“Liberating Structures are a collection of interaction patterns that teach people to unflatten, enrich, and deepen their interactions in groups” (source). They were developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, with the purpose of replacing purposeless meetings, unengaging presentations, and chaotic brainstorms, in which only a few people out of a whole team used to talk. As an alternative, Liberating Structures were invented to enforce participation, interaction and meaningful communication. But how do they work?
Let’s think of a common professional meeting. Usually, there are five conventional microstructures that are usually used in organizations: presentations, managed discussions, status reports, open discussions, brainstorms. So why wouldn’t you keep using these? Well, because in most cases, they limit productivity and collaboration and they lack meaningful interactions, in the sense that not everybody is actively involved in a meeting.
Liberating Structures, on the other hand, increase participation, enforce productivity and teamwork and make people feel included and valued.
Do you need a facilitator to lead Liberating Structures? Do you use all of them at once? How do you start? By experiencing. There are more than 30 Liberating Structures that you can choose from and all of them are better than the common microstructures we use at work. You can start using them during the meetings and see which ones are the most effective for your team. We’ll talk about a few of them to have an idea how some of them work.
This is a Liberating Structure that can be integrated into any meeting or conversation, enforcing active participation, especially for people who tend to be quiet during brainstorming sessions. People start working on their own and then they start sharing their ideas with their colleagues gradually, until the whole group brainstorms together. After a certain topic is presented, each participant thinks of it individually for 1 minute.
Then, people pair up and each duo has 2 minutes to share their ideas and continue brainstorming. After that, “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” (source). Eventually, each pair shares their ideas. The progression is what gives this Liberating Structure its name: 1-2-4-All.
This Liberating Structure is particularly helpful for identifying things that prevent a specific group or team from achieving a desired outcome. An interesting aspect of this method is that it starts by asking people to list all the things that can result in the worst result imaginable, which is followed by listing a series of things that can be changed in order to avoid the worst to happen. Thus, to facilitate this microstructure, you should follow these steps:
This microstructure helps people to try out different types of interacting with the clients, increasing awareness of what methods would be more effective. The participant can try various coaching techniques, such as: only listening, without intervening, encouraging the client to share stories, asking questions to ensure a better understanding of a certain problem, brainstorming together, etc. The participants work in groups of 3, using the following roles: the client who shares the problem, the consultant who tries various coaching styles and the observer who focuses on their interaction to provide objective feedback.
Some (final) thoughts
This article is part of a bigger topic called: