Video and transcript from Anna Jackson and Keith McCandless’s talk at Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2019 Control The Room speaker video series.

Control the Room 2019 was Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together.

The conference opened with a talk by Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.” After that, we moved onto 15 quick-and-powerful presentations by facilitators of all kinds. Within that group of amazing speakers, we were lucky enough to have Anna Jackson and Keith McCandless.

“I loved exploring how to be a leader-facilitator in charge but not in control. Specifying only the tiny, nearly invisible elements that distribute control liberates everyone to work at the top of their intelligence.” — Keith McCandless, Liberating Structures co-author

Anna and Keith engaging with the CTR crowd.
Anna and Keith engaging with the CTR crowd.

Keith literally wrote the book on Liberating Structures, and Anna brings many years of practice in the field. Liberating Structures is a system of 35 methods with many more in development. The open platform has criteria for assessing and adopting new techniques into the repertoire.

Keith and Anna led us through a method under review called “Talking with Pixies” and then had us submit an assessment of the method.

Watch Anna Jackson and Keith McCandless’s talk “Radical Departures”:

Read the Transcript:

Keith: Thank you Douglas.

Anna: I’m just going to test this mic and it’s working so great. It’s just working great. Hi.

Audience: Hi.

Anna: Here we are, together, with you. How lovely. You’re going to be in control of everything-

Keith: I’m going to start. I guess-

Anna: … the slides. Look, I’m going to start. Look what that is.

Keith: All right.

Anna: Nice.

Keith: Sweet. Thank you.

Anna: Yes.

Keith: So we’ve worked together, delight in each other, and my reason for coming to this event is this person. So, we’re going to invite you to do the thing that we do all the time, which is to invent a new way to get something done. And so you’re going to participate, prototype field test, a new Liberating Structure with us, and evaluate it in this 20 minute period. And it’s called Talking with Pixies. And it turns out that Pixie was my first person who contacted me this morning and I thought for sure she was spoofing me that her name is Pixie. But in this case the pixies are the little committee in your head, on your shoulder, sometimes you have too little sprites that, you know, just pester you about a challenge you face.

Keith: So we’re going to prototype that or field test it. It’s been around a while, but we want you to help us. And then it’s sort of an add on to a repertoire of 33 Liberating Structures. Each one does a particular thing. They’re being used extensively in [inaudible 00:01:46] of all places as I’m looking over in the agile community. And, let’s keep going.

Anna: There’s the original repertoire-

Keith: Yeah, original repertoire-

Anna: Which is 33 methods. But what we’re doing with Liberating Structures is we’re really co-creating an emerging repertoire, right? So there were 33. If you go on the website, if you look in the book, there are 33 methods and there are emerging 20 to 30 more at this point. So you’re going to get a little taste of what those emerging kind of methods are as we go forward.

Keith: So, it’s all Creative Commons material. There’s no black box. Nobody has any more right to use them or control them than anyone else. So, just the littlest bit about the basis of it, which might be different from the scientific basis for the work, is out of complexity science. So most of what I learned, I was trained as a business person and a bit as a facilitator, that you gain from control, and Douglas’s name of Control the Room, like no, that’s exactly what I’m trying to unlearn. So this is suggesting that you can gain quite a bit from what might feel like disorder or distributing control. And most of the way we think and what we do, we’re learning how to distribute control. So my image here is a fitness landscape rather than Newton’s clock-like, clockworks, all right?

Keith: So just one more level down, on conventional science, conventional Newtonian clockwork, you break things into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces to manage things. Here, we are looking at how relationships, so Priya, relationships, not parts, are what’s important. So Priya did all the carrying of the water and the chopping of wood for us. It’s about relationships. And when you’re looking at how things form out of nothing or how new things emerge, that comes out of changing the pattern of relating, changing your pattern of relationships. And so if you look on the left side, here are all the conventional ways that if you take that you gain from control, those are all the things you do in your organization. You define roles, you simplify.

Keith: The ones we’re really going to focus on in our little prototype is conventionally you manage conflict. Here we’re really looking at paradox. These pixies are going to draw out some of the deepest paradoxes that you face. In conventional way, we usually get a strategy or have an idea and stay the course. In fact, here we’re looking for an emergent direction. Something that pops into view, a surprise, that’s so powerful you cannot resist it.

Keith: Yeah. So on your table, are you going to do this or am I?

Anna: You do it.

Keith: Okay.

Anna: You have stuff on your table.

Keith: All right, and the thing on your table we’ll use after an experience that mostly Anna is going to lead an experience called Talking with Pixies. And the only thing I want to say about it is it’s kind of a, we called this Radical Departures, because we’re suggesting that in the next 15 minutes you will identify a belief or an assumption that you’re holding, that limits your progress, and we’ll just see if that’s possible. It’s not a typical thing that people say something can do. All right.

Anna: Cool.

Keith: Oh, and I can do this.

Anna: You’re going to do the advancing?

Keith: You give me a signal.

Anna: Okay, yeah. I’ll just look at you heavily and pause.

Keith: I love that.

Anna: Okay, so we’re going to do Talking with Pixies, which I am going to be full disclosure, full transparency, I run this differently than Keith does and we’re going to run it the way that Keith runs it today because we want to be able to make sure that you can evaluate it based on this way of running it, right? So it’s lots of experimentation, but we’re going to run it in a particular way.

Anna: So, the basis of this is this idea that we make a decision to pivot or to change, and then we just don’t, right? So we might espouse that we want to do a thing, but we don’t make progress on it. So we’re going to try and work with that. So by yourself, you’re just going to take about a minute on this. You’re going to think about a goal or a pivot that you find yourself saying that you want to do, or thinking that you want to do, and it doesn’t seem like you’re moving toward it, right?

Anna: So you’re going to go through each of these items on your own, pretty fast, because a minute isn’t very long, and you’re just going to respond. So what is this worthy yet unrealized goal or pivot? What’s great about not doing that thing? What are the competing commitments to going all-in on this thing that you say that you want? What would people say about you if you didn’t act on that goal? But then also what would people say about you if you went all-in on that thing? So we’re going to give you a little time right now, jot it down as quickly as you can. Just a heads up, you’re going to need to share this information if you are a special person in a group, so be thinking in those terms.

Anna: Okay. So, a little preview for what’s about to come next and Keith, I’m calling on you to layer in, right? Okay. You are going to get into a group of three. As you get into the group of three you are going to make a decision about who is going to get pixified, so who’s going to get some help making progress, who’s going to get some extra support? Two other people are going to occupy roles, so one of them is going to be the provocateur. They’re going to hold the perspective of radical change. They’re going to advocate for radical change. The other person is going to be the preservationist and they’re going to really advocate that you stay with those current commitments, you really hold onto those. Then we’re going to walk you through a series of steps where you occupy those roles in different ways. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Anna: So for now, what we’re going to invite you to do is find a group of three, you’re going to be one of three. Please feel free to stand if that feels good and figure out who’s going to get pixified and who’s going to be the two pixies?

Keith: All right.

Anna: That was a bell. That’s our signal. That’s our signal. Okay. We’re going to give you more information now. There were some looks of good confusion and bad confusion. So we’re going to see what we can do to tell you what’s happening.

Keith: So if you’re not in a group, you can observe this, but I recommend you get in a group and just make some of these decisions a little faster. Is anybody looking for a group? If you raise your hand, I just want to be sure we don’t lose anybody that wants to be in one. All right? Okay. You’ve got a group back there. Sweet. So the role, as soon as you get clear, does everybody have one person that has invited help? If you haven’t yet, just look at somebody and go, “It’s you.” All right?

Anna: Just be like, “I want this, I want this, this is mine. Please, please help me claim it.”

Keith: It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but you actually want help. So for the other two, I want you to get clear. So in a minute, the person who wants help, I’m going to invite the other two people to position themselves by one of their ears, or on either side of the person, ready to whisper into the ear. All right? Know what it is?

Anna: Keith, don’t they need to get clear? They’re going to get clear about it. Okay.

Keith: I’ll do it. Okay. So are you in a physical arrangement that you can whisper into your person’s … Okay, this is …

Anna: In the person who’s getting help. The person who’s getting help should be in the middle, just to be real clear. Be in the middle if you’re getting the help.

Keith: Okay? I said you could gain from messiness, so here we go. So, a person is in the middle and the two pixies are on either side. And one of you, you’re going to ask, re-ask the person a little bit about what they wrote on their interview, and you’re basically redoing these five questions briefly with them and they’re going to look at you back and forth, you’re going to ask them some questions, and then we’re going to ding the bells again and you’re going to be their pixies, right? But for right now, just get interviewed. Help your two people understand the worthy yet unrealized goal, right? The thing you’ve decided to do but you haven’t done. All right? So talk about that. Two minutes.

Keith: All right. Okay. So, one thing about Liberating Structures, everything happens in fast iterative cycles, so you’ve learned enough to take the next step. So for this particular activity, the person who’s asked for help, I would like you to look forward and pixies be on either side, close to the person’s ears, as close as is comfortable. All right? And here’s what a pixie does. A pixie is helping you look through the funhouse mirror and they chatter. They [inaudible 00:12:03], and they’re just very insistent about their point of view. So if you’re the provocateur, you’re saying, “You know, what, wa.” Come on, you learned something about why they want it, right? It’s a worthy goal. So you emphasize that. “What could be gained if you just went for it?”

Keith: On the other side, again whispering, but it’s a preservationist. “All the commitments you’ve made to all the people and all the things that are important to you, you should maintain them. Don’t go off in this unproven direction. For God’s sake, what are you thinking?” But deliver it with little whispery, pixie-ish things. Okay? And we’re going to time this very carefully because a person can only take a simulated committee in their head for 45 seconds or less. Honest. I’m worried about you. I am. I’m protecting you. So it may be less than 45 seconds. We’re going to look in the room and see how it’s going. You talk at the same time as pixies, right? Both pixies start. Ready, set, go.

Keith: Sweet. Okay.

Anna: You’re applauding each other. What? That is adorable. That is adorable.

Keith: Okay.

Anna: Come on.

Keith: So, a couple of things we want to know. Who wasn’t able to take the full 45? Yeah.

Anna: We saw some explosive faces, yeah.

Keith: Yeah. It was too much. You guys broke down right away. Because we’re getting at something. Why are you laughing? Why did it tingle? Did you get a tingle?

Audience: Yeah. Yeah.

Keith: I did, and I’m not being pixified. The whole room, individually and together, we just got a tingle. So I think, what we’re trying to evaluate and we want you to help us evaluate, is did you just get at some assumptions and beliefs that really do limit you? And maybe you got a rearranged sense of what those are and possibly you can shift? And we’re not making a judgment about preserve or kick out the jambs or do the radical thing. We just think that we’re getting after something here about you and this thing that’s worthy, yet you have not been able to move forward toward it. Right? Did that just happen?

Keith: So one more thing here, timing, I don’t know if there’s a dispensation from Douglas or not. We do two forms of the pixifying. So if the two pixies could get next to just one of the ears and now you’re going to talk to each other from one point of view. So let’s just do the radical change one for a second. So get on one side of the person who’s asking for help, and I’d like you to go after, again as pixies, but you’re talking to each other, and the person that’s getting help look forward, don’t look in their eyes or you’ll stop them. And two pixies, talk about all the reasons, all the things that would be gained, if you just went for it. Okay? If you just went for it. And I’m going to give you one minute for that and work together to help. Now you’re both doing the same thing.

Keith: All right. So I know that’s a little short. So together, one of the things we believe is the tools of production should be, and the debriefing of the tools, everything should be distributed to people. So I’d like in your group of three, what just happened? Just talk for the next 30 seconds, like what just happened? Please.

Anna: Dynamic incompleteness? Dynamic incompleteness. Okay. So, you have evaluation forms on your table. If you feel like contributing to the emerging repertoire in a way that you haven’t already, which just doing this contributes so please know that we appreciate that, fill it out, let us know what you think. And other than that, we hope to see you doing Liberating Structures out in the world. Thanks.

Please join us for the Control the Room 2020, which will be held Feb. 5–7, 2020. You can find out more and buy tickets here.