Facilitating the Liberating Structures Workshop was a lot of fun (Ruben and Coen)

Lessons learned from organizing a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop (Amsterdam)

Wow, last week was an amazing week! A rollercoaster of experiences. Together with Barry Overeem, Coen Brouwer and Ruben Klerkx, I organized and hosted a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam. Supported by founder Keith McCandless and pioneer Fisher Qua, we explored over 20 Liberating Structures and how they replace those dreaded meetings, 1-hour presentations, and open brainstorms. In this post, we share the work that went into the workshop and how we learned a lot about Liberating Structures in the process.

A primer on Liberating Structures

You may have stumbled on this post without having the faintest idea about what Liberating Structures are. In that case; they are a set of (roughly) 33 microstructures designed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz to replace the ineffective formats in which groups (of any size) dissect information, make decisions and explore new ideas. Rather than actively involving only a handful of those present, and drowning out other voices, Liberating Structures allow everyone to be equally involved in shaping future actions. Rather than focusing on individuals, Liberating Structures taps into the wisdom and creativity of the entire group. You can read more about Liberating Structures here on the website.

A European Tour

The first ideas for the Immersion Workshop started to take shape when I spoke with my good friend Johannes Schartau from Holisticon about inviting the founders of Liberating Structures to Europe. Together with User Groups already present in Germany, London and Belgium, we decided to organize a workshop in Amsterdam as well.

Using Zoom to collaborate (and use LS virtually) with over 20 people worked very well

In the months leading up to the workshop, the Design Teams met virtually with Fisher and Keith on several occasions to design the workshops. Obviously, we used Liberating Structures to connect with each other, to clarify the purpose and the start designing the workshops. It was a lot of fun to participate in Zoom-sessions with over 20 participants from all over Europe.

Design Team ‘Amsterdam’

The Design Team for Amsterdam: Ruben, Barry, Coen and Christiaan.

No Immersion Workshop is the same. So each country picked a ‘Design Team’ that would design and facilitate the workshop, supported by Fisher and Keith from the US.

In contrast to the other countries, there was no existing user group in the Netherlands. So we decided to pick a group with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience: Barry Overeem and myself represented the Agile & Scrum-community, Coen Brouwer represented the Lean community and Ruben Klerkx represented a broader community of facilitators. It should be noted that, with the exception of Barry and myself, we didn’t know each other all that well. In fact, we’d never facilitated anything together before.

A Trip to Berlin

In the week before the workshop in Amsterdam, our four-man Design Team participated in the Immersion Workshop in Berlin. This gave us the opportunity to experience what a workshop looks like, what participants are expecting and to meet both Keith and Fisher in person.

Impression of the (amazing) Berlin-workshop

For some members of the Design Team, this was the first hands-on experience with Liberating Structures. Needless to say, the workshop gave us a lot of inspiration for our own workshop a couple of days later:

  • Its all about the invitation — the question you ask the group at the start of a structure. For example, an invitation for Impromptu Networking can be: “What questions do you bring to this session?”. In contrary to our (Dutch?) desire to be direct and specific, we noticed that broader questions work better. 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]?”;
  • We all noticed how helpful the structures are in creating connections between people. At the end of the workshop, we had connected (personally) with over 40 people, got to know them and hear their stories. We really wanted to give the people in Amsterdam a similar experience;
  • In Berlin, the program on the second day was completely overhauled based on the feedback on the first day during the UX Fishbowl. It wasn’t that the original design wasn’t good. But other needs surfaced or demanded more time. We felt that this kind of responsiveness is a hallmark of good facilitation, and something that LS makes easy;
  • For participants that are strong in their ‘need for cognition’, it can be difficult to relate their experience of Liberating Structures to existing models they have. Liberating Structures represent a paradigm shift in thinking about facilitation, collaboration and working with groups. In a way, models tend to get in the way of understanding for these people. The very experiential approach that is used during Immersion Workshops may be difficult for them as the ‘Aha’-moment takes a while to land;

With our own workshop only a few days away, we made good use of the train-ride home to refine the program, clarify the invitations and practice the structures on each other:

The Design Team, every person working on the supporting sheets for the structures they would facilitate. Before this picture, we spent a couple of hours going through the program together. Afterwards, we spent the time practicing the structures on each other.

Design Considerations

Everyone can start using Liberating Structures tomorrow. You don’t need fancy belts, certificates of training. You don’t even need to be a good facilitator. All you really need to do is follow the ‘recipe’ of the structure, and it will carry most of the weight for you. This led to the following considerations for the workshop in Amsterdam:

  • We wanted to demonstrate that people without prior experience are capable of facilitating Liberating Structures with even a large group;
  • We wanted to avoid the impression that this was going to be a training, where ‘experts’ offer ‘best practices’ or ‘tips’ based on their experience. Instead, we wanted people to experience a diverse set of Liberating Structures and show them how easily they can be used;
  • We wanted to emphasize that Liberating Structures are not one-off facilitation techniques. Although it is fine to use just one, the true power lies in creating strings of structures where one flows into the next;
  • We wanted to avoid using Liberating Structures just for the sake of using them, so each workshop decided to use an overarching theme to provide content. We picked ‘The challenge of change’ for Amsterdam, knowing full well that it was a bit artificial considering the wide variety of backgrounds of participants;
  • We wanted to first immerse people in Liberating Structures, then offer them a bit more background on the design elements and principles behind Liberating Structures. This ‘experience first’-approach was a bit of a gamble;

The Design

We divided the two days into chunks, each with its own purpose (e.g. ‘Connecting and clarifying purpose’ or ‘Creative destruction’). Based on an initial draft, we proceeded to select relevant Liberating Structures to create a string of structures per chunk. For example, the chunk ‘Connecting and clarifying purpose’ had the following logic:

  • Start with Impromptu Networking to get to know each other and to share examples of the changes people are involved in. What makes change hard in their experience?;
  • Proceed with What, So What, Now What to move one step back on the ladder of inference. If change is hard, what observations actually support that? What do people observe when they are part of change? What meaning do they assign to these observations? And what next steps are helpful?
  • Use Nine Whys to clarify our own personal purpose when it comes to change. Why is it that we do the work that we do?

We used Trello to visualize the program, knowing full well that it would most certainly change throughout the workshop. The board is available publicly:

For each structure, we specified the following:

  • The icon of the structure, for easy visual identification;
  • The purpose that we wanted to achieve with the structure;
  • The invitation (question to ask);
  • The steps involved (roughly);
  • The time box (also for the steps);
  • The questions to ask when debriefing a structure with the group. What made it work? What did the group observe?;

The more experienced you are with Liberating Structures, the less you need to specify these things upfront. For example, Keith only uses the symbols of the structures to create an agenda. In that sense, Liberating Structures become like LEGO-bricks that you can swap around in-the-moment as new opportunities or needs emerge.

Show Time!

With March 19 & 20 finally there, it was time for us to facilitate our own Immersion Workshop. The picture below gives a sense of the atmosphere, the connections that people made and the structures that we applied.

An impression of both days. On the second picture in the second column, the Design Team is part of a UX Fishbowl where they reflect on the first day (and get feedback from the participants on the outside).

As expected, the program started to shift as soon as we started. Thankfully, we frequently synchronized with our Design Team (and Fisher and Keith) to make changes to invitations, structures or timing. This made everything quite natural, even though it was a first for some of us.

Lessons learned (or emphasized)

Throughout the process of organizing this event, and in particular by facilitating it, the following insights emerged:

  • To emphasize the non-expert role of facilitators, it felt very natural to ‘whisper-out-loud’ in front of the group. This helped us to synchronize our work, check assumptions with others and give the group a sense of the kinds of decisions we where making in-the-moment;
  • In terms of changes to the program, we replaced Min Specs and Critical Uncertainties on the second day with an Open Space to address some of the more diverse needs that surfaced (help with invitations, a bit more theory, applications in Scrum). We also decided to inject Heard, Seen, Respected in the afternoon of the first day, as we noticed that the group responded well to other structures related to emphatic listening. Throughout both days, we also injected a number of ‘punctuations’ (short structures) intended to help people move attention ‘back inside’ after intense collaboration. These changes felt natural and easy;
  • Sometimes a structure doesn’t work for some people in the group. This isn’t a problem. The focus of Liberating Structures lies in optimizing the ‘thinking power’ of the whole group. Even if individuals struggle with an invitation or a structure, inspiration is often sparked during the moments in a structure where people converge again. This is particularly obvious in a structure like Wicked Questions, where a handful of people that ‘get it’ spark creativity in the whole group;
  • The gamble to give people more background on Liberating Structures seemed to have paid off. Although some people felt that they didn’t get enough theoretical background on day one, day two more than made up for this when it came to creating strings of Liberating Structures. For many of the participants, this is where everything came together;
  • The theme of ‘Change’ was mostly abandoned throughout the days. For a group with people from all sorts of contexts, it turned out to be difficult to have a meaningful conversation about ‘change in general’. We tweaked the invitations to make the structures more personal. This meant that we couldn’t really demonstrate how Liberating Structures can be used to solve a shared challenge, but that probably wasn’t a realistic goal with this group;
  • Working with a Design Team with mixed backgrounds and levels of experience was amazing. The four of us really bonded over the six days we spent together (first Berlin, then Amsterdam). Joining the workshop in Berlin together was a great way to get to know each other, and to learn more about what was expected of us. As a Design Team, we also really enjoyed spending time with Keith, Fisher and Johannes. Thanks!
Coen and Ruben during Mad Tea — one of the more crazy Liberating Structures

Let’s do it again!

This rollercoaster of an event is now over. On a more personal note, it was an amazing experience to be a part of this. I’ve learned a lot about what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be good with Liberating Structures. I thoroughly enjoyed the personal connections that I made with participants from the workshops, the various Design Teams and Keith and Fisher. There was something so incredibly humanizing about this experience, that I’m still trying to make sense of this. The past week seems to have liberated something in my personal purpose which I hope to explore in the coming years. My immediate thought after this workshop was “Let’s do it again!”, which we certainly will. Depending on the availability of everyone, we will try to organize another Immersion Workshop later this year or in the first months of the next year. So if you didn’t attend this one, you have another chance :)

If you’re interested to learn more about Liberating Structures, and in particular to give and get help using them, you can join the Dutch User Group we’ve set up. A list of user groups can be found at www.liberatingstructures.eu. We hope to organize at least several meetups around summer to experience LS for yourself. But there’s also a Slack-channel and a newsletter by two LS-maestros.

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