What are Liberating Structures?

How to start using Liberating Structures in your organisation or group

What are Liberating Structures?

What’s the value in them?

  • Presentations
  • Managed discussions
  • Status reports
  • Open discussions
  • Brainstorms

The problem with these is they are either too constraining (in the case of presentations, managed discussions and status reports) or too loose (in the case of open discussions and brainstorms).

Source: “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures” by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless

Liberating Structures, on the other hand, are designed to embrace distributed control and include a fairer, larger number of people in shaping the next steps. The benefits? Innovation, inclusion, participation, clarity, purpose, fun… you’ll see when you experience them.

Do you have to be a facilitator to lead Liberating Structures?

The Surpising Power of Liberating Structures book

Where do I start?!

Which Liberating Structure do I start with?

  1. 1–2–4-All (12 mins)
    You can integrate this into any meeting, conversation or workshop super easily. It’s a great way of easing people into participating or discussing something, especially if there are people in the group with a tendency to be quiet. The sequence is: reflect on something (a question, a topic, an idea) for 1 minute individually in silence, then discuss it in pairs for 2 minutes, then in fours for 4 minutes, and then come together as a whole group and cherry pick some highlights from each four to share with the whole group.
  2. Impromptu Networking (20 mins)
    This is a good one to kick off a session with a team or group, especially if people don’t know each other very well. Esssentially, it involves people getting into pairs and rapidy sharing one thing they want to give to the group, one thing they want to get from the group, and a question they bring with them. You do three rounds of this so it’s a good way to warm up, get to know people, and help people set an intention for their participation.
  3. TRIZ (35 mins)
    A fun, high-energy favourite of mine, this one is great for identifying things that are getting in the way for you to achieve your desired outcome as a group. It’s a great eye-opener for teams who have maybe become a bit complacent or stagnant and very cathartic for frustrated people. I ran it with a group of HR directors in the public sector once and the laughter and energy was incredible. They got some real insights about how they needed to take ownership of behaviour change if they had any hope of others in their organisations doing the same.
  4. Wise Crowds (15 mins per person)
    This one’s useful if you want to tap into the creativity and intelligence of a group to solve problems or generate ideas. It’s a simple role play, basically, with a client and the others acting as consultants. The rules of the game, however, mean that the consultants can’t butt in or dominate, and the client listens to the consultants discussing suggestions silently and with their back turned so as not to influence the conversation. It works especially well when you have a group of people with diverse knowledge and experience.
  5. 25/10 Crowdsourcing (30 mins)
    If you’re ever frustrated that your group or team generates loads of great ideas that never go anywhere, this could be for you. It’s a rapid way to vote on possible ideas to explore further. Once you’ve decided on a few ideas, you can use some other Liberating Structures to drill down into the detail in order to bring them to life.

I want to use Liberating Structures in a meeting or workshop. How do I chose which one to use?

What are some tips?

  • Some of the suggested timings will feel fast but try to stick to them. If you need more time or to go deeper, do another round rather than dragging out a particular step. If you run over time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of a loose open discussion again.
  • To keep time, especially in large groups, I usually use tingsha bells (or similar). In smaller groups, I use a timer on screen so people can see how much time they have left. This is a great one recommended by a participant in a workshop I ran in Sweden recently.
  • When silent individual reflection is required, be firm in enforcing it — it’s important, especially for introverts!
  • Sometimes it might be useful to put some key instructions on slides for the group. The fewer words the better, though!
  • Be aware of space — is there room for people to stand if they need? Or sit in pairs? Consider what materials you might need like flip chart paper, pens and so on.
  • Make them your own. You’ll learn over time which ones you like best and how you prefer to run them. Some people like to give all the instructions up front. Personally, I try to keep them to a minimum. For example, with TRIZ I prefer to give the instructions bit by bit because I feel it inhibits people’s creativity if they know what’s coming next.

If you have any questions or want to chat about Liberating Structures, you can contact me on Twitter or via my website (www.reimaginaire.com). I also run Liberating Structures workshops in London and Stockholm from time to time so keep an eye out for those!

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.