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Embracing Complexity: a conversation with Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua of Liberating Structures

In Spring and Summer 2020, in a series of free, online workshops hosted by Humanities for the Public Good, we imagined graduate education as embracing complexity, solving problems, and working for justice, while also exploring practices for stimulating conversation and liberating the full potential of groups. Then, in Fall 2020, we launched a Liberating Structures user group at University of Iowa organized by former Postdoctoral Fellow Ashley Cheyemi McNeil: a monthly casual convening for people to play around with Liberating Structures methods, discover their own practice for using these structures in their classrooms and meetings, and have some serious fun. The LS User Group was an opportunity to meet people from across the campus and the community. Students, staff, faculty, administrators, and community members were all warmly welcome to join us for one or all sessions in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021.

We worked together with Liberating Structures leaders Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua to imagine graduate education rooted in values, motivated by wicked problems, and approached through disciplinary knowledge, active practice, and an ongoing search for meaning and purpose.

In September 2020, we had a conversation with Anna and Fisher about their practice. Find their full interview audio and transcript below, where they discuss how Liberating Structures can help us embrace complexity and design successful collaborations across many different fields and teams, from healthcare to the humanities.

Laura Perry: What is Liberating Structures? Could you give an example of one structure, and how it could be useful for teachers or facilitators, especially now that so many of us are working digitally and virtually?

Fisher Qua: One of the most productive or imaginative parts of sessions is often when we ask everyone else to describe what the words liberating and structures mean. So, it feels both silly and a little risky to try and describe it ourselves. One way to talk about it which is as a set of methods or structures that are used to work with groups in a way that taps into potentially more of each person’s imagination, creativity, intelligence, and brings forward the contribution that each person can make in a way that respects the complexity of the group and doesn’t try and compress or diminish or engineer out or get rid of that complexity. But it’s also many, many other things. Anna, you talk about it often as a social network of practitioners, as an evolving practice. There’s lots and lots of other ways, so maybe you can elaborate on other ways to describe it.

Anna Jackson: It’s a body of work. A lot of us think of it as a repertoire of methods, maybe a vocabulary of methods once you are in community with other people that also work with that vocabulary. That repertoire, that body of work is evolving. It’s this informal network of people shaping and changing that body of work. So it’s really a community of people working with a shared set of methods and ideas in practice together.

One example that might be helpful as we think about a specific liberating structure, especially as we think about moving into a virtual space is one of the methods that comes from what we think of as the core repertoire or even the original repertoire that got captured, and that’s troika consulting. You’re in a trio with two other people, and each person has an opportunity to share a consultative challenge with the two people that they’re working with. Their partners have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions and then the person who’s seeking consultation either turns around, or mutes their mic and turns their video off, while the other two people try to generate either solutions or different perspectives or ideas related to the challenge, and then you all debrief. It all happens in 10 minutes. In this immediate way, each person in a trio and a triad gives and receives help in the matter of half an hour. There’s some very tactical problem solving that happens, and there’s a lot of structural elements at play that if you follow, you can usually get pretty good results.

Listen to the full conversation below:

Fisher Qua: The other one that comes to mind is called the spiral journal, inspired by Lynda Barry. It’s a practice that invites people to start by focusing on a very micro task, which is to draw a slow continuous spiral and then respond to different writing prompts on a page. I think what has become interesting about it for a lot of people is that it gets us off the computer. It brings our attention away from the screen and drops our focus onto interacting with… I can’t help the pun, the original digital. So we start working with the pen and paper and our digits, not the screen. It’s an opportunity for each person to arrange themselves before having to move forward into a bigger, more rambunctious social space.

Anna Jackson: Spiral journal has easily been the fastest for people to take up in the last six months, this time when we’ve been in the pandemic. It’s very interesting that as we go virtual, the method that people most easily translate and pick up is the one that invites you to write on a piece of paper with your hand and let your little micro muscles in your fingers move across and create a spiral. The main structure people are drawn to is the one that asks us to turn away from the screen. I just love that.

Ashley Cheyemi McNeil: How did you stumble into Liberating Structures? How did you find this career?

Anna Jackson: I came to it through a really close friend and colleague, about 10 years ago, Michele Murphy Smith who knew Keith McCandless. Michele Murphy Smith had done some HIV work with Keith in Texas and Michele and I were working in mental health together. We were running learning collaboratives around recovery and peer support. We found ourselves running these learning collaboratives where we were designing experiences where people hear brilliant ideas and inspiring changes of practice that could be applied in their own settings, but there were no methods or mechanisms to help people translate them into a local context or to listen deeply locally. We were missing ways of doing that, and so we started to bring in Liberating Structures into all of that work.

My work very much comes from a grounding in mental health systems change and practice change, and the recovery movement in mental health and how it is that we invite people into learning from each other, learning from the people that receive services, and inviting them to shape services. If you look at the Liberating Structures principles, they closely align and even amplify some of the ideas that underpin so much of the work we were doing. Troika, the one we just spoke about, helps you put into practice immediately some of the principles of recovery which relate directly to mutuality, and mutual learning, and co-shaping, co-design. It’s this lovely fit.         

Fisher Qua: The way you set up the question, Ashley, was how did you stumble into this? And part of what personally set me up to come to Liberating Structures was getting interested in contact improvisation as a dance and movement form. One of the first things that I learned to do in that form was how to fall safely. You learn how to fall in a way that’s productive and not harmful to you or people around you.

Keith McCandless, one of the two people that helped compose the repertoire alongside Henri Lipmanowicz, based in Seattle, was a longtime friend and colleague of somebody I was working for at a health foundation in Seattle. My first job at the health foundation was to put on a big conference for about 350 health policy and legislators. I made the choice to spend three days with health policy and legislators only on generating wicked questions for the future of health and healthcare. No solutions, no action, nothing other than trying to get better questions to work on for the future of health and healthcare. At the end of it, people came up to me and they’re like, “I don’t really know what we just did. I have no clue what this was about, but it was engaging and I thought it was pretty imaginative. I haven’t really been to something like this before and that was intriguing.” But then what was really interesting was a lot of the health foundation’s strategy for the next five years became about responding to these wicked questions. The questions were so attractive that they helped reshape how we were going to structure ourselves and what kinds of things we were going to pursue.

Every day, every moment, as an educator you’re trying to figure out how to adapt and respond and imagine and create the conditions for other people to engage with themselves and each other.

Education is also one of those areas that I find myself really attracted to because it’s so rich. Every day, every moment, as an educator you’re trying to figure out how to adapt and respond and imagine and create the conditions for other people to engage with themselves and each other around something that you’re inquiring about.

Anna Jackson: There’s a discrete domain of higher ed, yet everything that we do, even if it’s a strategic planning process or work that is more around strategy, the way in which these particular structures or approaches hold complexity is about learning and growth and evolving. It’s very difficult to think of anything that we do that isn’t related to learning.

Laura Perry: This year at Humanities for the Public Good, we’re thinking about design. How do you think about design? What does good design mean to you?

Fisher Qua: The sources of Liberating Structures is some inspiration from complexity science, which is this kind of strange area that doesn’t really hold together as a science. Some of the complexity science ideas are helpful lenses for design. One of the core ones is the relationship between variation and vitality. That variation and being able to hold both simultaneously and move rapidly between them does something to our vitality individually and as a group.

To me, design is all about control. The way I’m sitting in this chair, whether the chair designer meant it or not, controls what positions are available to my body. Liberating Structures is about control. It’s about, from my point of view, what’s the minimum control necessary? What’s the minimum stability necessary in order to work with the widest amount of variation and difference that we can? What’s the minimum stability necessary in order to work with a huge amount of variation and difference, and make it possible again for as much of each person’s contribution, intelligence, imagination, creativity to come forward. It doesn’t guarantee it, but can we structure it in a way that more of that’s available in every moment to each person and to the group?

Anna Jackson: You’re pretty much an optimistic person, but saying design is all about control is one of the more provocative ways that you describe it. It’s one end of the polarity. That opens up for me, then, to talk about the fun stuff in design. How do you design collaboratively with a group? What are the personal and collective aesthetics you get to bring into any design? What are the ways in which each person, including the person who’s holding structure, and everyone else in the group, gets to be expressive within that? Those are all the fun things that we get to think about when we design. All of those are points of opportunity for each of us to be co-shaping something together within the constraints that are offered by the design.

Ashley Cheyemi McNeil: At the University of Iowa we have gotten to work with both of you with great results and wonderment, and Liberating Structures is popping up all over our campus. We also know that you’ve been working with other research centers and universities. Iowa’s not the only lucky one in that way. What kind of complexities, paradoxes, wicked problems do you see emerging in higher ed? How do you perceive Liberating Structures as being a potential facilitator to help distinguish between the idea of knowledge production and meaning making, especially in a collaborative, team-based form?

Anna Jackson: Earlier we talked a little bit about complexity and that perspective on complexity. To me, one of the most straightforward ways for me to hold onto what complexity science is, is this idea that as humans, the ways that we interact, organize, or operate together are a lot more like natural systems, ecosystems, than like machines. Yet so many of our institutions and organizations have a legacy of this thinking that we really are more machine-like than we are.

Liberating Structures come out of complexity, and are inspired by complexity and aspire to help us hold complexity better.

Liberating Structures come out of complexity, and are inspired by complexity and aspire to help us hold complexity better. I still find it a bit aspirational, but I certainly think they’re better than other methods to help us hold the complexity of our relationships, the emotionality that exists in a space together, whether it’s knowledge production or other kinds of production, or interpersonal, transactional. Liberating Structures create certain conditions that make some of that more possible.

To me, what I noticed most across working with these different higher education groups is this desire on the part of the people that we’re working with to hold the complexity of this moment and make it possible for people to more meaningfully connect with ideas and with each other, and really do the sense making we need to do in all of these different compounding moments that we’re in.

People seem to be finding that Liberating Structures are helping them do that. It’s not magic. It’s some scaffolding, to offer different ways of holding that together than some of what our other tools have offered us. And there are probably lots and lots of other practices that exist all over the world that could help us meaningfully hold those pieces of work together.

Fisher Qua: One of the things that you were saying that stands out to me is trying not to separate knowledge production from meaning making. If you look at this through the lens of complexity, those things are happening simultaneously. It feels like for some people in higher ed, with Humanities for the Public Good, at other institutions, in the humanities, the social sciences, STEM fields, there is this tiny shift toward valuing other forms of knowledge, that emotional meaning-making creates a form of knowledge, that relational sense-making is a form of embodied knowledge, that oral interactions create a field of knowledge that we are contributing to simultaneously and just because it isn’t written down, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable knowledge.

A transition that I see in people’s practice is starting to figure out how do I now justify? I value this other form of knowledge. How do I justify it as a legitimate form of learning, and engagement, and production, that that is a valid form of production just as writing an essay is a valid form of production? The contribution that Liberating Structures can make is that it brings forward the social practice of knowledge production happening in many different ways that isn’t just about literate, written outputs or evidence, or whatever it is.

It reminds me of this fun phrase, that goes back to some of the early complexity people in healthcare. It’s: Where does evidence-based practice come from? It comes from practice-based evidence making. Part of what Liberating Structures is enabling is practice-based knowledge production or knowledge generation.

Ashley Cheyemi McNeil: I love that, and how you both have been able to describe how that idea of knowledge production, meaning making, or sense making are not at odds, but rather can richly inform and bridge through one another. I think of our own internship program and how Humanities for the Public Good is invested in providing opportunities for our doctoral students to experience that sense making in other communities and with other mentors and other cohorts. It heartens me and it makes me excited for what’s to come.

Laura Perry: Here at University of Iowa, we’re forming a group to explore different Liberating Structures. What are some of the benefits or unexpected perks of forming a user group?

Anna Jackson: Friends. I’m serious. You’re going to become buds with these people, because you have meaningful conversations and you make stuff together. It doesn’t have to be part of that, but it just seems to happen. Your use of self is part of your facilitative practice. You are bringing yourself into your conversations if you are part of the small group or the reflective pieces.

Fisher Qua: One of the nice things about user groups is that it’s a place that isn’t necessarily as anxiety producing as it is to stand in front of a room of 30 people and try to hold a structure. You have a place where you can practice getting the words out of your mouth and remembering the instructions, and doing that in a way that you’re not necessarily going to humiliate yourself.

Anna Jackson: Or do it in a way that you will, and then you get better at humiliating yourself, and very comfortable with it, and very comfortable with all the failures, the whole sequence of failures that are inevitable.

Fisher Qua: And it’s developing your practice, becoming aware of your own preferences, your own lenses, your own stances, your own aesthetics as part of that.

Anna Jackson: You also partner with people. If you’re in a user group, you typically might co-design or co-run something with someone that you don’t know as well and you wouldn’t work with, and you may never have a chance to work with otherwise. It’s this unique opportunity to get to do that. No one knows what they’re doing, so it’s friendly and exploratory.

Fisher Qua: User groups are a place to be speculative. One of the really lovely things about Liberating Structures is they’re very versatile. You can use them for very intimate, very caring, very relational purposes and you can use them for very operational, tangible, task-oriented things. The user group is a nice place to see more of that range or experience more of that range, or consider more of that range.

Anna Jackson: You can try different things. Today, I’m going to try and be a very serious, direct, hold authority differently, or today I’m going to be very relational and soft, and try to hold that stance. You can practice not only the structures, but the stylistic options that you have for a particular structure that you would never do in a place that’s more formal because you think you need to hold a particular style or stance. It can give you practice being a different kind of facilitator or structure holder than you’re accustomed to being.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

To get in touch with Anna and Fisher, visit their shared Eventbrite page, email Anna, email Fisher, or find them on LinkedIn and Twitter. To find out more about Liberating Structures, visit the Liberating Structures website, join their lively Slack community, download the Liberating Structures mobile app, or join a user group.