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What Are Liberating Structures? How Can They Facilitate Change?

Liberating Structures are a selection of agile structures for facilitating meetings and conversations. They are deliberately simple and easy.

By Gustavo Razzetti

November 13, 2019

A primer on how to facilitate and start using Liberating Structures in your team or organization.

What are Liberating Structures?

They are a framework to quickly change the way organizations work, lead, and co-create.

These easy-to-learn interaction methods enhance relationships, collaboration, and trust. Liberating Structures are powerful methods to increase participation regardless of team size. They make it possible to include everyone and unleash your team’s full creativity.

Liberating Structures are a selection of more than 30 microstructures for facilitating meetings and conversations developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz.

They are intended to replace the usual method of collaboration and working together with simpler, more human, and friendly ways. Liberating Structures encourage participation, dialogue, and action.

They introduce tiny shifts in the way teams can meet, plan, make decisions, and innovate. It puts change and innovation in the hands of everyone.

As McCandless and Lipmanowicz state, “Liberating Structures are a disruptive innovation that can replace more controlling or constraining approaches.”

Why Do Microstructures Matter?

Organizations usually try to change everything, but end up changing nothing.

Most companies want to drive change by focusing on macrostructures–things that are built and designed for the long-term and that are hard or expensive to change.

Macrostructures include tangible structures such as office buildings, factories, logistics infrastructure, and more. They also encompass intangible assets like strategies, organizational structures, policies and procedures, grants of authority, etc.

Microstructures, on the other hand, are simpler and cheaper to modify. They include meeting rooms, presentations, agendas, feedback, and other small structures. We usually use them to collaborate and co-create with our colleagues and teams.

For most companies microstructures become fixed, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Changing these microstructures provides a quick way to improve how we work and innovate.

What Are the Key Microstructures?

Organizations use five key conventional microstructures to move projects forward:
– Presentations
– Managed discussions
– Status Reports
– Open discussions
– Brainstorms

The challenge is that, in most cases, they limit productivity and collaboration. Usually, microstructures lack design, relevance, and intentionality. We meet, provide feedback, and communicate with others in a way that’s either too constrained or too loose.


What if we can make these microstructures more engaging,  simpler, and fairer?

That’s the purpose of Liberating Structures. They increase participation, conversations, collaboration, inclusion, innovation, and clarity. Plus, they make work more human and fun.

Is It Hard to Facilitate Liberating Structures?

The 33 Liberating Structures are simple and easy to facilitate. They were designed so that everyone can drive and adopt them.
Both the book and the website provides detailed steps of how to facilitate the different Liberating Structures.

If you are an experienced facilitator, you’ll find it easy to browse and understand the different methods.

However, if you want to discover where to get started, need to strengthen your facilitation chops, or need support to get familiarized with the various methods, ask for help.

At Fearless Culture, we coach companies and teams to adopt and facilitate Liberating Structures. Drop me a note if you want to learn how we can help your teams.

Which Liberating Structures Are Right for Me?

There are no better or worse methods; each serves a particular purpose. Depending on the nature of the problem, you can choose the adequate Liberating Structure.

In chapter 5, the authors present a matrix that will help you identify the most convenient Liberating Structures to address key challenges:
– Discovering everyday solutions (SOLVE)
– Noticing patterns together (UNDERSTANDING)
– Unleashing local action (PARTICIPATION)
– Drawing out prototypes (TESTING)
– Spreading innovation (SCALING)

Note: the parentheses are mine. Also, on top of those goals, many of the methods are perfect for improving feedback and communication.

There’s now a convenient Liberating Structures app available for Apple and Android (for free). It comes in handy to help you choose which methods to start with.

Which Liberating Structures Can I Get Started With?

Here are five methods that are very popular and effective–I’ve facilitated them hundreds of times so far. I’ve selected one Liberating Structure per key challenge. I will indicate those in between paragraphs.

1. Troika Consulting (SOLVING)– 30 min approx.

This method helps people gain insight into issues they are facing on a daily basis. Rather than looking for their managers to help them, the Troika Consulting enables people to help each other.

The key benefit is that one person shares a problem they are facing, and two other people provide them with clarity and possible solutions.

One person (the client) shares a problem explaining the challenge and what kind of help they need. The other two people (the consultants) turn around with their backs facing the client and brainstorm out loud.

The client listens without interacting. Once the brainstorm is finished, the consultants turn around and listen to the client’s feedback and reactions.

Then participants rotate roles and repeat the sequence. For a more detailed description, read this post.

2. Helping Heuristics (UNDERSTANDING) –15-30 minutes

This method allows team members to experiment with different types of coaching/ support. It increases awareness of what kind of help or interactions can be more beneficial for each person.

The Helping Heuristics method involves various rounds where participants “try” different coaching styles: being silent and fully listening, encouraging the ‘client’ to share stories, asking questions to help the client better understand the problem, to brainstorm together, or challenge the client’s thoughts to drive them into action.

Similarly to Troika Consulting, teams work in trios. There are three roles: the client (shares the problem), the consultant (provides the various coaching styles), and the observer (focuses on the interaction without actively participating and then provides feedback and insights to the other two roles).

Roles rotate so everyone can experience different perspectives. Read this post to learn more about this method.

3. 1-2-4-All (PARTICIPATION)

This method is ideal for encouraging participation during brainstorms or problem-solving sessions.

The key benefit is that it creates a safe space encouraging everyone’s participation. People start working on their own and, then, they gradually share their ideas with more people until the whole group brainstorms together.

After a challenge is presented, each participant brainstorms on their own for 1 minute. Then, people pair up and each duo has 2 minutes to share their ideas and continue brainstorming.

The sequence repeats. Duos pair up, forming foursomes, and each group of four has 4 minutes to share and continue building on each other’s ideas (remind them to use a “yes, and” approach).

Lastly, each team shares their best ideas. Everyone votes and the best ideas are selected.

The progression is what gives this Liberating Structure its name: 1-2-4-All.

Note: When working with large groups I tweak this method, adding an additional round. I practice 1-2-4-8-All.

4. Improv Prototyping (TESTING)

Engage a group to learn and quickly learn from three levels of knowledge: explicit, talent, and latent knowledge. This powerful combination can create transformative experiences.

Invite participants to identify a frustrating, chronic issue that’s hindering performance. Playfully experiment and discover new ways to solve the challenge.

Small groups will dramatize simple solutions to overcome the challenge. The improv sketches help uncover serious solutions in a playful way.

Learn more about how to facilitate Improv Prototyping.

5. TRIZ (SCALING)– 35 minutes

This fun and engaging Liberating Structure helps identify things that are getting in the way of driving change. It’s a call to action for teams that tend to play within their comfort zone or organizations that adopt blocking mindsets (“This is not the way we do things here” or “This is not going to work.”)

The question “What must we stop doing to make progress (on our deepest purpose)?” encourages fun and courageous conversations. With creative destruction comes the opportunity to unleash new ways to recover momentum.

The exciting part about TRIZ is that the method starts by asking people to list all the things that the team can do to achieve the worst result imaginable.

Then, the team reflects on what they are currently doing that in any way, shape, or form resembles that behavior. Finally, people focus on the behaviors they should adopt to avoid this (unwanted) behavior.

Follow this three-step process – ask participants to:

  1. How can we achieve the worst possible result? Make a list of all you can do to make sure that you achieve the worst result imaginable with respect to your top strategy or objective
  2. Are we already doing something similar? Go down this list item by item and ask yourselves, "Is there anything that we are currently doing that in any way, shape, or form resembles this item?" Be brutally honest to make a second list of all your counterproductive activities/programs/procedures
  3. How can we stop counterproductive components? Go through the items on your second list and decide what first steps will help you stop what you know creates undesirable results?

    Learn more about how to facilitate RITZ here.

What Are the Ten Liberating Leadership Practices

According to Lipmanowicz and McCandless, when Liberating Structures are part of everyday interactions, leaders begin to:
1. Include and unleash everyone
2. Never start without a clear and common purpose
3. Practice deep respect for people and local solutions
4. Build trust as you go
5. Learn by failing forward
6. Practice self-discovery within every group
7. Amplify freedom and responsibility
8. Emphasize possibilities: believe before you see
9. Invite creative destruction to enable innovation
10. Engage in seriously playful curiosity  

What If You Feel Skeptical?

We’ve been taught that driving change requires implementing large, big impact solutions. However, in most cases large transformations fail.

At a first glance, Liberating Structures may seem too easy, simple, or effortless. That’s because in the corporate world we tend to overcomplicate things. Sometimes, the simplest solution is the most effective.

Try them before you judge the power of Liberating Structures. I’ve been using them for many years now and have applied it to increase communication, collaboration, and innovation with both startup and Fortune 500 companies.

The results are always surprising–people usually adopt most of them once they’ve tried them firsthand.

Want to Learn More?

Adopting and mastering Liberating Structures requires a mindset shift, time, and practice. We can set your team for success. We facilitate customized workshops on Liberating Structures – we assess your needs,  and identify and facilitate the right methods.

Let’s talk and discuss how we can help you.

Suggested Reading On Liberating Structures

How to Liberate Innovation Across Your Organization
How to Encourage Participation In Meetings
Why A Culture of Silence Is Killing Innovation
Helping Heuristic Exercise (Liberating Structure for Coaching Styles)
What do you think?



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Let Innovation Thrive

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