Liberating Structures Are Skills To Be Learned By Users, Not Facilitators

And how the LS Learning Gathering in Hamburg shifted my understanding of what is important about Liberating Structures

Christiaan Verwijs
Aug 10 · 5 min read

This week, we attended the European Liberating Structures Learning Gathering in Hamburg. Hosted by Holisticon and with some help from The Liberators, it was attended by over 100 participants from several dozen countries, like Switzerland, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, the UK, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. The coming weeks, we will share some of our insights and learnings.

If you use Liberating Structures as a facilitator, you may find yourself bored with yet another Impromptu Networking, TRIZ or 1–2–4-ALL. It might feel more interesting to try something new or more complex structures, like Future~Present or Ecocycle Planning, to come up with your own structure or to dazzle groups with overly complex riffs and mashups. I know I do.

Or I did. During the Liberating Structures Learning Gathering in Hamburg, I discovered how this may instead be based on a misunderstanding of what Liberating Structures are. In this post, I will try to explain why.

“During the Liberating Structures Learning Gathering in Hamburg, I discovered how this may instead be based on a misunderstanding on my part of what Liberating Structures are”

My thinking started to shift during a conversation with Henri Lipmanowicz, one of the two founders of Liberating Structures. One remark he repeatedly made throughout the gathering is that he feels that the repertoire should have stopped at 8 or 9 structures, instead of the growing 33 they have now. Although the other founder, Keith McCandless, has a different perspective on this, this remark struck a chord with me.

It also ties into another remark about there being more value in depth than in breadth of how the repertoire is used. It’s easy to explore the breadth of Liberating Structures and the interactions it allows by sampling the entire repertoire and keep pushing for riffs, variations, and mashups. But this only touches the surface of what is possible with each individual structure. It takes time for groups and individuals to become proficient with a structure and how to work with it effectively. Doing 1–2–4-ALL once or twice is great, but people start to understand how and why it works, and how best to interact in it when they do it over and over again. Furthermore, they also learn how to best distribute time, to feel comfortable with expressing complex-but-unfinished thoughts in short timeboxes and to trust in how huge insights can emerge out of the thinking of the group as a whole. Truly getting to the core purpose with Nine Whys is not something you can after having done it once or twice.

“This makes each Liberating Structure primarily a skill that users have to master, not a technique for facilitators to add to their toolbox.“

This makes each Liberating Structure primarily a skill that users have to master, not a technique for facilitators to add to their toolbox. This was exemplified wonderfully when Keith and Henri encouraged the group to rely on their own skill to use Impromptu Networking followed by Troika Consulting. Without any instructions, the group knew what to do. When facilitators continue to maintain control and ‘hold the structure’, these skills can never be fully mastered by users as they continue to wait for the facilitator to tell them what to do next. Whereas the entire point of the simplicity of Liberating Structures is that everyone can use them. By indulging in their own desire to ‘try new structures’ or dazzle the group with amazing riffs and mashups of Liberating Structures, facilitators may actually be preventing users from becoming skilled at them themselves.

“Although facilitators may act as initial training wheels, their purpose should be first-and-foremost to help users do it without them.“

So while it’s wonderful that so many facilitators flock to Liberating Structures, myself included, we should be wary of blocking the ability of users to learn the skill of each Liberating Structure. You can’t truly learn a language when someone keeps feeding you the words. Although facilitators may act as initial training wheels, their purpose should be first-and-foremost to help users do it without them. Otherwise, the kind of deep thinking and profound interaction made possible by Liberating Structures are reserved for those opportunities when a facilitator is present. And even then, the depth of the conversation will be limited by the skill of the facilitator.

So what can we do? The following ideas emerged during and after the gathering

  • Rely on the foundational structures for most of the interactions: 1–2–4-ALL, Impromptu Networking, Nine Whys, Wicked Questions, Appreciative Interviews, TRIZ, 15% Solutions, Troika Consulting and What, So What, Now What. These structures are so versatile that they can be used in every situation;
  • From the outset, explain Liberating Structures for users to acquire instead of a technique from the toolbox of the facilitator. By understanding it as a skill — much like communication skills — it makes sense to practice, repeat, feel awkward and make mistakes;
  • “Repetition is also a form of learning”. Instead of designing strings of many different structures, there is power in repetition. Do Impromptu Networking multiple times to go deeper or further;
  • Although an explanation of the steps is helpful for the first couple of times, gradually decrease the verbosity to the point where groups know how to use a structure on their own. The role of a facilitator can be limited to maintaining timeboxes, although even that can be done with a simple timer that visible to all;
  • Stop using complicated riffs, variations, and mash-ups for groups that are mostly new to Liberating Structures and focus instead on making sure that core structures are practiced and repeated;
  • Stop indulging as a facilitator by over-complicating designs or by proudly showcasing how many Liberating Structures can you squeeze into each other. It’s not about you (or me);

All of these points start making more sense when you look at them from the perspective of “Liberating Structures as skills to be acquired by users”. Start simple, practice, repeat. Liberating Structures are there for users, not facilitators.

European Liberating Structures Learning Gatherings are insightful and inspirational opportunities to connect with other experienced practitioners from all over Europe. It's a good opportunity to reflect on your own skill, to start new initiatives and make connections. The next Learning Gathering will take place in 2020, on September 23 & 24 in the Netherlands. Sign up here. And we hope to see you there!

Illustration by Thea Schukken

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

Christiaan Verwijs

Written by

I aim to liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing and ineffective ways of organizing work. Professional Scrum Trainer & Steward @ Scrum.org

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

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