Liberating Structures and Spryng

Though it may not immediately be apparent, Liberating Structure and Spryng, a research software platform, share a similar set of convictions about making sense of human systems—groups, organizations, communities, populations of all kinds. Moreover, those shared convictions are the foundation for considerable synergy between the methodologies and tools of LS and Spryng.

At their core, both LS and Spryng grow out of deep curiosity and a desire to understand groups of human beings, typically tied to a need to solve problems, make decisions, craft policies and procedures, or shape strategic thinking. Or even simply to gain insights into an identifiable group. Whatever the reasons for being curious, there is a desire to understand what makes a particular community of people tick from some perspective or another.

As well, both LS and Spryng reflect a conviction that every individual human is unique. And therefore, every group of human beings is also unique—every family, organization, community, nation—however a group or collection of people might be defined—no two are the same. And when membership changes, the group likewise becomes to some degree different. In that sense, all human groups are complex—the individuals influence the whole, the whole influences the individuals, and it is never possible to control or exactly predict outcomes. Patterns form, but they are always emergent and often surprising.

Video Transcript
Keith McCandless 0:05
Barrett, great to see you. It's been too long, way too long.Yeah, I want to know what you've been doing. I know Spryng and doing projects, collecting all the voices has been a core part of your work. And I just kind of want to know how you get started with that. And, and of course, I also want to know, you know, how is it that you're using liberating structures to support that work? So how do you get started? What's the first kind of thing you do?

Barrett Horne 0:46
And but let me just say at the beginning, is that the premise of liberty structures, the premise of Spryng is that every voice matters, when you're trying to understand any kind of human organization, community system, whatever it might be. Each one is unique. And each one is made up of all the unique human beings. And each human being has a unique perspective, a unique voice. And so Spryng is about how do we, how do we not lose those voices when we're trying to figure out what's going on when we're faced with decisions? You know, and so typically, what happens is that, uh, you know, a leader or group, something, an organization, whatever it might be, they're faced with some issues, some challenges. You know, one client was a Department of Education, who was needing help with special education, and they had, you know, hundreds and hundreds of students and teachers and parents and, and trying to figure out how, what's the experience? And what's going on? How can we do better with special and inclusive education? Well, that's a really complex challenge. And there's no simple answer to that. And so the question is, how do we find that out? And so Spryng is a way of capturing those kinds of voices at scale to figure out what's going on to make it possible to make wise decisions to, you know, to see what's going on to understand what's going on and make wise decisions. So the first thing is that you have some sort of problem that you need to address or deal with. And typically you need, you're looking to make decisions, or you're looking to understand some important issue for whatever reasons. And so the first thing is to identify what is that and what is it you want to find out? And who is the population? Who are the stakeholders? Whose insight is going to be really valuable and critical to understand that?

Keith McCandless 2:49
So like Spryng, liberating structures exists to include and unleash all voices in shaping what happens next. So they're, you know, there's a lovely fit to start with, that's, that's the reason that they exist. So I can imagine that you, you want to include all these all the voices for education, and there's many and and they need to define, in part to even start on some effort where their voices are explored. They probably need to define the problem together, at least some of them probably need to be involved in conceiving a project, you know, the one that you would work on? Yeah, so, uh, you know, the typical thing would be a survey, right? In some surveys where all the responses are collected, and then it's, somebody else analyzes it over here, and they come back and say, tada, an expert has told us, here's the problem. You know, what? How do you of course, there's a liberating structure for that, that does include all the voices and one that's really great. It's called impromptu networking, it's super easy to do. You can include all those people, but how do you with a client? How do you break them away? From the surface way in which all those voices are simply flattened by a survey and then some expert opinion, how do you stop that from happening?

Barrett Horne 4:33
Well, you're hitting on the whole essence of how Spryng as a methodology works, and it's built on the understanding that the way human beings make sense of our worlds is through narrative through stories. You know, we go to work and we have some experiences with our boss, with our co-workers, with customers. And when we go to the coffee shop, you know, And we're talking with our neighbor or friend and they say, so how's it going? Well, we tell him stories about what happened at work and, and whatever opinions we have, they flow out of they grow out of the context of those stories. The problem with traditional surveys is they ask us for our opinion. And every opinion that I share is abstracted from some stories, and often a range of stories. And I'm asked what I think about something. And of course, it begs the question, what I think about today, what I think about over the last week or the last year, there's a whole range of things that end up being abstracted, and my voice disappears, and in the end, end up with a survey, so you end up with statistical averages and means and different things. And you can say x percent, you know, answered the question this way, and X percent answered it that way. And then, as you say, an expert says, Well, this is what that means. But really, the only person who really knows what the opinion means is the person whose story it was. And so that the genius, if you will, of the Spryng methodology is that it invites people to share specific stories, tell us a story, you know, share an experience about special education, one that really encouraged you, or one that really disturbed you. We often asked for the two ends, and they share a story. And then we asked them to answer some questions, a short range of questions about what that story meant to them. So they interpret that story.

And there's a couple things that are going on there, in the instrument that the story that they shared an interpretation are never separated. So that when you eventually could have hundreds of 1000s, but you can look at the patterns of how people interpreted stories. And here are the stories behind this pattern of data. And then you have a chance to say well, there's context there, there's stuff going on, is there anything going on in those stories that generates that pattern. So you have this lovely blend of, of qualitative data, which has the stories and people aren't, can share more than one they can, you know, share a story about a good story and a bad story, whatever, however many stories they'd like to share. It's not like a survey where you answer it once. And that's it. Share as many stories as you like, and interpret each one. And then we end up with patterns. And of course, that's how we make sense of the world is we see patterns. That's what we're doing and liberating structures is patterns emerge. And then we make, we say, Ooh, that's interesting. There's interesting, what do we make of that pattern? And of course, in the end, when that emerges, when you get when the results, and the fruit of that comes, you can as the people who are trying to make decision, say, Who Are there patterns that we want to amplify, we can see these are patterns that are really encouraging what was going on in the stories? Is there anything in those stories that would help us figure out things we could do that would get more of those kinds of patterns? Or vice versa? Here's some things well, we don't want to see that happening. What's going on in those stories? Is there anything going on there? Do we see any patterns that we could dampen that might reduce the number of those kinds of stories, and you can see there's incredibly rich insights that emerge? And it emerges because the voices matter. The other thing is probably worth saying is that the questions and the instruments are always designed in a way to be ambiguous. There's no right or wrong answer. So you can't game it. You can't punish or reward. You're just sharing a story. And because it's not able to be gamed, it's also we say, no hypothesis. So there's no presupposition about what the right answers will be. It's designed in a way simply to let the stories emerge, let the voice emerge, which is exactly what we tried to do in impromptu networking or whatever it's just say, let's see what emerges. Let's put out the invitation and see what emerges, and then make sense of them.

Keith McCandless 9:04
What's so interesting is that invitation, it's an honest, direct invitation to a person to tell a story. And simultaneously, it's not their opinion, that I'm least interested in your opinion. I don't think it helps much in lots of situations. I am very interested in your story, and that's rich, it expands the set of possibilities, whereas your opinion, almost immediately flattens. And that's when we do the opposite of collecting stories. We get that expert to flatten all those stories into something that is not very useful.

Barrett Horne 9:53
So one more thing, I gotta tell you. You just reminded me of something when you said that. The other thing that happens in surveys, the standard operating practice is to cut out the outliers. You know, you have a one out here, and why don't you cut them out. Whereas in this, if we see a bunch of interpretations that are up in this corner of a graph, and we see three down here, we're curious what's going on with those three. And we have the stories of those three, we can look at those far from being cast out, we want there might be an insight there. That's really, really important. And so it allows the potential for discovering outliers who have seen something that may be critical to making sense of the whole system.

Keith McCandless 10:25
Well, and it's another thing I think, shared between us and these methodologies were talking about these approaches is this deep respect for people. And their and their local story, their local solution, their local problem, whatever that may be. That's going to be the source of moving forward, the invitation to tell the story is a sign of respect. And then, in that telling of the story is also enough respect that you believe that solutions can be generated out of that trusting relationship. So what I love about what you're saying is, you've included people in a way that they will own and operate their own future, the story that they tell themselves about what they're doing as it's unfolding in front of them. So you've, you've kind of said that you, you invite people to talk about the problems and possibilities. I'm curious, when you've looked at this, how do you? How do you turn the corner? Well, first, you got to design the instrument, but I'm particularly interested in how you impart the invitation to shape the future, out of the stories of what's happening in front or with a shared knowledge of all the stories that have been unfolding, including those outlying ends? How do you invite them to start? Because that's just descriptive. Sounds kind of descriptive. So what do you do to unleash this, we own our own future, or we can tug parts of the present to make a future that's more of our liking. What do you do?

Barrett Horne 12:59
Well, that's it. Yeah. And then, of course, therein lies the rub, as they say. Actually liberating structures is really critically helpful. Let's say we've done a study, and we've had 1000s of responses, you know, so we've ended up with 1000s of experiences that have been shared and interpreted. And so we have a wealth of quantitative data, which is the patterns, you know, the quantitative ways of statistical of all the way they've interpreted the stories, but we also have the stories and we can say, here's a, here's a group of data here from, you know, they have interpretive data, and here's the stories that go with those. And what we do is, we need to play with that. And we play with that by pulling together representative stakeholders, and depending on on the situation, the client, what's possible, you know, virtual or face to face, or both, is finding a group of stakeholders that speak to the, as much as possible and, you know, again, we face the human limitations of space and time, as much as possible. They represent the diversity of the group that's been contributing their stories, and we bring them together. And we invite them to play with the data. So we share with them some of the patterns that we see. And whatever liberating structures might be appropriate at that point, we invite them to say, so what do you notice here? You know, what, so what? And now what? And tease those out? See what, and sometimes we do it by saying, here's the, here's the quantitative data, what does that suggest to you? So they look at the quantitative data, and they said, well, it's suggested this and this and this, and we say, and they capture all of that. And then we say, well, here are the stories that goes with that. What did the stories tell you now? And how does your Have you changed? And it's really interesting because people often are saying, Wow, that's different. I remember somebody telling me, this person interpreted their story wrong. And I'm saying, well, that's really difficult to imagine. Yeah. And so then it becomes a matter of curiosity. And so you're really provoking a deep curiosity you're showing, these are patterns. These are patterns of stories. Okay? These stories are kind of alike. In these ways. These are patterns of how stories are interpreted. And what are you curious about? What does that suggest to you? What might we look at, because we can say, well, these stories were interpreted around these lenses in this way, what did the stories look like through this other lens? Because we have, you know, we have this question, we asked people about interpretation, we have another question we asked, we say, well, how does this question compared to that question in these stories, and, and as they play with that, as they experiment, as they identify themes, you know, and any kind of liberating structure, triz, obviously 1-2-4-All , almost everything has 1-2-4-All in it. And I love giving people sentences to finish, you know, sort of the kinds of sentences that you have in the Mad Tea. But, but, you know, as you look at these, you've looked at all this stuff, here are some sentences, what emerges, so people complete those, and then they share them with each other, and they have these conversations. And then we're asking if there was a theme, if there was an insight, one or two insights that are emerging out of all that what might they be and stuff starts to emerge, themes start to emerge? And of course, you can ask, So what now? What, if you had a hypothesis about what would make a difference from everything that you've seen, if there are things that could lead to, you know, positive, amplifying some positive things, dampening some negative things, or desirable things, undesirable things? What would you suggest, and so then insights start to emerge. And, but the thing is, in their experience, the people that the group and the stakeholders, they have a, and actually, I'm thinking of one particular client, because the people who are in the group, we're not people who naturally talk to each other, they were kind of an adversarial relationships normally. And but in the process, in the experience of being together, and working with the data, they found themselves finding common ground, they found themselves wrestling with issues, and they had actual voices in front of them of what people were experiencing. And which is a very different thing from just having an opinion in front of you. And so then they had conversations, and it was really amazing to see relationships built in that of how they could figure out things together.

Keith McCandless 17:49
Well, I think we share the hypothesis, let's say it's a theory for a minute that innovation or change arises in the adjacencies, you know, in the, with the person next to you who's different, or they're in a different discipline or domain, or they're just very different than you. It's the in between those stories, those disciplines where new things arise. So I agree with you, once you've got people together and talking, there's some natural amount of surprising new things that start to take shape. There are a couple really good liberating structures that help you emphasize possibilities and a bit of believing before seeing, you know, and those are ones, you know, Critical Uncertainties, there's a new one called Future Present. Even something like 25/10 Crowd Sourcing, is you know, if you were 10 times bolder?

Barrett Horne 19:08
And that's actually a question. That's one of my open ended questions, actually, very often, if you were 10 times bolder, you know, in light of everything.

Keith McCandless 19:18
Well, if that's part of a Spryng, if that's part of your analysis, then you have the seeds for sorting and sifting the boldest, actionable ideas of a group and then emphasizing the possibilities isn't something that the leader does, it arises out of the community of people you've invited to shape the future. And that is just so exciting. I guess the other thing, I mean, you've just included, unleashed all these people. If the client doesn't have a support mechanism for people to take action on their own or to go off and use the information, do you do anything to support individuals or help the organizations shape peer to peer support for the kinds of fabulous ideas that arise?

Barrett Horne 20:24
That's a really good question. And on one level, I say Don't I wish? It really depends on the client and the context. I mean, certainly, in terms of myself, and others with whom I've worked in the world of doing Spryng projects, a significant part of our engagement is educational. People are experiencing stuff that's new to them. And we want them to not only not only have a good experience, but to understand why that's a good experience. And and we are quite explicit to say, you know, what we're doing here today is something you could do in any context, and just encourage you to watch what's going on, and sometimes even ask that question, did you notice what we did, you know, so there's a sense of that's, you know, part of helping people to appreciate and understand why they had a good experience, in the conversations and in the work that we just did, and to notice it. In terms of ongoing support, it really depends, you know, I mean, because one of my clients was, you know, I'm in Yukon, and the client was, you know, on the east coast, the United States, and my world doesn't intersect with our world. On the other hand, you know, if I have local clients, my world does intersect, and, and obviously, you know, my, I admit, I do what I do, because I want to see people have more success, and be able to be effective and productive and doing good things. And any ways that I can encourage that. I'm here to do that. And by introducing them to resources, you know, so I point out liberating structures, you know, have you checked out liberating structures, there's some really neat resources are really simple to use, you can try them out. And, of course, people get tired of me sending them links to read and do stuff like that. But all that stuff.

Keith McCandless 22:36
It's very important to keep the support, to find a way for people to support each other as they do this work into the future. Right. So we're focused on shaping a new narrative, a new kind of organization, there's some transition underway, or multiple transitions, if you've lived through the last two years, you're probably in the middle of a couple or more. And so I like to use things like Troika consulting, where the support is built into the relationships that have just been formed in the project. So we're doing the work, we're analyzing together, we're looking at the data, and we're making sense of it in a particular way. And so, like you, did you notice what we just did, you know, helping them but also, where else might you turn that same approach to supporting each other? Could you bring that into your everyday meeting? Why is it just in this project?

Barrett Horne 24:21
You reminded me of something else. Because this is this is a one of the things that Spryng is, can be really, really useful is not only for doing a project to figure something out, but it as you learn, as you see things that you get ideas about, there's some levers that we can pull and buttons we can press, we think we could get some traction if we did this or this. We think this would change some patterns. You can continue using a Spryng instrument or a Spryng initiative to watch and see are the patterns shifting. So it's, it's possible to in real time If the instrument is designed and the initiative is designed in such a way, people can continue to be submitting stories. And you're taking some actions and you're seeing an even if it's a great big huge jurisdiction, you might take some experiments, you do an action in this part of the jurisdiction, another action in that part of the jurisdiction. And you watch the stories coming in, you say are the story shifting, or the story shifting, and if that's possible to watch him in real time just in terms of gathering data and continuing the conversation, which is incredibly powerful option?

Keith McCandless 25:39
Yeah, at least my practice, I have gotten to a place where anything that doesn't have some built in durability to it, that it will be repeated I'm not into. I just can't do very many things that have a short shelf life. And so, and I'm willing to do almost anything to provoke that ongoing shift in behavior. So with choice, one thing that happens is you get help from two people. And if you have the mix of people you're talking about, they're going to be really different than you. And almost without very, almost every time people will say I had the two best consultants. They were the smartest, the wisest, the kindest, the sweetest, you know, whatever List of Attributes, I'm going well, what if everyone in your organization was that wise? That sweet? You know, that's wonderful, but you haven't talked to them before? Why wouldn't you just tap that approach? Why wouldn't you use trigger consulting and mix it up every time? Yeah. Why wouldn't you do that? You know, if they really were that greatest, sweetest, smartest, whatever. And it's like, it's always there for us to take advantage of it if we just did, if I just did. And so that ongoing quality, the fact that you can continue to tell the story as its unfolding as you're shaping it, and it's unfolding. It's so great.
LS reflects this conviction in the first of its 10 principles: “Include and unleash everyone.” By this, LS is making clear that every voice within a stakeholder group matters because every voice brings a unique perspective. If the intention is to tap into and unleash the wisdom of a group, every voice in the group needs a genuine opportunity to contribute to that wisdom.

And, as a complex system, the wisdom of the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. As individuals interact and “engage in seriously playful curiosity” (LS Principle #10), new insights emerge. The various parts interact with the whole and the whole interacts with the various parts—forming new patterns and generating new insights.

When the group in question is small enough, there are many ways to pursue that curiosity and many ways of bringing folks together creatively to engage, using the always-growing suite of LS tools and methods.

However, when we are curious about much larger populations—from multiple dozens to multiple thousands of individuals—each one with their own unique and uniquely valuable voice—gaining meaningful insights is a significant challenge, especially in ways that respect the importance of every voice and that take seriously the complexity of human groups and populations.

This is where Spryng becomes an invaluable resource—complementing what is possible with LS. Spryng makes it possible at scale to gather and make sense of the individual voices and the wisdom they offer to the whole, from a few dozen individuals to hundreds of thousands of participants.

The Spryng methodology, which has come to be known as ‘active sensemaking’, is simple and straightforward, at least in principle. As humans, we make sense of our lives—every aspect of our lives—via stories. Around the dinner table, during a coffee break, in the grocery store check-out queue, when asked how we are doing or what’s the latest with some project, or really anything, we share an anecdote. We tell what someone did or did not do, what did or did not happen, what did or did not surprise us, and so on.

Of course, we do not typically just stop with the anecdote. We go on to share the meaning of the anecdote or experience. Asked about work, we might say, “Today at work George was late again with a report that I needed. He just cannot be trusted to get things done on time!”

It is this very natural, very human way of making sense of things that Spryng leverages to discern patterns of meaning and sense-making, using a carefully designed questionnaire in which members of a population are invited to anonymously share an experience, responding to a prompting question and then, in the same questionnaire, to answer a few carefully crafted questions by which they interpret the meaning of that experience for them.

(This is critically distinct from traditional surveys, in which participants offer opinions from which their unique voices are totally abstracted from the study, as well as abstracting from all context, often around questions for which context is all-important.)

Invitation to tell the story is a sign of respect. And then, in that telling of the story is also enough respect that you believe that solutions can be generated out of that trusting relationship. - Keith McCandless

In a Spryng active sensemaking initiative, as multiple experiences are shared and interpreted (at the point of sharing!) by members of the population in question (and individuals are welcome to share multiple experiences), patterns of interpretation begin to emerge. These are patterns of meaning-making. And, as Spryng ensures that the interpretations remain linked to the respective experiences that generated the meanings, it is possible to examine anecdote clusters that remain attached to specific patterns of interpretation.

The outcome is an extraordinarily rich set of qualitative (the anecdotes) and quantitative (the interpretive answers) data around the generative questions that prompted the initiative. Taken together, and with the powerful analysis tools built into Spryng, it becomes possible to explore patterns of meaning, teasing out correlations between all the various kinds of data.

Spryng and Liberating Structures playing together

The synergy between Liberating Structures and Spryng is most apparent at the beginning and the conclusion of a typical Spryng initiative. As noted above, Spryng’s active sensemaking process involves inviting people to respond to a questionnaire in which they share an experience or anecdote (or possibly a photo or other artifact) and then reflect on the meaning of what they shared via a small set of interpretive questions. As might be imagined, the design of a Spryng instrument is critically important—and LS’s are ideal tools for helping to craft an active sensemaking questionnaire.

Similarly, at the conclusion of a Spryng initiative, there is the need to make sense of the collected data, to explore the patterns of meaning-making that have emerged via the inquiry and begin to form hypotheses and recommendations for wise actions that might be indicated, relative to the purposes of the inquiry. As meaning patterns are teased out, questions naturally arise as to what may be especially important and what patterns should be dampened or amplified. Here again, LS are invaluable tools.

While every Spryng project will have its own contours and requirements, the beginning and the conclusion of an active sensemaking initiative will typically involve bringing a small group of representative stakeholders in highly interactive workshop settings. These stakeholders are as broadly representative as possible of the intended respondent population.

At the beginning stage the intention is to build a foundation for crafting an appropriate and relevant questionnaire. This involves creatively teasing out what are stakeholder questions, issues, hopes, concerns, fears, aspirations, and etc., relative to whatever is the focus of the Spryng project (e.g., employee engagement, customer experience, community priorities, whatever is the focus of the project sponsor’s curiosity and challenges).

In the same manner, at the conclusion of an active sensemaking Spryng project, a representative group of stakeholders dig into the collected data, exploring correlations and considering how interpretation patterns relate to the experiences and anecdotes to which they are tied.

The effective and creative application of Liberating Structure principles and methods help ensure that these workshops yield useful outcomes—a well-designed questionnaire on the front end, and practical wise next steps at the conclusion.

Of course, not all LS practitioners have either interest or opportunities to work with human groups and communities at scale. But for those who do, Spryng and its active sensemaking methodology is a uniquely powerful set of tools that are consistent with and complementary to the foundations of LS.

It is also worth noting that the Spryng software platform has a powerful set of tools that support both ends of a Spryng project, including tools for virtual workshop facilitation and creative ways to visualize data for analysis.

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