Liberating Structures for Design
“At times, being a facilitator is a bit like playing with the Lego, really.” — Valentina Salvi, Service Designer, Accenture Interactive, Amsterdam
As Valentina Salvi explains, with Lego the more bricks, people and objects you have, the more versatile and adaptable your creations become. It’s the same for facilitators who have mastery over a range of diverse tools and methods.
Liberating Structures represents a recent and very significant addition to the facilitator’s toolkit. They are 33 methods — or microstructures — for facilitating meetings, workshops, conversations and indeed any form of interaction between people. While there are 33 currently described and detailed in the book by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, others are being developed, adapted and borrowed from a wide range of fields by others. Liberating Structures shares many qualities with open source movements — there is a great deal of sharing and experimenting, and a keen almost evangelical global community of practitioners and developers with regular meet ups and sharing events.
How we discovered Liberating Structures
At Open Change, we have been working for some months on an organisational design and development project for Creative Scotland — helping them to develop new working practices that embed design-led innovation within the organisation. As part of this we were exploring agile and inclusive approaches to decision-making. This included doing some rigorous research. We asked twitter.
Giulia Merlo, the Service Design Lead at Cancer Research UK in London, was our white rabbit who led us into a whole wonderland of methods that we have been exploring and experimenting with at both Creative Scotland and Aberdeenshire Council. While we are only a few weeks into using them, we already have views on their value, and how they can usefully complement design methods.
What’s a microstructure?
Liberating Structures are microstructures which are themselves “the way you organise all your routine interactions. They guide and control how groups work together. They shape your conversations and meetings. Often, the familiar microstructures become frozen in routine and, in the process, become invisible”. Examples of conventional microstructures are:
The first three are exclusive in terms of who can be involved and centralise power. The last two can be too loose, and all five favour those who hold power (usually men), who are extrovert and enjoy grandstanding. None are good at dealing with complex decision-making.
Liberating Structures are designed to be inclusive, to distribute control across the group — not just to select individuals — and liberate participants’ creativity, innovation and shared sense of purpose.
What is their value?
We have been experimenting with them for just a few weeks and already we can see that they have considerable value. The key advantages are these:
They enable everyone to think and be heard — At Open Change we put great emphasis on democratic conversations and hearing the quiet voices. Some of the methods we have found to be amongst the best ways of including everyone right from the start. While some methods can feel over-structured to begin with, they effectively amplify the quieter voices and turn down the louder ones. In doing this, they help to build confidence.
They complement design methods — In her post Design Sprint & Liberating Structures: the story of a mash-up, Valentina Salvi identifies nine methods that work well within a design sprint format. We have used TRIZ, W3 and Impromptu Networking effectively in design workshops along with some others. Each has a different value within the design process.
They are essential to organisational development — Organisations that are committed to collective leadership, self-management, employee-led change, non-hierarchical or horizontal ways of working (and other labels for much the same thing) need microstructures that work for the age in which we now live, work and do business. Liberating Structures offer immediate value to such organisations.
Like Lego, they invite being played with — Think of the book and the website, not as manuals, but as boxes of lego pieces. In some cases methods can be stripped down and reconfigured or adapted to your use. We’ve made them shorter or longer than specified, and have even left out key stages. Experiment — see what you can build with them.
They strengthen reflective practice and group learning — In an education or training context these methods have considerable value.
Which are the good ones?
There’s 33 official ones (and at least another 6 in development). We’ve used 5 of them, so we’re not best placed to answer this. But ones we like are:
1, 2, 4, All — Very very simple and brilliantly powerful and inclusive. Great at the start or at the end of a session, and the essential foundation for other methods.
TRIZ — Fun and high energy, but is great at quickly identifying problems and barriers. At the start there’s a lot of laughter, and is good just after lunch to get energy levels back. Half way through the half hour process people realise that this ‘fun’ exercise is actually revealing serious issues, but the format delivers way of tackling them.
W3 — Good at the end of a gathering to ask: What happened? So what? And now what? Essentially three rounds of 1–2–4-All focused on sense making and setting the next agenda.
25/10 Crowdsourcing — A high energy idea generation and filtering technique. Very good at both demonstrating and capturing the collective creative insights of a community.
Appreciative Interviews — Gets people instantly thinking and talking positively. Finished with a 1–2–4-All exercise, this generates insights from everyone’s personal successes and focuses them on tackling an organisational challenge. Also fosters active listening, captures and spreads tacit knowledge, enables peer-to-peer learning and respect, and exercises democratic convivial conversations.
No down side then?
Yes — the names of many of the methods and the language used to describe them in the book and website which is often unnecessarily opaque. There’s a massive market out there for Liberating Structures for Dummies.
We will continue to explore their use and share what we find. We welcome any comments from those who have experience of Liberating Structures, whether or not in design. If anyone is interested in a Liberating Structures Meet Up in Dundee or Edinburgh, please let us know.
These are some of the more useful things we’ve been reading on Liberating Structures: