Learning from Liberating Structures

Like many managers, I have a lot of meetings, so I’m always looking for ways to make sure I get the most out of them. Am I hearing from everyone at the table? Are a group’s best ideas being surfaced, or am I just hearing from the extroverts? How can I get my team engaged in strategic planning? Consequently, I’m always on the lookout for tools and techniques to make meetings – one-on-ones, team conversations, administrative updates and beyond – useful, engaging and inclusive.

A couple of years ago, the always-incredible Tara Robertson pointed me towards Liberating Structures. Although I’ve experimented with them a bit over the past few years, I’ve struggled to cut through some of the jargon (particularly the innovation-speak, which especially bugs me) and, let’s face it, the information architecture and graphic design of the official website. However, Tara encouraged me to look for a training opportunity, and after several years, I was finally able to attend a Liberating Structures training led by Fisher Qua at NYC’s Outward Bound headquarters in Long Island City. This two-day intensive workshop made all the difference in helping me understand what Liberating Structures are and how they can be used.

The core idea of Liberating Structures is pretty simple: our existing meeting structures are either overspecified (a presentation or a status report) or underspecified (open discussions and brainstorming sessions) and limit creativity by being either too stifling or too disorganized. Liberating Structures shoot to be somewhere in the middle; the minimum amount of structure necessary to maximize creativity. To do this, it outlines thirty-some “microstructures” which can be used in a variety of combinations and customized to meet the need at hand.

The founders of Liberating Structures, Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, argue that all meeting structures have five common elements:

  • A structuring invitation, or some sort of indication of what’s going to happen next, which usually includes some expectation of participation
  • How the space is arranged (around a table, in rows facing a screen, etc.) and what materials are needed (audiovisual presentation technology, whiteboards, index cards, etc)
  • How participation is distributed among people present: who is allowed to talk, and who actually talks?
  • How groups are configured: is there one large group or are there multiple smaller groups?
  • A sequence of steps and time allocation: what activities happen and how much time is allotted to each?

What Liberating Structures do is ask you to pay attention to each of these elements, and to become aware of how small changes to any one of them can radically alter outcomes of the meeting.

For example, a common Liberating Structure is 1-2-4-All, which incrementally scales up participation from individual reflection to a large group. Using this structure instead of an “open discussion” gives colleagues who are less comfortable speaking in a large group setting the opportunity to contribute to the overall discussion while also allowing more extroverted participants the chance to listen closely to others’ ideas.

Many of the techniques that are part of the Liberating Structures portfolio are not new, and they’re certainly not for everyone or every situation. Still, internalizing an awareness of the underlying framework of microstructures and intentionality with which I engage each of those five elements seems incredibly useful to me.

I can foresee using many of the structures in a variety of contexts, but the ones I connected with most easily were the Ecocyle Planning (which we’ve used in D-Team strategic planning exercises), Critical Uncertainties (useful when dealing with a project where lots of things can go wrong) and Wicked Questions (an intriguing way of understanding purpose as driven by paradoxes). I look forward to experimenting more with Liberating Structures!

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