Experiencing the Power of Liberating Structures – A Practical Example

Are you tired of the ever same brainstorming sessions in your workshops? Are you annoyed by extroverts voicing their opinions whilst introverted colleagues rather keep their opinions and ideas to themselves? Do you need to engage a large number of people to support sustainable change?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions above, you may want to take a closer look at Liberating Structures. In my opinion they should form part of anyone’s toolbox that works with people and intends to involve them in a change process instead of forcing change onto them.

What are Liberating Structures?

In a nutshell:

Simple rules that make it easy to include and unleash everyone in shaping the future

These rules are also called microstructures. Currently there are 33 structures listed on the official website. However, there is a very vibrant community of facilitators and supporters that continue working on new structures or tweaking existing ones. When you look at the existing structures you may see that many of them are not new at all. If you are into change management, organisational development, coaching, innovation management it is highly likely that you have already come across some of the structures, e.g. Impromptu Networking, Open Space, Appreciative Interview, Design Storyboards.

No matter the structure, they all follow the same 10 guiding principles:

  1. Include and Unleash Everyone
  2. Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions
  3. Build Trust As You Go
  4. Learn by Failing Forward
  5. Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group
  6. Amplify Freedom AND Responsibility
  7. Emphasize Possibilities: Believe Before You See
  8. Invite Creative Destruction To Enable Innovation
  9. Engage In Seriously-Playful Curiosity
  10. Never Start Without a Clear Purpose

How to use Liberating Structures?

Hardly any of the structures can and should live on its own. The power of the structures really comes to life when you start combining structures to so-called strings. That way you can truly build a logical arc for your workshop or meeting that will guide you and participants to a meaningful outcome in a joyful way.

Some time ago I organized an introduction session on Liberating Structures at one of my clients. The session was part of a comprehensive learning program that I had designed for them. It includes a variety of formats but the aim is always the same: experiencing principles and learning (about) skills for the digital world (as opposed to digital skills). I invited Susanne Taylor – a seasoned coach and facilitator, who has lots of experience using Liberating Structures and also runs the Munich LS Meetup. Together we co-created the 2h workshop.

We wanted participants to experience different structures instead of telling them the why, what and how of LS. We chose a relevant topic which is at the heart of the client’s business strategy: How do we truly commit to put our consumers at the center?

We chose the following structures and combined them into one string.

1-2-4-all

Probably the easiest and most popular structure. We asked participants to work on the main question “How do we truly commit to make our consumers the center?” on their own for 1 minute, then asked them to discuss it with their neighbour for 2 minutes and then invite 2 other people before opening it up to the entire group. This structure resembled the usual brainstorming session with the exception of discussing the outcome it in smaller pairs first. This helps to make everyone’s voice heard.

Triz

Triz offers a nice twist for when you are stuck thinking about a solution. Think of the worst possible product or outcome that you could imagine for your solution and then work backwards. Very powerful and laughter ensured. Again, we started with our main question and worked from there. Not knowing the exact next steps helped participants being creative about the worst solutions only to realise in the next step that some of these potential outcomes are driven by some of today’s individual or company actions. The final step was to think about what harming behaviour or activity to stop.

25/10 

We used this structure to generate new bold ideas. Another twist to the usual brainstorming is the anonymity of the ideas generated. Each participants wrote on an index card his boldest idea. Instead of simply reading it out and discussing it, people were asked to move around the room and continuously passing index cards with the ideas around. At some point the group stopped. Everyone read an idea from someone else not knowing who it was and was asked to score the idea on a scale from 1-5. This process was done five times in total. At the end the index cards with the highest points were put on a board and then discussed.

Troika Consulting

The last structure we ran was called Troika Consulting. Participants split into 3. Following up on the bold ideas each group member took on the role of a client once explaining potential roadblocks for his bold idea (or another one listed by the group) to the two other group members (role: consultant). The client then turned his back on the two consultants and simply listened as these started discussing the roadblocks and potential solutions. It really helped the person in the client role to simply listen and see how others would approach a problem.

After the structures we wrapped the session up with a debrief. The feedback to Liberating Structures was overwhelmingly positive.

Author: Susanne Taylor – CFlow

Liberating Structures are a powerful tool for anyone needing to involve people, giving them a voice and helping a group to come to a shared and meaningful outcome. I for one will definitely continue using Liberating Structures in my workshops and client projects and can only recommend to others to learn about and experience those structures themselves.

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