A conversation with Keith McCandless, co-developer and author of The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation

Keith will be speaking at our upcoming event — Control the Room: The 1st Annual Austin Facilitator Summit! Taking place at Austin’s Capital Factory on May 23, 2019, learn more and get your tickets here.

Keith McCandless spent the first 20 years of his career trying to transform healthcare. When a group of health, business, and academic leaders formed an institute to study complexity science, he started to hope and believe a more fundamental transformation was possible. After meeting, Henri Lipmanowicz, his business partner and founder of the Plexus Institute, the two transversed the globe applying the study of complexity to develop a series of tiny methods called Liberating Structures (LS). LS help groups and organizations solve a wide array of complex challenges.

Keith McCandless
Keith McCandless

Liberating Structures

Through their work with academic innovators and scientists, Keith and Henri realized that people were searching for a new way to explain phenomena, do research, and organize. The traditional practices of organizational development and process improvement were not enough, so Keith and Henri looked for a more distributed approach. Learning from their past experience, they made the decision to forego setting up a formal organization around LS.

“We wanted Liberating Structures to be in everybody’s hands for everyday use. We wanted it to have a creative commons — virtually free for anybody who cares.”

“Henri had just finished a long, very successful business career. I’m more of a methods-and-design guy than a organization-building guy. We wanted Liberating Structures to be in everybody’s hands for everyday use. We wanted it to have a creative commons — virtually free for anybody who cares.”

Despite many opportunities for exclusive rights to the approach, Keith and Henri were determined for LS to be accessible as a way for it to spread across disciplines. “The use of Liberating Structures is fully self-organized, person-to-person, and widely distributed. This seems to help dissolve boundaries across domains, disciplines, and geography.”

“Liberating Structures are easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust.”
“Liberating Structures are easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust.”

As the microstructures have been used by more organizations over the years, Keith has noticed that the lack of formal boundaries in LS is often paralleled in the breaking down of boundaries within the organizations where the methods are practiced.

“Within a company, there’ll be six different groups that are working on the development of people and innovation to move the company forward. When people start using Liberating Structures, they find that the boundaries between their functions start to disappear.”

“When they start using Liberating Structures they find that the boundaries between their functions start to disappear.”

The beauty of LS is that the ideas inherent in the structures themselves are also what help perpetuate and spread them throughout the world. “There’s no formal governance but us, people connected, who really know the repertoire and deeply understand how microstructure maintains the fidelity of reliably-surprising results.”

Keith refers to the loose structure of people promoting Liberating Structures as a core periphery network. That network consists of people who write, catalog, share, and facilitate the spread of the work through a social network. “A lot is going on where people find each other, develop material, and then distribute it to others. There are people who will pop in, get help, and share their experience. And then there is a smaller group of practitioners who are developing new LS for the repertoire.”

Henri Lipmanowicz, Keith McCandless, and Professor Arvind Singhal in the Clinton Library in 2014.

This approach to structure provides a contrast to a typical organization. “There’s no budgeting. There’s a little bit of a strategic plan to boost spread. Nobody has a formal position. No one is hired to do a single thing. Everybody is doing it because they’re interested in developing themselves or developing the body of work.”

Keith views LS as an innovation that spreads itself. “It has some attributes of a complex adaptive system, the way it grows and expands. It’s moving around person to person at a rapid rate, and it doesn’t require centralized control to do that.”

Letting go

Letting go of formal organizational structure and stale business practices is a key aspect of Liberating Structures. Through his consulting, Keith finds that much of the work in innovation today is blocked by the unwillingness or lack of focus on letting go to allow for new ideas to take shape.

“There is very little effort to let go of anything before adding something new. Many innovative ideas have no room to take root. Everyone’s plate is full. The discipline of individual and collective creative destruction is much neglected. While it may feel like heresy, LS employs a variety of seriously fun methods (e.g., TRIZ, Ecocycle, Talking with Pixies) to help people productively let go.”

“Liberating Structures employ a variety of seriously fun methods to help people productively let go.”

Many organizations seeking to innovate fall for the myth that a better idea is what’s needed and making space for it will be the natural next step. In Keith’s experience, the opposite happens. As soon as there is space made and room to breathe, innovative solutions rush in.

Liberating structures

Distributed capabilities

“That capability to stop doing things should be fully distributed throughout the organization. It’s not a managerial or a leadership task. It’s everybody’s work. Because the TRIZ and Eco-Cycle are pretty simple, everybody can do it. That’s part of cultural change.”

As the pace of change and the need to adapt increases, Keith sees the distribution of capabilities to be a key distinction in an organization’s ability to remain competitive and nimble.

“A bunch of very large organization’s innovation work hangs by a string. It’s not at the center. They talk as though it’s the center of what they’re doing, but it’s a relatively small group of expert innovators. Their skillfulness in design and innovation is not distributed across the organization. It’s not working fast or deep enough because it isn’t part of everyday work.”

“Every person in the organization should be involved and can be involved in shaping what happens next. That includes stopping things and starting things.”

A model of Ecocycle Planning
A model of Ecocycle Planning

One way to identify opportunities to stop and start certain activities is through Ecocycle Planning.

Through this LS, participants identify the activities they perform in their job individually and then prioritize them in groups based on four developmental stages: birth, maturity, creative destruction, and renewal.

Involving everyone in this activity allows individuals to understand where their contributions have an impact in the larger context of company operations while also identifying ways to remove bottlenecks and reinvigorate team performance. Ecocycle also encourages leaders to focus on activities no longer serving the company purpose so they can be stopped to free up space to birth new ideas.

“I have a hypothesis: the velocity at which you move your products and services around the Ecocycle — in comparison to your competitors — is linked to your performance in the marketplace.”

In addition to benefiting the company planning process, going through the Ecocycle on an individual basis creates opportunities for innovation to fill the gaps left by creative destruction.

In Keith’s experience, many companies are supporting “a lot of old clunky stuff” that they aren’t ready to release. The unwillingness to let go results in a thin pipeline of offerings and ties up resources so they’re unable to invest quickly in new ideas.

Metrics focused on challenges and possibilities explored

In the face of limited resources, reliance on metrics and measurement to ensure a good ROI on investments is common for many innovation programs. Keith suggests two measures: The number of worthy-yet-elusive challenges explored, and, as challenges are tackled, the frequency of participants asking, “What is possible now?”

“These measures generate multiple options and a continuous exploration of the adjacent possible. Each experiment opens a neighboring door and another adjacent door. Most combinations fail, but they reveal the next possibility. And, a few of the new ideas will astonish and delight.”

With clients, Keith looks for the internal group that’s poised to invent an entirely new operating model… to ensure the organization can serve its purpose in the future. “You need an internal group that’s developing multiple new models to serve the purpose of the organization. It may have nothing to do with the current way that you’re operating or be so different that it’s hard to even imagine that it still serves the same purpose.”

That group needs leadership, longer term commitments, and incremental check-ins centered around his suggested metrics of challenges and new possibilities explored.

Formalizing innovation programs: Dont.

“Don’t make innovation a program. Surely, that will kill it. Innovation can and should be infused into routine work. Shifting from over and under controlling conventional patterns to liberating every voice is practical with Liberating Structures. Introducing LS from top to bottom in an organization infuses inventiveness, empathy, and more vitality into everyday work.”

“Innovation can and should be infused into routine work.”


When I asked Keith what it was that made programs fail, he shared that it’s often the areas that you’d assume would fully support improvements and increased capability.

“Early on we were trying to take the LS work directly to people who’d put it into play with their customers immediately. And the people that were hard to change were the head of marketing or the head of sales. If you went right to salespeople or closer to the customers, they were enthusiastically onboard. But the marketing people wanted to tell the salespeople what to do and would regularly underestimate them. There were power relations that totally slowed things down and diminished people.”

Developing people through purpose

For Keith, the innovation silver bullet lies in maintaining a focus on the development, purposefulness, and inventiveness of each person.

“LS have fractal qualities: shifting patterns and behaviors in an individual can repeat at multiple scales across teams, units, and entire organizations. Additionally, there are a small number of people who are very skilled in including and inspiring others. I offer them as much coaching and consulting support as possible.”

Specifically, purpose is a focus that can have ripple effects from the individual to the team and beyond. Keith encourages individuals to explore purpose and come up with a nine-word purpose statement.

An worksheet for the “P2P” exercise.
An worksheet for the “P2P” exercise.

“We want you to start with the thing that you want to stop or put an end to in the world. I don’t want to hear anything about the good you’re going to do or the beautiful thing. Tell me about the bad thing that you’re going to stop. For me with Liberating Structures, I’m going to stop the unwitting over control, stifling, and exclusion of people.”

Getting down to the core purpose and uncovering what each individual wants to stop from happening creates a drive that is palpable. Or in Keith’s words it “unleashes a beautiful wave that seems to influence everyone around you.”

Keith continues to be excited by the process of developing new LS. Currently, he is exploring ways to liberate more effective approaches to myth busting, grieving a loss, and distributing control.