An Evening With Henri Lipmanowicz

It’s a warm evening in Naples, Florida. I’m walking alongside Henri Lipmanowicz and I’m struggling to come up with questions to ask him.
Henri jokingly calls this part of the city “Old Naples”, an allusion to the fact that it was built only a couple of decades ago. We’re weaving our way through a crowd of busy window shoppers and people looking for dessert and a drink. Our wives are walking behind us, chatting and connecting across a multitude of cultural boundaries with an ease only people with open hearts and minds possess.
Now is my chance to make the most of the limited time I have with Henri. His work has had a big impact on my life and there are a million things I’d like to know. I just don’t have any idea where to start. I don’t know what to ask Henri.

Naples, Florida

Henri Lipmanowicz is the co-creator of Liberating Structures, co-founder of the Plexus Institute, a retired executive, and an all around nice guy. He invited us to spend some time with him and his wife Riitta on our way to the Scrum Gathering in Orlando. When I asked him how on earth he came to trust and invite us without having met us in person before, he smiled a mischievous smile and replied with his typical dry humor “We thought one night was an acceptable risk.”

We ate dinner at a great Spanish restaurant, sharing dishes amongst the four of us and talking about different European attitudes. But right now we’re walking on this busy street next to each other and I want to ask the greatest question ever. With a single sentence I want to draw out decades of insight. Or at least something revelatory that is going to change the way people all over the world work together. There’s a pause in our conversation as I think all of this. And then Henri says “So was there anything in particular you maybe wanted to ask me?” and, simple as that, he invites me to just fire away.

“How did Liberating Structures get started? Have you always worked this way? So inclusive and engaging?” I want to know. Henri laughs and tells me that he wishes he had known and used Liberating Structures when he was working as an executive. Unfortunately there was no such thing around him even though he worked for one of the most admired companies at the time. All the development of Liberating Structures began after his retirement. He tells me about his time as an executive and how his managerial style had always been naturally open and inviting. He felt it was his duty to share responsibility and help everybody he was responsible for be as successful as possible. This apparently affected people so much that they stayed in contact long until after he had left the company. But no, no Liberating Structures at this point. He had actually been looking for something like Liberating Structures but came up short.

This longing for something different, that knowledge that something has to be out there, resonates with what I have experienced myself and seen in other people while applying these tools. They fill such a big need to be more inclusive and at the same time more productive. Some people are just positively baffled, but for most it feels like meeting an old acquaintance. Not a sensation of “This is new and cool.” but more like “It should have always been this way.”

We’re passing a group of window shoppers and Henri tells me how he met Keith McCandless, his partner in crime and the other creator of Liberating Structures. “We met during a function for the Plexus Institute and just had a ball together,” Henri says, “We really just shared the same mindset and took it from there.”

I tell Henri how I believe these structures can fundamentally change the way people work together. Agilists push for more collaboration and inclusion with Agile development, they talk about Agile companies. Here are the tools to help us achieve that. Henri tells me that in his mind it’s not only about using a single individual structure to change a boring meeting, it’s not even about changing the way we work, it’s actually about much more than that: changing society. What he hopes to see is people bridging the gap between disciplines, experts from all scientific fields coming together to solve complex problems. I have a mental image of a room full of scientist from various disciplines using Liberating Structures to tackle climate change and I wonder why my thinking had been so limited to the world of business.

Henri acknowledges, however, that corporations are a great way to start. He also shares what he learned during his time there. “You need to meet people where they are. And you need to find out where that is first. What you have to realize is that you’re really not as much in control as you think you are,” he says. “You can make all these big plans but in the end they don’t really matter. What matters is people. That is where the main complexity is: people, how they interact, organize themselves and get things done. Helping groups of people of all sizes and diversity work at the top of their potential together, that is the real challenge. Doing strategy or planning is a piece of cake by comparison. This challenge is really what drove us when we developed Liberating Structures.”

A woman passes us on the busy street, speaking to her family in French. Henri starts a conversation with her, having grown up in France as the son of Polish immigrants. I’m amazed at how much French I still understand, yet I’m not really following the conversation, my mind still on the things Henri said.

“Something I try to tell people who want to use or disseminate Liberating Structures is to go where the energy is. If they don’t want you, don’t put up a fight! Somewhere else there will be someone who will be enthusiastic. People often have a very different mindset from the one we have and it’s incredibly hard to change people. It is much easier to change structures.” Structures. Microstructures. Liberating Structures.

We talk about the issues plaguing software and product development in general and Henri recounts how the IT department used to function like a black box whenever he needed a new program and how everything was always a problem. I tell him about Agile development and Scrum in particular. He thinks out loud, “That kind of sounds like a structure.” Well, yes.

The sky’s dark blue has given way to a gentle black as we continue our conversation on the drive home. Henri is retired but he still dedicates his time to developing Liberating Structures. He invited a stranger and his wife from across the world into his home to talk about the principles that have shaped his life and his character, to make another small step towards initiating a change he believes in. What fascinated me most about Liberating Structures when I got started was the community. People so incredibly open and eager to share their knowledge and time wholeheartedly that it keeps surprising me to this day. Having spent this time with Henri I now know where the source of all this generosity, trust and enthusiasm is. But he doesn’t even claim this for himself. He tells me that Keith is the most generous person he has ever met and that the development of Liberating Structures would have never happened without him. I can’t wait to spend an evening with Keith; I have so many more questions to ask.