Crafting Powerful Invitations for Liberating Structures

Christiaan Verwijs
Jan 9, 2019 · 6 min read

Liberating Structures are easy-to-learn, easy-to-facilitate techniques that build real engagement and involvement in groups of any size. We’ve been using them for a while now. One thing we’ve learned is that coming up with good ‘invitations’ is 90% of the work. In this post we share some of the lessons we’ve learned and are still learning. You can also listen to a podcast of this blogpost here.

Most Liberating Structures start with an invitation. This is the question or topic you want people to explore with the Liberating Structure you have in mind. For Impromptu Networking, it can be “What is it that you hope to get from, and give to, this group?”. For TRIZ, it can be “What can we do to reliably guarantee that we’ll fail to achieve our goal?”. Considering them merely as questions doesn’t do them justice — something we discovered through repeated failure.

A User Experience Fishbowl in full swing. The invitation can be seen on the flip-over in the back (‘What has been the good, bad & ugly in changing the environment of Scrum Teams?”)

Although Liberating Structures are easy to learn, we’ve had a rocky start when it comes to writing good invitations. We started out with not-so-successful invitations like:

“What do you like about Scrum?”

“How do you feel about working in pairs?”

“What would you change in our new deployment policy?”

“What is a question you have for today?”

One thing we noticed about these invitations was that they didn’t spark actual conversations. People exchanged their view and that was it. It was all rather flat. Combined with our own learning, and the creative input from Keith McCandless, Fisher Qua and other pioneers, we started to see that our invitations demonstrated that we were still missing the point of LS.

When you start with Liberating Structures, and especially when you read some of the wonderfully creative examples of invitations from the official website, its easy to come away wondering “How are people ever going to get that invitation?”. Take the (potential) invitation for UX Fishbowl: “What is the good, the bad and the ugly about X?”. What if people don’t understand the words? What if the invitation is confusing because it asks different things? What if its too abstract? What if they think its too fluffy?

“This was when we started to understand something fundamental about Liberating Structures”

So we initially tried to make the invitations simpler, essentially dumbing them down. We hoped that this would allow a more focused conversation where everyone could contribute. As facilitators, we assumed that by simplifying the invitations it would become easier for the group to come up with a decision (and move forward). But that didn’t happen. On the contrary.

This was when we started to understand something fundamental about Liberating Structures, and something that lifts it well beyond ‘a bunch of facilitation techniques’:

  • Liberating Structures are not about voicing opinions. One could argue that they aren’t even really about solving problems. They are about exploring a ‘problem space’ together. The purpose is not to convince, assign blame or judge something. The purpose is to make sense of a challenge together and to discover what options are available;
  • Liberating Structures trust in, and rely on, the intelligence and creativity of the group as a whole. Its fine if individuals struggle with a structure or don’t have a clear answer to an invitation. They can still participate in the conversation that ensues and contribute to the insights that emerge from the group as a whole;
  • Liberating Structures assume that people are clever, intelligent and caring. People are perfectly capable of dealing with ambiguity, abstraction and complex metaphors;

Over time, we’ve discovered some patterns in what makes a good invitation. We’re still learning and discovering, but these are the characteristics we’ve identified so far (with the help of the pioneers). We share examples of powerful invitations after the characteristics, so you can see the difference.:

  • A good invitation doesn’t judge or frame a challenge in a particular way. So a question like “What do you like about X?” is too limited as it only considers the positive aspects of something;
  • A good invitation opens avenues for thought instead of closing them. A question like “What is possible to solve X?” may seem like a good question, but it only opens one avenue; potential solutions.
  • A good invitation is specifically-ambiguous in that it is specific about the ‘problem space’ that people will be exploring while being ambiguous about the perspective they should take (e.g. good, bad, improve, change). This ambiguity is usually introduced by offering different words to trigger different perspectives. A question like “;
  • A good invitation is slightly abstract, and relies on the intelligence of the group to figure it out. This abstraction also allows people to connect to the invitation from different levels of experience, different perspectives and different parts of their brain. A question like “What question do you bring today” isn’t abstract enough;

A consequence of these characteristics is that good invitations tend to be longer, and use more words, than weaker invitations. For us as facilitators, this initially felt like a bad thing. But we’ve learned that it is nearly always much better in terms of the conversations they trigger and the degree to which everyone feels engaged.

With this very large group (121 participants), we opted for digital projection of the invitations for some of the structures.

With these guidelines in mind, we’ve been coming up with invitations that are increasingly able to deepen the conversation that takes place during structures. Interestingly, we also get fewer clarifying questions from participants when we present an invitation. Some recent examples are:

“Regardless of your experience, what seems important, useful or challenging to you about Liberating Structures?”

“What is it that you need to stop doing to deepen or enrich interactions in groups?”

“Share a story of your journey to, through or from a challenge that you faced while working with groups”

“What have you seen, heard or observed during the first day of this workshop?”

“What is your experience with making an impact on a team without being part of it?”

  • Writing good invitations really takes most of the time. Picking the structures that you want to use is the simpler part;
  • There are many nice examples in this document that you can extend, modify or use to enrich your vocabulary. You can take 10 different stems and try to complete as many of them within 30 seconds. You can repeat this process, or share them within a group, to spark creativity;
  • Work on invitations together with others. Its helpful to bounce ideas of each other. If you’re on your own, make good use of the LS-community on Slack;
  • Check out the strings that have been used for the various meetups of the LS User Group in The Netherlands for inspiration;
  • Join the Dutch User Group and join one of the upcoming meetups to practice and sharpen your invitations with the help of others;

We are by no means at the end of our journey to craft good invitations. But based on the feedback we’re getting from participants, we are improving. We hope that you benefit from our learning. We are looking forward to see the invitations that you’ve come up with :).

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. And join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.

You can already support us with $1/month. Find out more on patreon.com/liberators

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