As part of our preparation for the Liberating Structures Learning Festival in The Hague this October, the design team is writing brief responses to the following three questions. Ewen has already published his reflections here. And, you can find Nadia’s up next. If you want to crawl over, around, under, into, behind, and around these kinds of questions, we invite you to join us for part or all of the Festival.
What are Liberating Structures to you?
For me, what is and what is not a Liberating Structure is becoming less interesting than the ways that people are taking the 5 micro-organizing elements to design structures that respond to the current context, generate lively interactions, and tap into a wider dynamic range of intelligence, imagination, and creativity across a group and within each individual. I appreciate the rigor with which Keith and Henri articulated the minimum specifications, attributes, and evaluation criteria for defining an LS AND at the same time, for me, their biggest contribution is in describing those 5 micro-organizing elements (arrangement of space, sequence & allocation of time, configuration of groups, distribution of participation, and invitation/prompt/task). This DNA provides a shared ‘logic’ or pattern for describing persistent elements that are present across our interactions. By being mindfully aware of them and specifying them in particular configurations we can start re-arranging what is possible. The algorithmic simplicity of the micro-organizing elements offers an opportunity for endlessly inventive applications as practitioners mutate, mess with, claw at, play around, and mix together new variations/recipes that may be good a single time OR persistently useful in multiple situations. For me, it is that discovery of temporarily stable forms that can be passed between practitioners, spread, fade away, get composed, and re-imagined that sustains my curiosity, pleasure, and interest in the work.
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?
This past February I had an experience that bordered on absolute fun. Henriette Lundgren, an LS practitioner & researcher, invited me to join her and Lynn Wooten in Ithaca, NY for a series of learning activities. As we were planning, one option that appeared wildly attractive involved a community ‘preview’ session of LS to introduce the methods through a specific topic or lens. Based on some past work, my own interests, and Henriette’s involvement with the Ithaca International Women’s Friendship Group, we chose “Creative Aging & Vitality” as the theme — with a positive deviance twist.
The design featured a mix of structures-in-development (like Tiny Demons, Narrative Reauthoring, and Spiral Journal), riffs & variations on existing methods (like Liquid Courage~Impromptu Networking, and some of my favorites from the menu like Conversation Cafe, What/So What/Now What, and Drawing Together. You can see the full range of invitations we used by previewing these slides.
While the design itself was playful and imaginative, the evening has been latched in my memory because of the participants. We had ~25 people — many from Henriette’s group, a faculty member & graduate student from Cornell, and a few neighborhood joiners — and it was a delightfully intergenerational mix. The conversation moved from the chronic complaints we all have about getting older, into visualizing the fears & anxieties that aging brings with it, into a slower consideration around aging-in-community and making sense of those complexities, to generating new, positively deviant stories about aging based on those people who are adapting creatively and vitally no matter their age. For me, there was something playful-yet-serious about the way were all facing down and making sense of the vulnerabilities that come with aging and appreciating how that adversity creates an opportunity to practice, get stronger, and discover new sources of vitality/creativity/and power in ourselves and through others.
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!
Microvariability & Metastability — Ever since Keith shared with me Irv Dardik’s Heartwaves article, I’ve been intrigued by the paradoxical complexity he was suggesting persists in the self-similar organizing patterns of our own biology and the wider physical forces that shape our universe’s properties and behaviors. Since initially encountering Dardik’s provocative approach to increasing human physiologic vitality, I’ve also dug more deeply into quantum mechanics, the ecological entropy flows of Panarchy, and the neuro-bio-chemical organization of the brain. At a distance, these references may appear spooky, slippery, or otherwise intimidating. I’ve settled on the fact that I don’t actually understand them either, but rather rely on the ideas as elaborate, recombinable metaphors for extending my imagination (and explanation) for what is possible when it comes to working with LS and how we might make certain choices more justifiable (beyond the satisfaction of purely self-indulgent needs).