Voltage Control Partner Profile

Anna Jackson

When I first started Voltage Control, I was in deep market validation mode. I was meeting with potential clients, mentors, entrepreneurs, and other fractional consultants. I wanted to learn from the mistakes of others and also validate the market opportunity. While conducting this research, I met up with Ron Berry, the Executive Director of Fusebox. Fusebox is an arts nonprofit that brings artists and audiences together to explore vital issues and ideas at the center of contemporary life and culture. I’ve been on the board for four years and I respect Ron’s perspective deeply.

I walked Ron through my concept to get his thoughts and also ask him about his theatre background as I was just beginning to think about how to incorporate improv into my workshops. While Ron provided lots of great advice and perspective, most of what he shared was overshadowed by this system called Liberated Structures. Specifically, Liberating Structures and Anna Jackson, who I had previously met but didn’t realize was an expert facilitator. I connected with Anna a couple of days later, and we’ve been planning and scheming on how to partner ever since.

Anna first began facilitating when she was a teenager leading backcountry trips in the Sierra Nevada, as a YMCA camp counselor and youth leadership program director. She spent her summers immersed in groups as they made their way through the wilderness together. For short-term engagements, she facilitated low ropes games, which are focused on group communication and team-building. With a party that was staying for a week or more, the programs were based on a distributed responsibility model, focused on shared leadership. When the whole camp was assembled, there were typically eighty to a hundred twenty people, so Anna quickly became accustomed to facilitating with large groups as well as smaller ones. Since those formative days, she has transformed and inspired groups of various sizes and domains.

After finishing her master’s degree in 2009, Anna accepted a full-time role with Via Hope, an organization dedicated to transforming the mental health system in Texas. Her work focused on implementing new practices within organizations such as coordinating programs, organizing learning events and facilitating large group conferences. A few months running a large learning community, she noticed that the techniques used in these gatherings were brutally unvaried — there were a lot of didactic presentations. Every once in a while, someone would sprinkle in a group discussion for variety. The approach lacked rigor, felt inordinately expert-driven, and individuals had no sense of purpose or ownership.

The Via Hope Team running a Social Network Webbing Liberating Structure
The Via Hope Team running a Social Network Webbing Liberating Structure

Anna attended a Liberating Structures (LS) workshop in 2011 with her close colleague, Dr. Michele Murphy-Smith, who previously worked with the Keith McCandless, creator of LS. They immediately put the methods to use. They quickly overhauled the way they hosted events, remote meetings, wrote curriculum and designed their programs. The shared ownership within the programs soared well beyond anything they had previously been able to achieve. With the coaching support of Keith, Anna was fluent in the methods and teaching the repertoire in just a couple years.

In 2014, she left Via Hope and launched Alpinista Consulting. Anna now regularly teaches workshops on Liberating Structures and coaches other people how to use them, as well as uses them in her consultative work with her clients doing strategic planning, event facilitation, team development work, and program design.

When working directly with clients and facilitating in partnership with them, she becomes intimately familiar with their most challenging issues and through a collaborative approach can develop solutions that they own. The client knows and understands the solutions because they co-created them. Seeing these shifts in the organizations, programs, and individuals she partners is intellectually and creatively satisfying.

“Coaching other people using Liberating Structures, I get to see their leadership and facilitative practices develop and change, and I’m constantly learning from people, too. When you use LS, you begin to relinquish power more productively, develop more meaningful relationships with your colleagues and your work, and we can see real results very quickly. It is extremely rewarding.” — Anna Jackson

Like learning speak any new language, you first learn the basic vocabulary, then slowly increase fluency until you are ready to improvise and create new possibilities. Seven years after getting started with Liberating Structures, Anna is still finding new and exciting ways to remix the infinite possibilities of the repertoire. She is increasingly adding visual facilitation, improv, and other outside methods such as Gamestorming into her LS work. Ron, her life partner and the person who introduced us, is a contemporary art curator and his work often influences hers. She is currently exploring how people develop and hone a practice, whether the practice is cooking, writing, or something more obviously connected to her own, in the hopes of creating offerings that are even more effective at supporting people as they develop their skills with Liberating Structures.

Anna Jackson (left) and Amanda Bowman (right) facilitating a Liberating Structures Workshop I attended
Anna Jackson (left) and Amanda Bowman (right) facilitating a Liberating Structures Workshop I attended

Last summer I had the opportunity of attending one of Anna’s LS workshops and immersed myself in the methods. I was instantly hooked. I began applying the techniques in client meetings, workshops, presentations, and conferences. In November, Anna attended a Design Sprint Workshop I hosted featuring Jake Knapp, the author. Since then Anna and I have been meeting regularly to discuss how we might integrate LS and Design Sprints.

Anna attending the Jake Knapp Design Sprint Workshop
Anna attending the Jake Knapp Design Sprint Workshop

Design Sprints and Liberating Structures are beautifully well suited to complement one another. Sprints are a highly structured set of design thinking methods and practices that have been thoroughly tested and shown to produce significant results in just five days. While Design Sprints work well for seven people meeting to solve specific types of problems, Liberating Structures apply more broadly and scale to much larger groups. When you face a challenge that is not well suited for a Design Sprint, Liberating Structures offers a curated, tested list of methods.

Liberating Structures in action
Liberating Structures in action

Unlike the highly structured Design Sprint, the sequencing and individual method-shaping of LS is wildly varied, and people typically don’t facilitate the same exact sequence more than once. They work well for 1-hour workshops, three-day workshops, or even facilitating multi-month processes. One of our favorite ways to integrate Design Sprint and LS is to feed them into each other. LS can be used to identify opportunities for a Design Sprint and build alignment across a large group on who should attend the Sprint. Likewise, Liberating Structures can be used to share the insights with the broader group and synthesize the learnings together.

I’m convinced that Anna and I will continue to do great things together as we explore how we can support and challenge each other. As part of our continued effort weave LS and Design Sprints together, Anna and I are hosting a Liberating Structures Primer Workshop. We are hosting this workshop at Capital Factory and will be working hard to expose these tools to the entrepreneur and startup community. I hope you can attend, join the conversation and help us explore how to make Austin more connected and purpose driven.

If you are in or near Austin, come visit us at the Austin Design Sprint meetup. Each month we have a guest speaker share their experience participating in a Design Sprint. If you would like to be a future speaker please email me.