Liberating Structures and Spryng

Though it may not immediately be apparent, Liberating Structure and Spryng, a research software platform, share a similar set of convictions about making sense of human systems—groups, organizations, communities, populations of all kinds. Moreover, those shared convictions are the foundation for considerable synergy between the methodologies and tools of LS and Spryng.

At their core, both LS and Spryng grow out of deep curiosity and a desire to understand groups of human beings, typically tied to a need to solve problems, make decisions, craft policies and procedures, or shape strategic thinking. Or even simply to gain insights into an identifiable group. Whatever the reasons for being curious, there is a desire to understand what makes a particular community of people tick from some perspective or another.

As well, both LS and Spryng reflect a conviction that every individual human is unique. And therefore, every group of human beings is also unique—every family, organization, community, nation—however a group or collection of people might be defined—no two are the same. And when membership changes, the group likewise becomes to some degree different. In that sense, all human groups are complex—the individuals influence the whole, the whole influences the individuals, and it is never possible to control or exactly predict outcomes. Patterns form, but they are always emergent and often surprising.

LS reflects this conviction in the first of its 10 principles: “Include and unleash everyone.” By this, LS is making clear that every voice within a stakeholder group matters because every voice brings a unique perspective. If the intention is to tap into and unleash the wisdom of a group, every voice in the group needs a genuine opportunity to contribute to that wisdom.

And, as a complex system, the wisdom of the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. As individuals interact and “engage in seriously playful curiosity” (LS Principle #10), new insights emerge. The various parts interact with the whole and the whole interacts with the various parts—forming new patterns and generating new insights.

When the group in question is small enough, there are many ways to pursue that curiosity and many ways of bringing folks together creatively to engage, using the always-growing suite of LS tools and methods.

However, when we are curious about much larger populations—from multiple dozens to multiple thousands of individuals—each one with their own unique and uniquely valuable voice—gaining meaningful insights is a significant challenge, especially in ways that respect the importance of every voice and that take seriously the complexity of human groups and populations.

This is where Spryng becomes an invaluable resource—complementing what is possible with LS. Spryng makes it possible at scale to gather and make sense of the individual voices and the wisdom they offer to the whole, from a few dozen individuals to hundreds of thousands of participants.

The Spryng methodology, which has come to be known as ‘active sensemaking’, is simple and straightforward, at least in principle. As humans, we make sense of our lives—every aspect of our lives—via stories. Around the dinner table, during a coffee break, in the grocery store check-out queue, when asked how we are doing or what’s the latest with some project, or really anything, we share an anecdote. We tell what someone did or did not do, what did or did not happen, what did or did not surprise us, and so on.

Of course, we do not typically just stop with the anecdote. We go on to share the meaning of the anecdote or experience. Asked about work, we might say, “Today at work George was late again with a report that I needed. He just cannot be trusted to get things done on time!”

It is this very natural, very human way of making sense of things that Spryng leverages to discern patterns of meaning and sense-making, using a carefully designed questionnaire in which members of a population are invited to anonymously share an experience, responding to a prompting question and then, in the same questionnaire, to answer a few carefully crafted questions by which they interpret the meaning of that experience for them.

(This is critically distinct from traditional surveys, in which participants offer opinions from which their unique voices are totally abstracted from the study, as well as abstracting from all context, often around questions for which context is all-important.)

Invitation to tell the story is a sign of respect. And then, in that telling of the story is also enough respect that you believe that solutions can be generated out of that trusting relationship. - Keith McCandless

In a Spryng active sensemaking initiative, as multiple experiences are shared and interpreted (at the point of sharing!) by members of the population in question (and individuals are welcome to share multiple experiences), patterns of interpretation begin to emerge. These are patterns of meaning-making. And, as Spryng ensures that the interpretations remain linked to the respective experiences that generated the meanings, it is possible to examine anecdote clusters that remain attached to specific patterns of interpretation.

The outcome is an extraordinarily rich set of qualitative (the anecdotes) and quantitative (the interpretive answers) data around the generative questions that prompted the initiative. Taken together, and with the powerful analysis tools built into Spryng, it becomes possible to explore patterns of meaning, teasing out correlations between all the various kinds of data.

Spryng and Liberating Structures playing together

The synergy between Liberating Structures and Spryng is most apparent at the beginning and the conclusion of a typical Spryng initiative. As noted above, Spryng’s active sensemaking process involves inviting people to respond to a questionnaire in which they share an experience or anecdote (or possibly a photo or other artifact) and then reflect on the meaning of what they shared via a small set of interpretive questions. As might be imagined, the design of a Spryng instrument is critically important—and LS’s are ideal tools for helping to craft an active sensemaking questionnaire.

Similarly, at the conclusion of a Spryng initiative, there is the need to make sense of the collected data, to explore the patterns of meaning-making that have emerged via the inquiry and begin to form hypotheses and recommendations for wise actions that might be indicated, relative to the purposes of the inquiry. As meaning patterns are teased out, questions naturally arise as to what may be especially important and what patterns should be dampened or amplified. Here again, LS are invaluable tools.

While every Spryng project will have its own contours and requirements, the beginning and the conclusion of an active sensemaking initiative will typically involve bringing a small group of representative stakeholders in highly interactive workshop settings. These stakeholders are as broadly representative as possible of the intended respondent population.

At the beginning stage the intention is to build a foundation for crafting an appropriate and relevant questionnaire. This involves creatively teasing out what are stakeholder questions, issues, hopes, concerns, fears, aspirations, and etc., relative to whatever is the focus of the Spryng project (e.g., employee engagement, customer experience, community priorities, whatever is the focus of the project sponsor’s curiosity and challenges).

In the same manner, at the conclusion of an active sensemaking Spryng project, a representative group of stakeholders dig into the collected data, exploring correlations and considering how interpretation patterns relate to the experiences and anecdotes to which they are tied.

The effective and creative application of Liberating Structure principles and methods help ensure that these workshops yield useful outcomes—a well-designed questionnaire on the front end, and practical wise next steps at the conclusion.

Of course, not all LS practitioners have either interest or opportunities to work with human groups and communities at scale. But for those who do, Spryng and its active sensemaking methodology is a uniquely powerful set of tools that are consistent with and complementary to the foundations of LS.

It is also worth noting that the Spryng software platform has a powerful set of tools that support both ends of a Spryng project, including tools for virtual workshop facilitation and creative ways to visualize data for analysis.