Virtual Liberating Structures Studio

Now that the pandemic has forced our gatherings online, how we design our interactions and what facilitation exercises or structures we use to enact our design in a digital setting, are more important than ever.

I’ve recently written a little about this in the context of designing online workshops. This post is about the what: the facilitation exercises or structures we use in our groupwork. In particular, it’s about a set of facilitation practices called Liberating Structures (LS), and our invitation to you to come practice them with us at our Liberating Structures Studio.

The original Liberating Structures. There are many more LS in development, and “riffs” on the originals too!

LS are a well-organized menu of different instructions and prompts — some borrowed, some not — that anyone can use in their gatherings to help spread participation and tap the generative intelligence of the full group. LS help a group make sense and make meaning, together. You can read more about LS here.

Alas! It is difficult to convey the varied “meaning” of different LS by solely reading about them.

This is because the effects and affects that LS produce are participatory and emergent.

Writing, Reading, Practising

The difference between reading about LS and practising LS is quite instructive.

For example, as you read these words you experience a partnership with lifeless symbols and syntax, written by “me” (the author). And by working with these words, you make meaning.

However, you can never really understand LS until you practice them and see what emerges. This is because LS are both algorithmic and heuristic.

Algorithmic because you follow a set of instructions in a defined sequence. But because the set of instructions do not lead to a single conclusion, LS could also be said to be heuristic! By “running” the algorithmic structure, participants’ creativity is liberated, and many possible “conclusions” and outcomes emerge.

Hence, Liberating Structures.

And so one needs to practice LS to really understand LS. And, magically, by simply experiencing LS, you are practising LS!

And this where our LS Studio comes in: to help you develop your ongoing practice with a community of peers and a set of coaches.

Originally, Susan Basterfield, Lisa Gill and myself were planning a 2-day virtual LS immersion workshop. But we were having a hard time finding a time zone that could catch as many participants from around the world as possible. We also liked the idea of a cohort of fellow learners going on this journey together. Reflective practitioners developing their groupwork practice together, inside and outside of “studio time”, leveraging what LS practice online can afford us: a space where synchronous and asynchronous collaboration is possible. And so an immersion became a multi-week studio, with either multiple time zone options for participants in a single offering, or Studios targeted to specific time zones and languages.

But WHY Virtual LS Studio? Let’s give a provisional answer with some diagrams.

Virtual

What images and feelings do we think of when we normally think of “virtual”?

Computer, keyboard, mouse, the social media “feed”, limitless distraction, limitless work, and so on.

But do we think of the shape of the Earth?

Probably not! And this reveals our predominantly asynchronous experience of virtual space (social media, news, blogs, etc.).

But a synchronous virtual gathering needs to work for this sphere shape! So many of our virtual gatherings are scheduled for specific time zones, and we’ve all experienced the pain of realizing that a workshop we’ve signed up for will take place in the middle of the night (“if I could only astral project I could still go!”)

Along with the interesting design constraint of the globe, here are some other concepts we’re inspired by within this notion of “Virtual”:

In case you can’t read my writing 😉: Asynchronous/Synchronous; Mediation; “Blending”

“Asynchronous/Synchronous” — By doing this work online, we can move our work together between the much less commonly used “synchronous virtual space” of the gathering itself and the very common “asynchronous virtual space” of social media, email, etc. “Mediation” is all about the ever-evolving number of tools that mediate our interaction with each other. And of course, because of these concepts, virtual space enables so much interesting “Blending”. We can blend the physical space of wherever we are participating from with the digital space to create our own ramshackle studio. We can blend the mental with the physical and somatic. We can blend our physical separateness with our virtual togetherness.

Groupwork

What images and feelings do we think of when we normally think of a group of people coming together around a shared purpose?

Probably a lot.

The group could be in a meeting at work, or they could be at home around a kitchen table, or they could be in a classroom, or maybe at a cafe. Each context has a different set of common images and feelings associated with it.

Perhaps these groups of people are coming together with the assistance of a single person or a handful of people who help the group work on its shared purpose. Often these spaces are either too tightly held, or feel too uncomfortably loose — where leadership seems to be emergent and shared (however clumsily).

Our interest is in the sort of groupwork that facilitators, trainers, coaches, etc. practice: the deft balance between tight control and loose emergence.

Here are some concepts we’re inspired by with this notion of “Groupwork”:

Participation; Emergence/Possibility; Purpose/Invitation; Control — Letting Go

Crafting a good invitation, clarifying purpose, spreading participation throughout a group, setting conditions for new possibilities to emerge, working within hierarchies or holding non-hierarchical work together and “letting go”. These concepts are just a start: there are so many more to list.

Studio

What images and feelings do we think of when we think of an art studio?

Paintbrushes, pencils, clay, colour, canvases, assorted half-broken chairs and tables, a messy cacophony of splatters and haphazard piles of materials, and so on. Intense creativity, tortured and frustrated wrestling with the (in)ability to express, effortless flow and prolific production and experimentation, etc.

We probably think of a creative space where an artist gets to their passionate or tortured work on their art. Stereotypical, I know.

And there can be a lot more to the concept of the studio: it can be quite a boundless idea, and it includes more than just visual art. There are dance studios and martial art studios. Studio spaces that welcome beginner and pro alike to practice out loud among themselves, to choreograph synchronized movements in a group, to spar with one another in simulated combat.

Here are some concepts we’re inspired by with this notion of “Studio”:

Studio Practice; “Atelier”; “Post-Studio”; “Dojo” (“place of the way”)

“Studio Practice” is a lovely notion. It’s all about the way in which an artist works: their ideas, subject matter, concepts, influences, inspiration, style, etc. “Atelier” is also interesting: it’s a private studio of a professional artist where the “principal master” delegates work to a number of assistants, students, and apprentices. Together, they produce art released under the master’s signature. “Post-Studio” is also helpful: beyond the conventional notion of the studio, a studio can also be mobile, an entire city, etc. Helpful as we think through this notion of “Virtual.” And of course, “Dojo” — a hall or place for immersive learning or meditation.

Our Reuleaux Triangle

Virtual-Groupwork-Studio Venn

How can these conceptual worlds relate? What does this combination produce?

What do their overlapping circles reveal in the “Reuleaux Triangle” of our Venn diagram (the central place where all the circles overlap)?

And how do we hold notions of studio and groupwork together when separateness and remoteness is our familiar context? …when our experience of these notions is characterized by mediation, solitude, and separateness?

Our Reuleaux Triangle: Liberating Structures

Of course, Liberating Structures play a big part in our Reuleaux triangle:

  • LS are highly adaptive to online meetings
  • LS provides a wonderful menu of group facilitation exercises (based in principles)
  • By practising LS we liberate the creativity of groups.

But concepts like “Social Art Practice” also occupies our Reuleaux: it’s the notion of a work of art that is activated through interaction with a community of folks. Reversing the “Atelier” notion is also helpful: turning the “principal master” into the assistant/facilitator, who supports the practice and creativity of “multiple masters” in the studio (rather than the other way around). And of course, by simply participating in the Virtual LS Studio and applying LS in your work and in your life, you will be developing your own “LS Studio Practice.”

The juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things is at the heart of the creative process, and by collectively holding these bundles of images, feelings and concepts together, new openings between each can emerge. These openings reveal the diverse contexts, constraints and opportunities that we each bring to the table — whether we are bringing a community organizing effort with us, the desire for a more collaborative family culture, a need for more engaged meetings at work, or a the need to facilitate better business results with clients. And with LS in hand, we can better see how these openings produce new possibilities and new practices for work and life!

So, in our upcoming Virtual Liberating Structures Studio, we will be playing online together within the opening created between studio practice and groupwork practice. We will be practising and experiencing these intersections through common LS and encouraging creative exploration at the horizon of LS as well.

And so, wherever you live on our lovely Earth, we invite you: JOIN US!

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Stefan Morales

Stefan Morales

Coaching + consulting w/ orgs striving to build a regenerative future @ workingtogether.io @ Greaterthan + @ Base Associates