What are Liberating Structures?
Liberating Structures (LS) consist of a set of more than 30 facilitation techniques that can help anyone be an effective facilitator. The co-creators of the Liberating Structures are Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz.
As they describe on the Liberating Structures website:
This website offers an alternative way to approach and design how people work together. It provides a menu of thirty-three Liberating Structures to replace or complement conventional practices.
What are the Benefits of Using Liberating Structures?
Usage of LS in many different contexts has become increasingly popular among Agile practitioners, educators, and many others. The reasons that Liberating Structures have been created in fact aligns quite closely with the reasons for the creation and evolution of many Agile practices. Those reasons include the following:
- Organizations often struggle with creating an atmosphere that leads to consistent employee engagement
- Traditional management practices have been found to be ineffective and inhibit employee growth and development
- The power to create and to innovate is often in the hands of far too few people
Liberating Structures introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide and relate to one another. They put the innovative power once reserved for experts only in hands of everyone.
See also this short video introduction:
Liberating Structures: Simple, Subtle, Powerful
Because there are so many LS to choose from, using one or more LS can apply to most any organizational or team context, and to just about any type of meeting.
- A facilitator who is familiar with the LS to be used during the meeting
- The people who need to be present to achieve the desired outcome(s) from the meeting
- Feedback from attendees (and possibly others) on desired meeting outcome(s)
- Understanding of the problem space/business domain/keep topics to be discussed during the meeting
- Achievement of desired meeting outcome(s)
- Agreement on next steps
Preparing for Success
As is the case when planning to facilitate any meeting, it’s important to consider factors such as the following when contemplating the use of one or more LS:
- How many people will be attending the meeting
- What sorts of meeting norms are in place for the group of people attending the meeting
- What group dynamics exist
Liberating Structures can be used separately; quite often, they are used in combination, where a facilitator chooses a particular set of LS that align with the objectives they wish to achieve with a particular group/team. And that is the key point for the facilitator to consider; focusing on meeting outcomes and which LS might help achieve those outcomes.
What to Expect in the Description of a Liberating Structure
On the Liberating Structures website, the description of each LS includes the following elements:
- An icon and name plus a brief tag line that expresses its essential characteristic
- What is made possible: a paragraph that describes what you can expect to achieve when you use this LS
- Structural Elements: Summary of the specific elements associated with facilitating the LS
- Purposes: a list of the kind of purposes that may incite you to use this particular LS
- Tips and Traps: Advice and do’s and don’ts that increase your chances of getting more value when you use this particular LS
- Riffs and variations: Examples of alternatives or embellishments for you to try
- Examples: Sample uses to inspire you to think of opportunities that may exist in your context to use the LS
- Collateral materials: visuals, slides, videos that may provide you with additional support when using this LS
Choosing Liberating Structures
There is a construct called the Liberating Structures Matchmaker that helps facilitators decide which LS might fit their particular context. (The LS Matchmaker itself is a 2-page .pdf document).
A Thought Process for Choosing Liberating Structures
The Liberating Structures Matchmaker suggests the following thought process when considering which LS to use via the MatchMaker:
Write two or three sentences about the challenge you have in mind. Then:
- Put a checkmark next to each objective you wish to achieve (on the first page of the Matchmaker).
- Group objectives in a logical sequence of beginning, middle and end.
- Trim your list by taking out the less critical objectives; save those for later.
- If you are down to between 3 and 7 objectives you have your first string of objectives.
- Develop one or two alternative strings, shorter, longer or different.
- Share with others, compare, modify and choose one that makes good sense.
- Match your string of objectives with its string of LS and check timing.
- Save alternative objectives for improvising as needed during implementation.
How Long Does Each Liberating Structure Take to Facilitate?
There is some variability in terms of how long each LS might take, depending on the context within which the group or team is operating, how many people are involved, and so on. See the second page of the Liberating Structures Matchmaker for a complete list of the times for each LS.
Below is the verbatim description of the 1-2-4-All LS, from the Liberating Structures website. This example is included because 1-2-4-All is one of the most versatile and popular of the LS.
Engage Everyone Simultaneously in Generating Questions, Ideas, and Suggestions (12 min.)
What is made possible?
You can immediately include everyone regardless of how large the group is. You can generate better ideas and more of them faster than ever before. You can tap the know-how and imagination that is distributed widely in places not known in advance. Open, generative conversation unfolds. Ideas and solutions are sifted in rapid fashion. Most importantly, participants own the ideas, so follow-up and implementation is simplified. No buy-in strategies needed! Simple and elegant!
Five Structural Elements – Min Specs
1. Structuring Invitation
- Ask a question in response to the presentation of an issue, or about a problem to resolve or a proposal put forward (e.g., What opportunities do YOU see for making progress on this challenge? How would you handle this situation? What ideas or actions do you recommend?)
2. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed
- Unlimited number of groups
- Space for participants to work face-to-face in pairs and foursomes (if attending in-person)
- Chairs and tables (optional)
- Paper or electronic tool for participants to record observations and insights
3. How Participation Is Distributed
- Everyone in the group is included (often not the facilitator)
- Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute
4. How Groups Are Configured
- Start alone, then in pairs, then foursomes, and finally as a whole group
5. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation
- Silent self-reflection by individuals on a shared challenge, framed as a question (e.g., What opportunities do YOU see for making progress on this challenge? How would you handle this situation? What ideas or actions do you recommend?) 1 min.
- Generate ideas in pairs, building on ideas from self-reflection. 2 min.
- Share and develop ideas from your pair in foursomes (notice similarities and differences). 4 min.
- Ask, “What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?” Each group shares one important idea with all (repeat cycle as needed). 5 min.
- Engage every individual in searching for answers
- Avoid overhelping and the overcontrol-dependency vicious cycle
- Create safe spaces for expression, diminish power differentials
- Express “silent” conversations and expand diversity of inputs
- Enrich quality of observations and insights before expression
- Build naturally toward consensus or shared understanding
Tips and Traps
- Firmly facilitate quiet self-reflection before paired conversations
- Ask everyone to jot down their ideas during the silent reflection
- Use bells for announcing transitions
- Stick to precise timing, do another round if needed
- In a large group during “All,” limit the number of shared ideas to three or four
- In a large group, use a facilitator or harvester to record output not shared
- Invite each group to share one insight but not to repeat insights already shared
- Separate and protect generation of ideas from the whole group discussion
- Defer judgment; make ideas visual; go wild!
- When you hit a plateau, jump to another form of expression (e.g., Improv, sketching, stories)
- Maintain the rule of one conversation at a time in the whole group
- Do a second round if you did not go deep enough!
Riffs and Variations
- Graphically record insights as they emerge from groups
- Use Post-it notes in Rounds 2 and 3
- Link ideas that emerge to Design Storyboards, Improv Prototyping, Ecocycle Planning
- Go from groups of 4 to groups of 8 with consensus in mind. Colleague Liz Rykert calls this Octopus!
- Use after a speech or presentation, when it is important to get rich feedback (questions, comments, and ideas), instead of asking the audience, “Any questions?”
- A group of managers used two rounds of 1-2-4-All to redesign their less-than-stimulating weekly meeting
- For a spontaneous conversation that starts after the topic of a meeting has been announced
- For a group that has been convened to address a problem or an innovation opportunity
- For unlocking a discussion that has become dysfunctional or stuck
- In place of a leader “telling” people what to think and do (often unintentionally)
- For a group that tends to be excessively influenced by its leader