Liberating Structures – The Tools for Host Leadership

Something happened to me at the start of the year that I would like to share with everybody. Up until that point, I had always felt like I should be much better in a particular aspect of my coaching practice. Wait, that’s not entirely accurate. I had felt like we as coaches should all be much better in a particular aspect of our coaching practice: group facilitation. Mind you, I’m not talking about facilitating any of the standard Scrum or Kanban meetings. I’m talking about everything around that. About inter-team conflict. About multi-team workshops. About department-wide get togethers to create new ideas. About company-wide change initiatives.

Can you honestly say you’re great at those? Sure, you’re thinking about Open Space and World Café formats right now. And those are two very useful options. But I had always felt like there should be much more, like I had been missing essential tools for making these meetings a real success. And then my friend Greg Myers introduced me to Liberating Structures.

What are Liberating Structures?

Liberating Structures have been invented by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz. They tried to apply their insights from complexity theory in business settings and developed first prototypes of microstructures in 2001. Encouraged by their success they added more and more structures to their menu of formats which – as of this writing – includes 33 Liberating Structures.

In common microstructures, there’s usually too much control (a presentation), too little control (an open discussion), or too centralized control (a managed discussion). Liberating Structures distribute control more evenly and thus include everybody without being so damn boring or exhausting. This is achieved by using strict timeboxes and clear instructions without constricting the creative process. The word has been overused lately (thanks, Apple!), but there is just something magical about initiating one of these structures with an invitation, explaining the approach and then “simply” letting the magic happen, either by facilitating or participating. I’ve never felt comfortable as a facilitator of an open or managed discussion, mainly because the process was so painful or the results were less than stellar. When I tried Liberating Structures for the first time it felt like a bomb had gone off. The whole room was abuzz and participants started laughing and exchanging awesome ideas. I expanded my use to full-day workshops and the feedback ranged from “I’ve never been in a workshop where time passed this quickly!” to “I’ve never had so much fun and gotten such great results at the same time before!” The only downside so far is that conventional structures have gotten even more painful…

Using Liberating Structures

Applying Liberating Structures is as easy as… um… 1-2-4-All. 1-2-4-All is the most basic structure, sort of like learning basic dance steps. You can use it for pretty much anything you like. Just make sure to stick to the timeboxes. Most people feel like these are too short, but keep in mind that they are there simply to get the conversation started. Giving more time doesn’t increase the quality of the results, quite the opposite sometimes. If the group feels like there are more ideas to harvest, simply do a second round.
Remember, however, that 1-2-4-All is there to generate ideas, but not to decide what to do with these ideas. The real magic happens when you start stringing Liberating Structures together, creating a storyboard for the whole process. For example, it is often a good idea to debrief individual structures with What, So What, Now What.

If you’re not sure where to start, let me recommend Troika Consulting, TRIZ and 15% Solutions to you. These are easy to do, but reliably deliver great results. You can find all of the instructions on the website, but I also recommend buying the book, simply to have a concise offline guide at hand at any time.

Tangible Change

I would also like to mention another aspect about Liberating Structures which is really important. We people in the Agile industry often talk about servant and host leadership. In Integral words, we are aiding a shift towards post-conventional organizational forms. But these are abstract concepts and most people have no clue what this actually means. Liberating Structures provide a tangible way of applying these metaphors to real life. We can actually give managers something concrete to work with instead of giving shallow advice. Often these people would like to give up some of their control, but they can’t see any great alternatives. We now have something to point them to!

If you’d like to explore Liberating Structures in a safe space with like-minded individual, you can join one of the several Liberating Structures User Groups. More and more are popping up. I founded the Liberating Structures User Group Hamburg. So if you live in the area, make sure to stop by!