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Structures that Unleash Collaboration and Innovation

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 24, 2014

A vibrant economy needs more organizations where people thrive, and evidence suggests we're far from that ideal. A recent Gallop report finds 70 percent of American workers are disengaged from their jobs, and nearly 20 percent of the disengaged actively resist their employers' goals. Gallop also reports disengagement may cost up to $550 billion a year in lost productivity, and untold losses in employee potential. With only 22 percent of employees committed to their work and thriving, there clearly is an urgent need to plant seeds to grow engagement.

In their new book, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures, Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, both experienced in business and skilled facilitators, give us an entire seed catalog: 33 Liberating Structures which, used alone or in combination, provide an endless variety of ways to include and engage people in groups of any size.

The authors identify the sweet spot where changes are easy to implement and make a big difference: the routine practices that people use to structure how they interact when they meet to plan, learn, solve problems, and make decisions. They call these practices "microstructures" and they have found that nearly everyone uses the same five conventional microstructures over and over: presentations and lectures in the classrooms, managed discussions, status reports, open discussions and brainstorms. Unfortunately, these five conventional structures are designed primarily to direct and control and are inadequate for engaging people. In contrast, Liberating Structures (LS) are designed to make it easy to include and engage everyone regardless of rank or seniority.

In introducing LS the authors help us become much more aware of the ubiquitous presence of structures and how they both support and constrain all our activities. They show us how we can configure them to help us achieve surprisingly better outcomes. The conversations we start, the questions we ask, and our listening skills all make a difference. The authors challenge us to observe circumstances and events more closely with attention to what's really important to us and to others. They make it clear that we can all learn to use simple structures that enable any group of people working together to radically improve collaboration, innovation and decision-making.

With LS everybody affected by a problem can be included in discovering how to tackle it. The role of leadership is to participate and support but not dictate. The book has a whole chapter on how leaders using LS can learn to contribute their own best while energizing others to develop and flourish in their work.

Creative icons represent each of these microstructures on the Liberating Structures website.

LS are easy to learn. For example, in 1,2,4,All, participants get a minute to reflect on an issue and write their thoughts. They get two minutes to share their thoughts in pairs, and two minutes to repeat the process in a group of four. The four person groups each decide on the most important points to share with the whole group. The entire exercise can take three to 15 minutes, and surprising new ideas are likely. All participants, regardless of position, can articulate and test their ideas in a safe space and all have an equal chance to contribute. Good ideas can emerge from anyone. There is no limit on how many people can be included.

With TRIZ, inspired in part by a Russian inventor, participants are invited to engage in creative destruction and dispatch sacred cows. They think of an important objective and then list everything they can do to achieve the exact opposite. Some of the suggestions are likely to be hilarious. During the second step their task is to identify anything they currently do that resembles the things on their list. Now they know what they need to creatively destroy in order to make space for innovation. Other LS will help with a deeper dig for solutions.

This book is elegantly structured and designed for easily accessible answers to questions. Part One offers a thoughtful discussion of "The Hidden Structures of Engagement," how to see them under the surface, how they work, and how the power of small changes can induce transformations without expensive training and personnel changes at work and without strife at home. In Part Two, the authors share their wisdom on learning and using different LS. They suggest ways to match specific challenges to specific structures. Is your purpose unclear? Try 9 Whys. It works at home just as well. Lipmanowicz recalls a colleague saying she used 9 Whys to help her daughter crystallize ideas for a school paper. Want to analyze progress to date and decide how to proceed? Try What, So What, Now What. That too works in home and career. Mixing LS can refine inquiries and discoveries. The authors suggest ways to string several LS together to work on complex issues. But they stress their examples are not prescriptions. While LS are easy to understand, advanced skill using all of them takes practice. "Learning to customize Liberating Structure designs for the specific purpose of each complex challenge is an art form that can be improved over a life time," the authors declare.

An extensive field guide explains each LS, its structural elements, its possibilities, its derivation, and some tips, potential traps and variations.

The stories from the field are instructive. Lisa Kimball is an experienced entrepreneur who started using LS in the 1980s. In her work with the U.S. Army, a User Experience Fishbowl allowed soldiers about to deploy to Afghanistan to hear first-hand experiences of soldiers returning from war. That included vital information on how they built trusting relationships with women in rural villages to improve intelligence and discourage Taliban recruitment. Officers reported they learned far more from personal exchanges than from formal summaries. Michael Gardam, MD, medical director of infection prevention at the University Health Network in Toronto, explains the way Social Network Mapping showed new relationships developing across units and diverse disciplines as people collaborated to stop the spread of infections. Simple Ethnography interviews, ranging from housekeeping to executives, then documented the culture changes and differences of habits and behavior brought about by new ways of working together.

Liberating Structures may be the seeds to grow engagement in your organization. They may also nurture new thoughts and actions in your communities and personal lives.

To learn more, participant in a PlexusCall May 9, in which Henri and others will discuss Liberating Structures. Buy the book, visit the LS website, and attend the Liberating Structures Workshop May 29-30. Read the Gallop State of the American Workplace Report.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  innovation  leaders 

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