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Inclusive High-Stakes Decision Making Made Easy (Craig Yeatman)

Does it pay off for a very well-prepared leader to invite diverse members of a board or management team to shape next steps together on new product launches, investments, and other high-stakes decisions? Not unless the leader starts with a clear purpose and is willing to let go of overcontrol. Then, bold moves can be made very quickly and decisively. Keith’s interview with Craig Yeatman shows how.

Craig Yeatman is the managing director of WorldsView™ Consulting and the CEO of WorldsView Holdings, both based in South Africa. He has successfully started up numerous companies and teaches entrepreneurial leadership and organizational development to professionals in the field. His goal is to advance the craft of building sustainable organizations. After hearing that Craig was making big waves back home after a Plexus Institute conference, Keith interviewed him to learn more about his experience with Liberating Structures in business.

Keith: Was there a moment in which you decided there was no turning back from using Liberating Structures in your practice?

Craig: I frequently teach a two-day “OD Foundations” program consisting of lectures and presentations. The material is complex and the room is filled with delegates that range from seasoned company executives to young professionals—all of whom are working in OD. So most afternoons are a complete waste of time—so little of the material “lands” in the final sessions.

One day, on the first afternoon, I walked away from the teaching material and picked up my Liberating Structures handbook. I turned two and a half hours of lecture into a few questions on the fly, and used 1-2-4-All instead of the presentation.


Keith: So, you replaced a finely vetted “best practices” presentation with an improvised 1-2-4-All microstructure. What happened?

Craig: The rest of the afternoon flew past. Delegate questions created powerful conversational teaching platforms. The next morning, I took a deep breath and changed the original class into a Liberating Structures design. I combined Impromptu Networking, Troika Consulting, Conversation Café (called Lekgotla in South Africa), and 25/10 Crowd Sourcing around small snippets of “teaching.”

All of us were deeply engaged. And then, almost four months after the workshop, I heard that the group was continuing to process the material, “voluntarily” taking the work forward on their own initiative.

That was my moment. Since then, I have become a proper student of Liberating Structures with action learning as my classroom.

Keith: So, success with the OD Foundations teaching program got you started. Have you tried Liberating Structures in business settings with difficult or high-stakes decisions to be addressed?

I frequently help leaders make decisions about investments, new product launches, and strategy. Because it is very expensive to bring people together, I feel pressure to make the experience intense, creative, and highly productive. For this type of meeting, I am now using Liberating Structures.

For example, in a marketing company meeting I chaired, the executive board members had three hours to present to the independent nonexecs a budget, plan, and merger strategy. I recommended they circulate the presentations in advance and dispense with the on-site presentations altogether. We worked with the assumption that participants would read the packets and grasp key issues.

On the day of the meeting, as you might expect, the nonexecs wanted more information and conventional presentations. I asked that they wait to see if presentations were needed until after we used the Liberating Structure 1-2-4-All. I asked each individual to write out the story of this business with the merger and without the merger… as well as asked, “What would the revenue, margins, and profitability look like with and without the merger two years into the future?”

Each participant joined in developing elements of the story lines, progressively adding detail and depth via 1-2-4-All. Execs and nonexecs mixed and shared ideas, and very quickly everyone internalized the story lines. This conversation took only fifteen minutes. Then, all the decisions needed to move forward took only ten minutes. As we moved around the table taking in the votes, each director was smiling, relaxed, and there was general agreement afterward that this was a great way to make a decision such as this.

The balance of the meeting, Craig told us, was used for the nonexecs to give advice to the executives, in a “Lekgotla” format, an indigenous variation of Conversation Café. Using this Liberating Structure strengthened the bond between the two groups and, Craig believes, set the merger off on the right path.

Craig: No one asked for a presentation. It was not necessary. As a footnote, the paperwork for the merger was completed within fourteen days, and the staff of the two companies had come together within thirty days. Some four months later, I heard some of the staff talking together and saying that it felt as though they had always been working together—which I like to think has something to do with the gentle way in which the board made their decision, and the spirit that the merging executives took from that board meeting.

Keith: Clearly, you believe the meeting outcomes were very positive. What was so different about the dynamics of this meeting?

Craig: Reflecting on my own experience in meetings, I know how quickly I become bored, restless, impatient, and controlling around “time.” Very often the topics and linear order of the agenda are not compelling. I tend to be disruptive and impatient when waiting to speak. I cut people off or make a joke, in large part because the agenda is forcing attention on the wrong conversation. My contributions are 20 percent of what they could be if we were only talking about the important challenges.

In this meeting, all of my energy and seemingly most of the energy of the other members was unfettered.

Keith: What do you think made it possible for you to get positive results and develop shared understanding so quickly?

Craig: Liberating Structures help people shape the agenda as it unfolds. The issues move themselves into play through each individual’s contributions. If the purpose of our agenda item is clear, the conversational focus is self-sorting, emergent, and we move rapidly into the meaty issues. This reduces the pressure on the leader or facilitator to figure it all out—the topics and the order of the agenda—in advance. The creative flow of questions, ideas, and solutions cannot be scripted beforehand.

Keith: Your expertise in building and sustaining organizations spans twenty-five-plus years. Your success, in part, comes from mastery of facilitation methods. What value do Liberating Structures add to the vast array of change methodologies used in organizations?

Craig: First, Liberating Structures illuminate the limits of the Big Five conventional microstructures—presentations, managed discussions, status reports, open discussions, and brainstorms—for engaging people.

My favorite sandbox since age twenty-four is getting people together for start-ups. I spent decades getting the right people in the room and focusing attention on a tightly planned agenda. Still, with all my skills and detailed preparation, I started to notice how my best efforts were generating formulaic and unthinking responses. Was my agenda at fault? Did I invite the wrong people?

Discovering Liberating Structures was a slap in the face. The problem was conventional microstructures—not the agenda or the people selected to participate. This was obvious to me after it was pointed out. The Big Five conventional approaches cannot deliver.

Keith: I am curious about you. What made it possible for you to make these “small changes” in your practice as a consultant, facilitator, and entrepreneur?

Craig: Three things made it possible for me to first play with, and then take more seriously, the idea of the Liberating Structures: my nature; the evangelism and support from Lisa Kimball, Henri Lipmanowicz, and yourself; and the results I have been seeing.

My nature: I have often joked with my wife that there are only two places I like to be when a crowd assembles: either on the podium or in the bar, away from the crowd. I rarely enjoy being spoken at, which has made me a disruptive force when groups gather.

I love speaking, and I love being in conversation about things that matter to me. I was taught “write, don’t speak” as a way of managing myself in groups—which inside me felt like trying to contain a whale of energy in a bird-sized body.

When a name was given [Liberating Structures] to ways of being in a group that freed me to engage in a way that I love—without having an unhealthy effect on those around me—I was intrigued.

Could there really be thirty-three or more “better ways” of being together in day-to-day organizational life?

Evangelism and support: Lisa Kimball’s work provided some motivation and inspiration, and then a tipping point was the effort that has gone into the Liberating Structures website—with the consistent “pattern language” approach to each Liberating Structure. This gave me confidence to move from patterns I quickly recognized (1-2-4-All, Conversation Cafe, Appreciative Interview) to others with which I am less familiar.

Liberating Structures provide massive structures for microencounters, and my whale energy swims easily in that water. It is easy for me to go into Liberating Structures, and so it has been easy for me to bring others with me. I am halfway through the current “set,” in that I have used about fifteen Liberating Structures alone or in combination at least once. I am not done yet.

I am not done yet because I see the results, every time I use a Liberating Structure in place of a CS—Controlling Structure, a term I made up to describe conventional microstructures.

Keith: Would you like to offer advice to other leaders getting started with Liberating Structures?

Craig: Whenever a group of people gets together, it should be for a purpose. Don’t start before you have clarified the purpose of your gathering. Print yourself a Liberating Structures manual that you can carry with you. I love having the “directory” at hand. Plan lightly, drawing your process from good practices in adult learning research and complexity sciences—and then use the simpler Liberating Structures methods to gain confidence. Keith and Henri have thoughtfully set them out in ascending complexity, so you can begin with Impromptu Networking or 1-2-4-All and progress through the set. As soon as possible, combine a couple—and before you know it you will be familiar with the “pattern language” instructions and have the confidence to draw on the full set as your event unfolds.

Craig’s experience illustrates how Liberating Structures invite people to shape next steps together, in the moment. We call this phenomenon “simultaneous mutual shaping.” It is a very productive “flow state” in which everyone can work at the top of his or her intelligence. Liberating Structures enable a depth of conversation and bold action that cannot be planned in advance but rather emerges out of local interaction among group members.