can’t afford to dumb things down either (remember Albert Einstein).
Perhaps the point here is to agree to navigate between over complexifying and over simplifying. And not get too hung up on complexity in itself, but recognising that it is there, somehow. And perhaps giving a go at complexity-friendly ways to collaborate (such as with Liberating Structures).
Criticism: Yeah, it was great at our retreat, but we go back to our old habits
Cure: This is a problem I really struggle with. Perhaps I don’t work consciously enough on the participants’ profile, their ‘home’ (/work) reality, the questions they’re grappling with etc. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that I interact with many groups for just one event (or another one the next year/s) without having the liberty to check how things are evolving.
Perhaps change is happening but we are just not well equipped to make sense of it all and to sense how it is coming about. People change their ideas without revealing what’s going on in their mind. They change habits in very subtle, almost invisible ways. And we tend to expect, and look for, sensational changes. Like any behaviour change work, it simply takes time.
For sure there are some solutions in the LS repertoire, but more about that in the upcoming online dialogue with Nancy and Nadia…
And you’re welcome to experience some of the solutions above in our upcoming Liberating Structures festival.