How To Design & Prepare Your Own Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop?

Things we’ve learned from attending, preparing, and facilitating Liberating Structures Immersion Workshops

Published in
12 min readOct 4, 2021

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I write this blog post while being in the midst of preparing two Liberating Structures Immersion Workshops. On October 6 & 7, I’ll facilitate a 2-day workshop in Copenhagen, together with Rikke Thomsen Kornby and Carsten Grønbjerg Lützen. And on November 17 & 18, Christiaan Verwijs and I host another workshop in Amsterdam. This time, the members of our design team are Jordie Dekkers and Jeremy Akers.

As part of the preparation, writing a blog post that includes our experiences and recommendations for how to design & prepare a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop proves to be time well spent. It’s always valuable to refresh your own lessons learned and to use them to improve future workshops.

This blog post offers you inspiration and ideas to run a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in your own organization or community. We describe the purpose of an immersion workshop, the importance of a design team, how to design the workshop, and how to prepare the facilitation of the session. We hope it gives you enough guidance to get started. If you feel more comfortable running a workshop together, always feel free to reach out!

An impression of the Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop we hosted in Amsterdam, in March 2020.

About Liberating Structures

Liberating Structures are a collection of 30+ interaction patterns that unflatten, enrich, and deepen interactions in groups. With strong roots in complexity science, and collected by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, all Liberating Structures implement five design elements and ten principles. Liberating Structures are simple and easy to learn, making it easy to pick them up and spread them throughout your organization. Their purpose is to involve and unleash everyone, which is essential in environments where everyone’s voice is necessary to navigate complexity.

The 30+ Liberating Structures

The purpose of an immersion workshop

The purpose of an immersion workshop is to let people experience Liberating Structures so they can put them into their practice in their own work. This sounds obvious, but you can easily overwhelm participants with amazing strings of structures. This might offer people a cool experience during the workshop, yet they have no clue how to use it themselves afterward. So, the intention of the workshop is to ‘immerse’ participants into learning a large repertoire of Liberating Structures without drowning them.

In the blog post “What Makes A Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop”, Christiaan describes the purpose of an immersion workshop as: “Learning Liberating Structures is like learning a new language. And if you’ve ever acquired another language, you’ll know that immersing yourself in it is the best way to learn. Immersion Workshops are all about learning this new interaction language by immersing you in it.”

While Christiaan and I can talk for ages about immersion workshops, it’s often better to ask participants themselves. In this video, people that join our workshop in Amsterdam, in December 2018, share their findings.

Our recommendations & lessons learned

In the past years, we’ve experienced a variety of immersion workshops. We’ve attended quite a few as participants, and hosted multiple workshops ourselves. Each workshop gave us new insights that helped us improve the next one. If you’re interested to learn what these insights are: keep on reading!

Create a design team

We host all our immersion workshops together by a multi-person design team representing different levels of experience. This allows participants to recognize that Liberating Structures can be used by anyone, regardless of their experience. Although experience helps, each structure will carry most of the weight. It also allows design teams to demonstrate that the (inevitable) failures in facilitation are a way to learn and move forward.

Make work agreements

As a design, we always make work agreements upfront. Often, we openly share some of them with the participants, so they know what to expect from us. Examples of work agreements are:

  • “Every structure is lead by two facilitators. They are in control of the structure and its debrief.”
  • “We verify with the group if instructions are clear enough to get started.”
  • Finish your explanation with “Anything to add?”. This gives other facilitators the space to gracefully make additions to your explanation, instead of giving the impression you’re being corrected.
  • “When stuck or lost for words, don’t hesitate to ask for help. It’s okay for people to see this.”

These are just some examples. When you prepare the workshop, take sufficient time with your team to create your own. Even better, practice using them during a meetup, workshops, or other gatherings.

Co-facilitate together, before the immersion workshop

If you haven’t facilitated a workshop together, make sure to find an opportunity before the immersion workshop. You can organize a meetup in a local user group, or with a small group in your organization. This allows you to share preferences upfront, to share tips & tricks, and to simply practice explaining and facilitating Liberating Structures. It gives you more confidence to run the structures during the immersion workshop itself.

Visit another Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop, together

Due to Covid-19, there haven’t been (m)any public Liberating Structures Immersion Workshops in the past 1,5 years. If you do see the possibility to visit another immersion workshop together: do it! In order to host your own immersion workshop, you should definitely get immersed yourselves as well. The perspective of a participant gives you lots of information you can use as a facilitator. As a design team, reflect on the experience together and use the do’s and don’ts to design your own workshop.

For our first workshop in 2018, we formed a design team with Ruben Klerkx and Coen Brouwer. After we visited the immersion workshop in Berlin, we included the many lessons learned in our own design.

Use the Liberating Structure “Design Storyboards”

One of the most surprising Liberating Structures might be “Design Storyboards”. It makes the design and the structuring of gatherings a shared responsibility, and as such is a perfect opportunity to prepare an immersion workshop. It helps people become aware of how structural elements of their interactions — the invitations, the timeboxes, the participants, the steps — shape the quality of those interactions. Use it to make powerful strings of Liberating Structures that make the immersion a joyful experience.

The location is key!

A location can make or break your workshop. Too large, and people get lost in space. Too small, and people might not feel comfortable with the interaction and conversations. We always make sure the room has good lighting, and ventilation (especially nowadays). We should also be able to quickly move chairs around, and there are no tables in the middle of the room. Ideally, there are some tables on the side of the room so people can store their bags, cups, and notebooks. Also, make sure the walls can handle posters, and you have sufficient flip overs.

Try Trello as a tool for collaboration

For all our workshops, we use Trello to visualize the program. Each Liberating Structure is available as a separate card. And each card contains the purpose, steps, timeboxes, invitations, and tips & tricks of a Liberating Structures. The columns represent the specific parts of the day (getting started, morning, afternoon, closing). The top card of the column describes the purpose. So, once you’ve created the cards and columns, it’s basically a drag-and-drop exercise to create strings that help you achieve the purpose.

A snapshot of the public Trello board we created for our workshop in March 2020.

Immerse participants from the start

Liberating Structures is something you should experience. If you start with explaining the theory & principles, Liberating Structures might feel vague and abstract. Instead of enlightening participants, you’ll leave them behind confused. So, we start our workshops with a basic string of basic Liberating Structures that they can use in a wide variety of contexts. In the entire morning, we don’t explain Liberating Structures at all, and also don’t do any debriefs. Only after everyone experienced a full string of Liberating Structures, we offer the opportunity for reflection. Our experience is that once participants have experienced Liberating Structures, the theory & principles are understood way better.

Focus on the basic structures, don’t make it too complicated

There are 33 official Liberating Structures, dozens of unofficial structures, and many priming activities, riffs, variations, and mashups. If you want to get an idea, check the public Trello board “LS in Development”. As a facilitator, it’s tempting to continuously level up your strings of Liberating Structures. The more complex, the better right? Well, not really… Successfully pulling off a complex string of Liberating Structures is awesome for your ego as a facilitator. It’s probably not helpful for participants. I’ve sometimes received the feedback that people were in awe of my facilitation skills, but they still have no idea to use it themselves. Mission failed. So, above all, include the basic structure in your workshop (1–2–4-all, Impromptu Networking, Troika Consulting, etc) and only add unofficial structures if they really add something useful.

Mix the different types of Liberating Structures

Each of the 33 Liberating Structures has its own dynamic and triggers unique energy in the group. This is something you should take into account when designing an immersion workshop. For example, “Improv Prototyping” includes role-playing. Not everyone is ready for this structure right at the start of a public workshop. The Liberating Structure “Heard, Seen, Respected” is about sharing a personal story. So, use a structure to build empathy first, for example with the Liberating Structure in development “Back-to-back Listening”. Another idea is to use “Drawing Together” to help people share their personal challenges. This structure uses drawing to express thoughts. It prevents the participants to get stuck with finding “the right” words and triggers a completely different part of their brain. Once this part of the brain is triggered, you can follow up with a more intense structure, for example, “Critical Uncertainties”. Just play with the structures, and see what works for you, your design team, and your participants!

Liberating Structure involves and engages everyone. This is reflected in the facial expression of the participants. These are images from an earlier Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop we hosted in Amsterdam.

Take sufficient time to debrief the structures

Include structural debriefs for the majority of Liberating Structures used so that participants become aware of how each configures the five micro-organizing elements to create just enough structure for the interactions. We like to use the Liberating Structure “What, So What, Now What” to debrief. Sometimes this takes 2 minutes, sometimes 20 minutes. When we facilitated one or multiple structures we ask the group: “What did you notice? So what does this mean? Now what is a good next step for you personally?”. We continuously tweak these questions to help the participants reflect and learn.

It’s all about the invitation

The most important part of a Liberating Structure is its invitation — the question you ask the group at the start of a structure. A good invitation is ‘specifically ambiguous’ and creates space for people to use their creativity to trigger and connect different kinds of experiences and perspectives. Examples are: “What is the good, bad, and ugly of your experience with [X]?” or “What needs to be re-invented, destroyed, or created in order to deal with [X]?”. In the blog post “Creating Powerful Invitations For Liberating Structures”, Christiaan gives many other examples of good and bad invitations. When you prepare an immersion workshop, make sure you take sufficient time to craft invitations. Tip: practice with a couple of guinea pigs to validate its clarity. Often while sharing the invitation out loud, you already feel if it needs further refinement and improvement.

Co-facilitate the Liberating Structures

A benefit of a design team with multiple facilitators is that you can co-facilitate the structures. In our workshops, each structure is prepared and facilitated by two persons. We always create a mixture of pairs based on experience, interest, or simply at random. If someone is familiar with a structure, it makes sense to pair up with an inexperienced facilitator. But the strength of Liberating Structure is that everyone can do it, so sometimes we ask “newbies” to pair up, which works out just fine as well!

Working in pairs might not seem effective, but you’ll notice that it definitely pays off. Together, you can quickly practice your explanation, which makes your language cleaner and more to the point. In addition, some Liberating Structures contain multiple steps. If you don’t know them by heart, having a co-facilitator allows you to explain the steps in turn. This makes your life as a facilitator much easier!

During the immersion workshop in November 2018, we continuously used different pairs to facilitate the Liberating Structures.

Pick a theme

If you design an immersion workshop, you have the option to pick an overarching theme. Something that binds all the structures and their invitations together. For example, one of our workshops was about how to spark change in your organization? Another was focused on personal growth. A theme helps the participants make sense of the structures. But it’s not necessary. It’s also an option to give each part of the day a different string. It might feel a bit messier but can definitely work. Over time, our preferred theme has become “How to use Liberating Structures after the workshop?”. Because that’s the big pitfall: immerse participants in Liberating Structures and leave them behind clueless. So our focus is always to help participants create strategies and practices to actually use the structures within their own team, organization, or community.

Let participants practice during the workshop

To increase the likelihood that participants use Liberating Structures afterward, we let them practice the structures during the workshop. On the second day, we reserve a slot in which the participants facilitate a basic Liberating Structure. For example, 1–2–4-ALL. In small groups, two people become the facilitators and they need to run the structure. The facilitators aren’t known upfront, so everyone prepares themselves for the facilitation. Only last-minute the actually facilitators are announced. Which is fun and nerve-wracking at the same time! This exercise demonstrates that people without prior experience are capable of facilitating Liberating Structures with even a large group.

Don’t use a presentation

We used to create a Google Presentation for our first workshops. These presentations contained a short explanation of each Liberating Structures, the steps, and the invitations. Nowadays, we don’t use a presentation anymore. We noticed that it took away the flexibility to change structures at the moment, and made everything more static. Personally, I was continuously trying to recall what the next slide would show, which took away my focus on the group. So, while some facilitators consider a presentation a tool that supports them, my experience is the opposite. It only makes it more complex and doesn’t allow me to go with the flow. So my strong preference is not to use a presentation. If you want to check the next steps, you can also check the Trello board on your phone. Just make sure to make this a work agreement, otherwise, the participants might think you’re checking your email. ;-)

So, what about an online Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop?

So far, this blog post was focused mostly on designing an in-person Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop. A logical question to ask would be “what about an online immersion workshop?”. I was writing an answer to this question but noticed that my answer became way too long. So, I’ll use this as a cliffhanger for my next blog post. In that post, I’ll describe my experiences with using Liberating Structures online and share my thoughts about the possibilities of an online immersion workshop. Stay tuned.

Pictures of a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop we hosted in Amsterdam.

Learn more

In the past years, we wrote many articles about Liberating Structures. In this series of posts, we share our experiences with the individual structures. For each structure, we describe the purpose, the steps, and our personal findings. If you’re completely new to Liberating Structure, check this primer by Christiaan. If you’ve got a background in Scrum, our whitepaper “Liberating Structures — an antidote to Zombie Scrum” is worth reading. If you want to stick to the topic on how to prepare and design a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop, check the following articles:

Closing

If you consider hosting your own Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in your organization or community: stop hesitating, just do it! It’s so much fun and rewarding. Sure, the preparation takes time, the design can be tough at first, and the facilitating can be nerve-wracking. Just trust the structure and liberate the potential of the group! I hope this blog post offered you enough inspiration to get started! If you want our support to host a workshop in your organization or community, you know where to find us.

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.

Our work is mostly supported by the community. You can already support us with $1/month. Find out more on patreon.com/liberators

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Co-founder The Liberators: I create content, provide training, and facilitate (Liberating Structures) workshops to unleash (Agile) teams all over the world!