Creative Destruction

Keith McCandless

What You Can Stop Doing to Make Space for Innovation

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. Pablo Picasso

My favorite part of working with groups is helping people notice and stop counterproductive behavior. We all have self-limiting individual and group behaviors. Of course, they are easier to spot in others than in our selves. So, finding seriously fun ways to help people discover for themselves what they can stop doing is important.

With Liberating Structures, we employ a two-step approach. First, an activity called TRIZ is undertaken individually and then in a group. Participants have productive fun designing a reliable system to get the worst result they can imagine. For example, with a surgery group, “How can we operate on the wrong side of body every time?” (A good TRIZ invitation sparks infectious gallows laughter). Then, individuals identify overlaps between what they actually do and their “perfect” adverse design. Finally, participants select something they can stop doing and get a little help on a next step from a peer. Voila, the choice to open space for something new has arrived: arising from the tiny yet powerful act of creative destruction.

Second, we punctuate the TRIZ with a very funny Bob Newhart sketch called “Stop It.” Bob Newhart is an old school stand up comedian and actor with a deadpan delivery.

The 6 minute scene starts with Katherine Bigmans’ first visit to a psychiatrist — Dr Switzer (Bob Newhart). He informs her that his sessions are $5 for the first five minutes and then nothing after that. Katherine is thrilled, but the doctor assures her that the session won’t be longer than five minutes. Katherine proceeds to tell the doctor that she has a fear of being buried alive in a box. She would like advice for a way to address the counterproductive behaviors associated with the fear. She asks if she should take notes, but Dr. Switzer assures her that his counsel involves only two words. Delighted, Katherine prepares herself for words of professional wisdom. Dr. Switzer leans over his desk and yells pointedly, “Stop it!” (Check it out the entire scene on YouTube. For me, it never gets old.)

The sketch is funny to me because it simplifies absurdly the complex challenge of changing our habits. It may not be adequate therapy but it does acknowledge that an individual can recognize and consider facing up to their fears. And, Dr. Switzer is expressing confidence in Katherine’s ability to make changes on her own. She can choose to disrupt her counterproductive pattern.

Successfully sparking more practical self-discovery has elevated the importance of creative destruction for me. The term “creative destruction” was first defined by economist Joseph Schumpeter as mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. Applied to human beings rather than economies, creative destruction is a way to incessantly stop behaviors and practices — that when stopped — make space for new things. In this way, an act of destruction or stopping makes way for an act of creation or starting.

If you offer advice to others, it is also a good idea to follow it yourself. So, below is my personal stop doing list. It is incessantly revolutionizing my consulting practice.

What I have stopped doing:

  1. Crafting visions or preferred futures

2. Defining core values & ground rules

3. Pushing for big centralized decisions

4. Training to ensure uniformity

5. Importing global best practices

6. Crafting buy-in strategies

7. Inviting detailed report outs

8. Inviting Open Discussions

9. Rendering definitive judgments

10. Seeking consensus on A solution

11. Avoiding differences (parking lots)

12. Inviting experts only

13. Team-building w/personality profiles

14. Over-helping via summarizing

15. Controlling or re-directing flow as THE facilitator

16. Using flip charts with breakout groups

17. Answering questions first

18. (Over-) Explaining that unwittingly narrows adjacent possibilities

I regularly evaluate my professional work looking for counterproductive practices and behaviors. When I find something, I put it on a list of stuff I have stopped or am trying to stop. Quite a few items on the list are deeply ingrained habits and I fall off the horse frequently. I share the list in LS immersion workshops and now in this article.

Some of the items reliably provoke participants. “How could you possibly stop _________?” Indignantly, “That is an essential part of _________! What do you mean by suggesting ________ is obsolete? Keith, I am not drinking your Kool-aid!”

Depending on a participant’s perspective, I have uttered heresy, skewered a sacred cow, or devalued a treasured myth. My intention is to lovingly provoke.

These strong responses make me realize the radical departure made possible by LS. MORE depth and something new is now possible because I have been able to stop doing items on this list. I am not sure about the order or sequence of what came first: did using Liberating Structures precede stopping or did ending a practice open an empty space for LS to fill. It may not matter because the approach has made a huge difference for me.

Below, I add what I have substituted to achieve a similar goal. More than simply substituting, the practices and behaviors in the left column feel obsolete and counterproductive. They tend to dampen the richness, diversity, and variety of solutions available by over- or under-controlling how people work together.

Links to specific Liberating Structures here LS Menu

While it is tempting to explore every item, I will dig into why I have stopped “crafting visions or preferred futures.” It is one of the more heretical statements that provoke questions.

Vision statements are popular for organizations and individuals. They describe a desirable, often lofty future state related to the way an organization or person is supposed to transform and find its optimal place. Reasons why I have stopped visioning and replaced it with getting clear on purpose include:

  1. You can rely on being surprised. Your vision of the future will be inaccurate and may increase fragility.
  2. Visions of the future distort how you see the present AND may keep you from noticing something better than what you envisioned is possible.
  3. Visions are often too static and generated by an inner circle. In practice, they are regularly used to over-control in a way that excludes purposeful variation.
  4. Vision and purpose are not the same. While a vision projects into the future, a purpose is always true and relevant now.

I suspect that every person has a unique approach to creative destruction. Some stop doing lists may be more or less explicit. I am so curious about my colleagues’ approach that I have asked handful to share comments on this monograph.

Selected are accomplished LS users with varied backgrounds and ages. My personal list may be longer and more tangled because I am entering the fourth decade of my professional career.

Invited Commentary

Fisher Qua, Back Loop Consulting, USA

One of my favorite moments from any Liberating Structures immersion workshop was during a Celebrity Interview of Professor Arvind Singhal at Washington State University. If you’ve ever had a chance to interact with Arvind you know he is pretty much up for anything, and so we introduced a tiny twist to the interview questions by replacing the conventional ones with those inspired by Talking with Pixies. One of the prompts invites the person being interviewed to reflect on their worthy-yet-elusive goal. In his perfectly punctuated style and with a master story-teller’s timing, Arvind paused for a moment and then open his arms wide while leaning in and almost whispered: “My goal is to disappear”. For those that know Arvind there was an immediate giggle because it doesn’t exactly resemble his natural tendencies. If you need evidence, does this look like someone actively trying to disappear?

Pictured above: The shy fellow in the BIG hat is Professor Singhal. Not disappearing just yet!

And yet, I think we all truly believed him — that disappearing, minimalizing his role & influence on the group, and fading away is a worthy-yet-elusive goal… especially if we have the good fortune to be deliberate about it. Of course, Arvind’s view of time seems to be wider and thicker than most and so I sense he’s always thinking epochally and relationally which means reducing dependencies on oneself is the right strategy if you hope to distribute leadership and invite others to self-discover their own capabilities. One glance at the network of people Arvind has assembled (and who adore, love, and remain deeply connected with him) reveals that he’s well on his way to disappearing in a way that ensures he remains present.

That paradox — minimalism that unflattens (achieved by carving, stripping, removing, subtracting, excising, dissipating, boiling, tearing, and scratching), for me, remains an essential element in the practice of LS and what Keith has highlighted here in his stop doing list. It is painful to stop some of these things that we’ve become dependent on. Our identities, egos, and senses-of-self (worth) are often entangled in the behaviors, practices, and habits that define our contribution. When we start letting go of those things our fear is of disappearing. We want to linger. What I’ve come to deeply appreciate about Arvind, Keith, Henri, Nancy, and others with more experience is that the way to create enduring change is by letting go of all that and instead focus rigorously on creating the conditions for others to thrive which necessitates a persistent effort to creatively destroy yourself, your practice, and your attachment to who you are and what you contribute.

Nancy White, Full Circle Associates, USA

Letting go of summarizing (#14). I have to say, I am an amazing summarizer. It is one of my super powers so letting go of it is hard! We want to do things we are good at. But if I always step in and summarize, it does nothing for others own sensemaking. The summarizer often learns and notices the most. That has to be distributed.

So my role moves from being a candle that “illuminates” the work of others, to being the mirror. To asking people to consider and only share the best results of their work. To be present and hold the space for them to tell their own stories (such as with Ecocycle or within the larger “knotworking” string for strategic planning.) Maybe I create a sweet little visual background to get things started if people are shy, but I pass on the markers and post its. My job is to only intervene if we need challenging to be sharper, clearer, bolder.

At the same time, sometimes I notice things. Working across many disciplines gives me a unique perspective to notice patterns that people may miss because they are so close to their own work and experience. Noticing and remarking is different than synthesizing and summarizing. They may have been tightly coupled in my earlier practice, but now I have to quit the summarizing, and sharpen the noticing. This also takes me out of the traditional “neutral” facilitator stance. I always maintained that absolute neutrality was beyond most mere mortals, but now I think it is important to notice the moments where you as “facilitator” also gets involved with the action. My values say that when I do this, I need to call it out, lest I introduce a conflict of interest. As a result, I see myself less and less as a facilitator, and more as a catalyst or reagent in the “chemical reaction” happening through the structures.

Catherine Lilly, independent consultant, former university leader in HR/OD, USA

With decades of history of successfully facilitating groups of all sizes, already with a kind of “structured improvisationalist” style (thanks Keith and Nancy), I’m one of the argumentative ones when it comes to abandoning just a few of the “past practices” that Keith describes on his list. On the other hand, as a person who is deeply respectful to the “IS-ness” of a group and who also has a desire for that group to thrive on its own terms, I’m happy to experiment on this learning journey with you all. It’s been great so far.

My example is about the application of Creative Destruction to a more informal, personal and two-person scenario. (How often do we forget to apply LS when the numbers get smaller!)

I’m sitting at an early breakfast with a consulting colleague on the first day of a recent three-day writing retreat at a friend’s house in the Arizona high desert. After catching up, we are starting to get focused on what to accomplish by the end of our time together, and how we will structure the days (e.g. typical vision and process). Almost, as a sidebar, we are commenting on the beauty of the surroundings and the ease of getting distracted while writing. Aha! I insert a little informal LS (without naming it). First, I ask us to reiterate our purpose for our time together (for me — make headway on my dissertation). Then we joke about about all the ways we could guarantee failure (TRIZ). Finally I ask us each to make a commitment to three things that we WOULD NOT DO until we came together again at dinner. (Here’s my list: 1) I would NOT open email on my computer or phone. 2) I would NOT speak unless emergency 3) I would NOT “take a break” to work on any of the other multiple projects calling for my attention, especially XX and YY, which I named.) Reflecting on the day at dinner, we each gave ourselves and A- on our commitments, but commented on the amazing freedom and focus that arose just from that simple exercise.

Anja Ebers, Enabling People to be Great as self-employed process guide & coach; Berlin, Germany

#1 — crafting visions / #2 — defining core values: I’m often working with teams in charge of communications or branding — so capturing a shared something is regarded as a valid outcome in these groups. After decades of word-chiseling, categorizing and aha-moment of (mis)understanding, I learned to let go of the fixation on words & their meaning. I rather try to replace definitions by principles and test, prototype and iterate those in a group.

Here’s a little story I try to remember whenever I’m struggling:
Sometimes I facilitate using Lego bricks as a means for storytelling. As part of the warm-up, participants get the task to randomly connect 5 bricks. The artifact is then used to train their metaphor-muscle. One participant of a group working on inclusion took really long to complete this task that others manage to do in 10–20 seconds. When we went through the sharing, each of us holding up the object explaining why it represents a word I gave them, we were all a bit concerned because her artifact — which she was asked to use to explain “network” — had far more than 5 bricks. At the end of her explanation one of the other participants cheekily pointed out “and because you wanted to include a big variety of bricks, you chose not to meet the 5 brick requirement for that task, right?

She looked really astonished at us and pointed out that she indeed connected 5 bricks: she picked 5 bricks of the same format & connected them using other bricks. It was really a moment of realization for our group how diverse humans think and express themselves (pic of her construction:

Anna Forrest, Center for Dialog; Copenhagen, Denmark

My first encounter with Liberating Structures took place via Zoom. We were three people from the Kaospilots school together with Keith. We were gathered to design a two day immersion workshop for a class of students at our school. One of the desired outcomes of the workshop was for students to organize themselves in different functional working groups. It was a important because Kaospilots design their own learning organization from the ground up.

During the design meetings (and also in between them) we kept asking different variations over the same question, “When will they make the decision on how to organize?” and at one point, I think Keith had had enough of our fixedness on ‘the decision’, so he said, a bit provoking, Just stop it! Perplexed with his sudden firmness (it is a rare event), we all became silent. Then he started elaborating, that our wish for alignment, agreement, consensus, was unrealistic to strive for and it was counterproductive for what we actually wanted to achieve, which was an increased sense of agency and ownership in the group. Consent not consensus was within reach. Though we did not quite see how we would achieve our outcome, without knowing how the group would decide on how to organize, we chose to believe him.

In the workshop we did TRIZ, where I for the first time experienced how putting attention to what we can stop, instead of what we can start, has a surprising creative energy in it.

Keith shared his list of what he has stopped doing. At first I was really provoked by the list. It contained many practices that were core to my understanding of being a professional facilitator. My identity felt a little threatened. But as I gained my experience with Liberating Structures, I have come to see this list as a ‘loving provocation.” It helps me question my practice as a facilitator and makes me ask, if the methods that I use are actually serving what I am setting out to achieve.

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