Taking Bigger Risks: Facing Four Fears

Keith McCandless

By Keith McCandless and Anna Jackson

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. Nelson Mandela

Liberating Structures invite leaders and teachers and experts to let go of control over content. When using Liberating Structures, you give your users, clients, students, or patients control to shape their own future. Patients shape their recovery with the support of healers. Teachers invite students to author their own learning. Managers invite workers to coordinate their next steps. Politicians invite citizens into shared governance.

Liberating Structures (LS) are simple rules that make it possible to include and engage every voice in shaping next steps. The LS repertoire consists of 33 practical methods versatile enough for anyone to make brisk progress on a wide array of challenges. LS offer an alternative to conventional patterns that unwittingly stifle innovation, over- or under-control participation, and exclude people. LS spark lively engagement by minimally structuring the way we interact while liberating content or subject matter.

There is a strong pull because LS promises better than expected results, creative adaptability, and shared ownership. However, it feels very risky to let go of your personal mastery over content. Facing fears is a core skill. And, practice makes a difference.

The next pages are designed to help you understand and manage the risks. Each effort to set aside the fear helps to develop more confidence and boldness in your leadership.

So, here are the big four fears. We have experienced them ourselves and have noticed other LS users are in the same boat. Both novices and experienced users have found a way to manage some or all of these fears. We have witnessed a few people who found a way to try the entire 33+ LS repertoire in a few months. Other people take years to lead their first microstructure. We suspect the rate of adoption is related how users experience risk and manage the following fears.

Fear # 1. When starting to introduce LS and choose not to share my mastery of content, will I lack credibility or look foolish and unprepared?

The first fear arises from our expert TED-Talk-obsessed culture. As participants and audience members, we are accustomed to the one-directional nature of lectures and view ourselves as “recipients” of information, rather than co-authors or co-conspirators. So, as speakers or leaders, there can be an expectation that every second and every gesture of our presentation or interaction must be carefully controlled. Every outcome predetermined in advance. “Quality” is tightly controlled.

In contrast, LS are designed to generate unforeseen options. It feels messy while unfolding. We explore and invent together. When we ask questions rather than deliver answers, our expertise — which is often conflated with our value — is diminished. At least it feels that way.

Fear # 2. Will I be able to generate better-than-expected results (tangible results!) without telling people what to do via pre-cooked goals, buy-in strategies, and imported best practices?

The second fear arises as you start to get overwhelmingly positive engagement from everyone around you. Inevitably, you will be invited to take on bigger leadership roles. And with that comes a fear of delivering less than inspiring results. You may wonder, are we actually getting anything done, or does it just feel good to have everyone so involved? How can I show that doing things this way really does produce better results?

Fear # 3. Is LS a fad only?! Will I be able to prevent snapback to the old patterns and maintain momentum?

The third fear is a doozy. As more inclusive and productive habits catch on, LS start to shift how things get done without formal leaders being directly involved. New and old are co-mingling. LS transcends and includes the past. The old patterns are deeply grooved and have resilience. And, so many change efforts have a short and brutish half-life. When snapback to old behaviors and habits happens, what will you do?

Fear # 4. Have I designed my own obsolescence as a leader? Have I worked myself out of a job?

The fourth fear may be the most perversely paradoxical. Now that we have made the shift to more inclusive and productive patterns across the organization, everyone is taking on more responsibility and feels joint ownership. The new approach becomes routine rather than novel. With so many people engaged, it becomes difficult to pinpoint the origin of new ideas or where decisions are made. Will my unique contribution be missed or undervalued? How will others notice my value?

Context can vary a great deal. Some individuals experience greater risk than others when they let go of traditional forms of credibility, and ignoring convention can be a reflection of our privilege. We may not have the support of others around us to break or bend rules. To make progress, we have found it useful to find a co-leader within groups or organizations to introduce LS together, and work with a supportive community as you start using the repertoire.

The chart above depicts a playful developmental path of people practicing LS. It suggests that new fears show up as you develop LS skillfulness. We are not suggesting that the old ones fade away completely.

With more experience, users shift how they a see their role: progressing from expert to facilitator to coach to self-authoring participant. A full circle that returns to the beginning just as a new transcendent cycle is taking shape. Each phase shifts attention, opportunities for growth, and keeps life full of surprises.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. Lao Tzu

Keith McCandless is the co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation (2013). He consults with business, government, research, educational, and health organizations worldwide, focusing on how to address complex challenges and include everyone in shaping the future. Keith holds a Masters in Management of Human Services from Brandeis University in Boston and a BA from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Anna Jackson is founder of Alpinista Consulting, specializing in strategic development, capacity building, person centered approaches, and participatory approaches to leading change. Liberating Structures are central to Alpinista’s offerings. Anna is based in Austin, Texas and works with nonprofit, healthcare, philanthropic, and business entities facing a wide range of challenges. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work from The University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelors degree in Social Anthropology from the University of California, Davis.

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