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«Interview with Keith McCandless Episode: 59 Published: October 4, 2016 Amiel Handelsman: Keith, first of all, I wanted to mention to you that I’ve ...»

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Interview with Keith McCandless

Episode: 59

Published: October 4, 2016

Amiel Handelsman: Keith, first of all, I wanted to mention to you that I’ve actually

been using these liberating structures since I came across your website. In fact, I just led

a session for people in the adult development field about the Enneagram, and we went

through the 1-2-4-All a couple of times and it worked really, really well.

Keith McCandless: Good.

Amiel: I would love to start off with hearing about, briefly about the background that you have that brought you to discover or invent liberating structures.

Keith: I’m happy to do that. Well, I think the most important thing that we didn’t write about in the book very much, complexity science, so the ideas, the exciting principles in complexity science that -- For example, little things can make a big difference;

nonlinearity, patterns or systems are embedded in systems are embedded systems are embedded in systems, and their relationship among those embedded systems makes a big difference in regard to transformational change. A bunch of the principles in complexity science helped me to question conventional approaches to change and management and leadership, and question really everything about how we organize. It’s so fundamental.

So different was the science underneath that; different than cause and effect and equal and opposite reaction. Those things don’t really explain human beings or human organizing very well, so I was a conventional consultant well before that. I was interested in transforming the health system. I did a series of -- Served in a series of roles from community health planner trying to get the right number of hospitals and health resources in communities to being a policy and planning person for the hospitals in Washington State to starting and operating, leading a healthcare quality foundation that had business in university researchers, and all kinds of great people who were very smart.

In all of those positions, our really smart thinking didn’t seem to do very much to change 1 | P a g e Transcribed by Melissa Southerland Interview with Keith McCandless or sustain change in the health system, so I think the most important thing was failure for me in those ventures, and after those positions and mostly around the northwest. I went down to San Francisco and worked for kind of a healthcare think tank – the healthcare forum you mentioned that you know; you used to read the journal. Very visionary.

Again, we were going to envision – we are going to think our way; we’re going to dream our way into the future. Also, not impressed with that. It was actually more dangerous than some of the other approaches. If you get your vision wrong, the future state you are working toward, you miss everything. You don’t actually notice what’s unfolding around you, so even that made me question, “Do I have the wrong theory or is it some other theory,” so this complexity science was a huge deal. I had to run around the country and eventually found a group of people from very diverse backgrounds; very different disciplines even – physics, mathematics, medicine, and in that group, I bumped in, when he retired from his working life, his corporate life -- I bumped into Henri, the co-author, my co-author. So, that’s the very short history of where it came from. Once I met Henri, it got serious. We started doing things together. We started trying out the very first liberating structures, many of which you know because you’re in the field, are borrowed from brilliant -- We stand on the shoulders of appreciative inquiry or David Cooperrider, and other terrific thinkers and dramatically simplified some of the insights that they generated in their work, and then we started inventing our own together. Yeah, so that’s kind of maybe enough? Is that enough about -Amiel: Okay. I want to ask a follow up question actually because you describe some of the conventional ways of working. I wondered could you give me two things that I would have seen you doing conventionally that you later realized were not working that you did over and over again, a non-liberating structure?

Keith: Yeah. You have to imagine as I’m telling you this. Henri, my co-author and I, both did these things I’m going to mention, and at various points in time, we needed to physically restrain one another from doing these things, and that’s how much a habit they were, and still I fall off the horse, so the one is presenting; me presenting, so a presentation as a conventional structure. I’m the expert. I shape through a presentation or lecture what direction we might go. The rest of the people are sort of out there and I’m laying it on them. They’re the unwashed or the -- There are various ways to make fun of it, but I take up all the time, and maybe at the end I remember that there are other brilliant people there that could contribute and I’ll say, “Any Questions,” but the questions are kind of a throw-away thing, and now I talk about that that’s an over-controlling. I go up into my head, and even as we were developing the liberating structures, this is when Henri had to restrain me. I’d start talking about all the backgrounds of the liberating

–  –  –

structure and not use the liberating structure with all of the interesting theoretical aspects, which no one, almost no one was interested in except me and Henri, right.

Amiel: Okay. Let me interject, and if that’s okay, I’ll be interrupting from time to time because I think all of us need to be restrained so I want to know what did Henri physically do to restrain you?

Keith: He came up behind me and grabbed me and said, “Shut up,” for various points in time, and we’d be in a country -Amiel: Okay.


-- we’d be in Brazil or France or somewhere, sometimes he’d come step right in front of me and just look me in the eye, and he didn’t have to say anything after a while because I was helping him with the same thing. We both went on and on and on thinking we were helping, but we were over-helping, which is exactly the same thing as overcontrolling, right, so when you’re over-helping, you’re underestimating the capability of the people you’re working with to handle it, to take responsibility for it. I’m not sure who was over-helping or over-controlling, but they were the same thing.

Amiel: Okay. Can you flip it around then? What was something, if you don’t mind saying, that Henri often did that you had to restrain him from it, how you did that?

Keith: Oh, absolutely the same thing except his was a slightly different style. Mine was, “I’m going to explain a lot about the background,” and his was a little bit more from the role of very successful executive, very much, “I’m saying something in which the right answer is in here somewhere and you’ll find it if you try hard enough,” -


Amiel: Right.


-- and those habits were pretty hard to break. The other part of your question is also quite interesting. The thing that you understand once you’ve lectured to your audience or have done the presentation, they are pacified. They are slumping in their chair. They’re bored out of their mind. They’re doing something else. You know, whatever. You’ve lost them for that period of time, so then a typical thing that I used to do would be to go to an open discussion or brainstorming, and both of those are undercontrolled. Anybody can say anything at any time and let’s just take the open discussion.

Very typical that we’re good people in an organization or me would go from I’m controlling all the space; me, I’m shaping it, I’m doing the thinking here to anybody can contribute, and there’s usually a leader-moderator, but anybody jumps in, and that’s so under-controlled that it’s not productive. It’s as unproductive as the presentation, as the 3 | P a g e Transcribed by Melissa Southerland Interview with Keith McCandless over-controlling, and usually it is because a couple of people, a few people in the group, the loudest, the people quickest to jump in, dominate the conversation and we now call it

-- They get into a goat rodeo. There’s kicking and biting and it’s very amusing, but nothing productive happens during the goat rodeo.

Amiel: And everyone else is asleep so the goats have a lot of space to move.

Keith: Well, they may be amused by it, but they become more cynical. That’s just it, and then the leader who wants something productive to happen, and you, I understand from what I read about you, you try to help leaders; the leader is left to pretend that there is consensus arising out of the goat rodeo, that those few people who are biting and kicking each other (I’m being a little facetious but it comes down to that a fair amount).

Something like that where people are lobbing things up in the air and mostly misunderstanding each other and there can be resentment or just cynicism just after a period of time. The leader if left with the job of saying something at the end, trying to pull together the various threads themselves and say, “Okay, we’ve achieved consensus.

This is how we’re going to move forward,” and it’s a false promise. It didn’t happen during that goat rodeo, and it didn’t happen during the presentation, and so I’m not different than anyone else. I would go back and forth between this over-controlling presentation thing to the under-controlling open discussion and brainstorming is actually a lot like open discussion with post-it notes, so those two things -- There’s a huge space in between those two, between under-control/not productive and over-control/mindnumbing or exclusive, a small circle or one person is shaping direction. Liberating structures sort of naturally fit in between, but I’m aware of how hard they are to develop.

We develop them to influence the habits in everyday work life or everyday organizing, beyond work life. Early on, we discovered people immediately started applying them to their family, to themselves, their family, their church, their school, their kids. Just a side note – The first time we were down in Brazil, we did our first real immersion workshop where we thought we had a repertoire to share, and Henri and I do it and we hung around a few days and had office hours and anybody could come in out of the 80 or 90 people at the workshop. Anybody could come and ask for an hour of our time and we would help them on their specific challenge that they had, and the first few people came in. The first person came in and said, “Well, I’d like to talk with you about my spouse.” We were like, “Uh, what,” and then “my kids and their school.” Work was number five on the list, and this was a corporate workshop we were putting on and we were management guys, so we were dumbfounded. I was dumbfounded. I think Henri was, too, that immediately people started applying these very simple methods to everything, every kind of relationship in their life.

4 | P a g e Transcribed by Melissa Southerland Interview with Keith McCandless Yeah, so that was a side note, but what I discovered in there through the going back and forth for myself between wanting to say too much and present to the group and then going to anybody can say anything, open discussion, that back and forth, that I had the same habits that I’m still working with groups as we introduce liberating structures to groups and it’s very liberating. There is a look that people get immediately and then there are the ones that get super excited about it. It’s a euphoria, and in that, every person has a set of habits. These things are different enough. We’ve tapped into something that’s just fundamentally different. Even though they love the idea of them and they can see how they work, they have to overcome those old habits of over-control.

Amiel: No matter how excited you are about the new pattern, the old habit, it lives in the body.

Keith: It’s in the body, and it’s like -- Everyone else in the world has seen the backwards bicycle riding. Have you ever seen this video?

Amiel: No.

Keith: It’s about neuroplasticity. If you are younger, it’s pretty easy to accomplish this task I’m going to describe, but here’s an engineer; the welders in his little company make him a bicycle that when you turn to the left, it actually turns the wheels to the right -Amiel: I see.


-- so his body has learned to turn a conventional bicycle. They give him this bike. He can’t even steady it. He’s falling off. It’s nine months before he can rewire his brain, his habits, his whole being to ride in this way. It takes his son maybe (I’m going to get this wrong) three weeks or something like that, but still, even as you’re just learning a bike, that all gets imprinted. Nine months later, he’s somewhere else and he decides to see, “Well, now I’ve mastered this backwards bicycle riding. I’ve rewired my brain to do it. Of course I can go back to the conventional way.” Well, no he can’t. It takes a half an hour or 45 minutes of wiring, so there is something convenient about this. It’s very natural for us to develop these habits. They are hard to break. We can break them, but we’re not quite as plastic and flexible, as adaptable as we would think, so it takes a while.

You can immediately get results with these. It sounds like you have with the 1-2-4-All.

It’s a miracle what happens. Every voice is included. You can feel the energy rise.

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