Liberating Structures as an Interaction Language

It is tempting to understand Liberating Structures as ‘facilitation techniques’ — I have done so myself. Although they absolutely are in one sense, framing them like this risks putting them in a toolbox that is used exclusively for workshops, training, and facilitated events and puts them squarely in the domain of ‘professional facilitators’. But the more I use them, the more I understand that they are designed to shift entire systems. People should use them wherever groups interact.

This insight was strongly emphasized a couple of days ago, during an Option Space about Liberating Structures I facilitated with Barry Overeem.

What happened?

One of the sessions revolved around an intriguing case that was introduced by one of the participants. Eight other people flocked to this 30-minute session, took position around a large table and engaged in a group conversation. The type that you often find in organizations.

As a facilitator, I was walking around the room to make sure that the groups in the four parallel tracks had what they needed. I noticed how three of the four groups showed high levels of engagement (leaning in, eye contact, no distractions). But not this particular group. Sure, three or four people seemed engaged in a lively debate. But others were deeply interested in their phones, looked around the room to see what the other groups were working on or struggled to find a moment to add their two cents. Which turned out to be quite difficult as the people who dominated the conversation simply interrupted the more quiet speakers, encouraging them to disengage from further conversation. I also noticed that this group was the only group not using a Liberating Structure for their interaction.

I approached the group and took a seat nearby to observe. A hope I always have is that people that are attending a meetup about Liberating Structures see the opportunity to apply them for their interactions. But there’s often an understandable trepidation to try something new with people you don’t really know. Or to interrupt people that are speaking to suggest something new. So groups tend to stick to the interaction patterns they know — in this case, a free-for-all discussion (or a ‘goat rodeo’).

Some people noticed me and threw me looks that said, “Yeah, we know — but what can you do?”

I observed how people noticed that this interaction wasn’t working, but felt powerless to change it. I noticed frustrated glances as people got cut off. Some people noticed me and threw me looks that said, “Yeah, we know — but what can you do?”. Most of the participants in this group had limited experience with Liberating Structures and those that did either didn’t see the opportunity or didn’t know how to act.

So I approached the group and shared my observations. I suggested that we try out a Liberating Structure to structure this interaction. I offered to try ‘Wise Crowds’, as this was a situation where one person needed help with a challenge they faced (the ‘client’). The group agreed and I offered to start it. The group then engaged in a structured conversation that took fifteen minutes (without me present). Afterward, the group observed:

  • The client got many practical tips by simply listening to the consultants talk about potential solutions behind his back. I noticed the client smiling on many occasions because of ideas suggested;
  • Without the client intervening or interrupting, the eight consultants were far more engaged in their conversation. Participants leaned in to listen, looked at each other and were paying far less attention to what was going on outside of their group;
  • Within a timebox of fifteen minutes, the client received practical help. From that help, he also distilled additional insights and affirmations of things he already suspected;

This is just one example of how Liberating Structures restructure a group interaction into something vastly more productive and engaging. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was much better than what was happening before.

Impressions of the Options Space we hosted. The group that employed Wise Crowds is in the top-left corner. Although I don’t have a ‘before’ picture, you can see that people are looking at each other and most people are actively leaning in. Also note the lack of a table, and how it promotes engagement.

So what?

Let’s face it; the way we interact in groups is horribly broken. In organizations, we find myriad examples of those dreaded weekly team meetings, management briefings and (often) the various Scrum Events.

”Let’s face it; the way we interact in groups is horribly broken.”

Whenever we meet in groups, our interactions tend to break down into five stereotypical patterns. We have three highly structured approaches; the presentation, the status update, and the managed discussion. In each, one person or a small committee or controls the conversation at that moment and decides what happens next. On the other hand, we have two unstructured patterns in the form of the themed brainstorm and the open discussion.

The problems with these five stereotypical patterns are plenty and easy to see. First, they are either too structured or too loose. This makes it easy for all sorts of power dynamics to come into play where a subset of participants ‘hijacks’ both the course and the content of the conversation. Although this is usually not done with bad intentions, it does mean that the contribution of quieter voices — and diversity — is lost. And so are their ideas, their creativity, and their intelligence. Another result of this one-sided control is that people feel less engaged with that conversation. If you’re not able to add to or influence the conversation, why would you be engaged in it?

Liberating Structures don’t presume to completely solve these problems — human interaction remains messy and complicated. But they provide just enough structure to group interactions to create space for quieter voices and to allow everyone to be involved in and engaged with, the conversation. Each Liberating Structure is thoughtfully specified on five design elements for the interaction; what is the invitation for the conversation? how is the space arranged? how is participation distributed? how are groups configured and what is the sequence of steps and timing?

Now what?

It is tempting to consider Liberating Structures merely as ‘facilitation techniques’, but that risks putting them in a box that is only used when offering workshops, facilitated meetings and training. The point of Liberating Structures — if you really want to make an impact, is to use them in the day-to-day conversations you have with people. Use it in your team meetings, your Daily Scrums, you problem-solving session and when you’re talking about how to make progress on a shared goal.

1. Together, learn basic structures

The first step is to learn basic Liberating Structures, like 1–2–4-ALL, Impromptu Networking, What, So What, Now What, UX Fishbowl and Troika Consulting. They are versatile, flexible and easy to learn and facilitate. Knowing at least a couple of Liberating Structures and their purpose, can help identify opportunities to use them (‘Perhaps 1–2–4-ALL can be used here to explore options and see what feels best to us?’ or ‘Let’s analyze the situation in more detail with What, So What, Now What?’). Joining a local User Group — like our group in the Netherlands — is a great start. Or learn many different Liberating Structures in quick succession during a 2-day upcoming ‘Immersion Workshop’.

2. Together, make work agreements to encourage the use of Liberating Structures

The second step is to make work agreements at the start of any group interaction that encourages the use of Liberating Structures and to create opportunities to inject them and experiment with them. For example:

  1. We agree to share the responsibility of identifying and trying Liberating Structures that can allow more people to be included and engaged in this interaction;
  2. We agree to allow and encourage anyone in this group to try a Liberating Structure;

3. Understand Liberating Structures as a language for interaction

Liberating Structures are a language for interaction in groups. Each structure is a word in this language, and combining them allows you to build meaningful sentences. It may be tempting to consider Liberating Structures as tools in a facilitation toolkit, and in a way they certainly are, but their true power lies in combining them into ‘strings’ to accommodate the various phases of interaction. This acknowledges that groups interactions move through different stages. For example, a group may first need to clarify the problem they are facing. Once clarified, they need to explore options. Finally, they have to decide on which options to implement and determine next steps. Different Liberating Structures are suited for each stage. You may want to start with an Impromptu Networking to clarify the problem, learn from people who have experience with the problem with UX Fishbowl, explore and select options with 25/10 Crowd Sourcing, go deeper into the options most feasible with 1–2–4-ALL and decide on next steps with 15% Solutions. This is just one example of how Liberating Structures can be used as an interaction language.

“Liberating Structures are a language for interaction in groups”
This is what it looks like when people are engaged and involved in a conversation. Impressions of people during Liberating Structures.

Concluding thoughts

Treating Liberating Structures as ‘facilitation techniques’ risks relegating them to the realm of professional facilitators. It also risks putting them into a toolbox that is only used for workshops, facilitated events or training. Instead, I find it helpful to understand Liberating Structures as an ‘interaction language’. The more familiar it becomes to more people in a group, the easier and more natural it is to use them. And the easier it becomes to put a stop to those horrible disengaging interactions we often have in groups, especially in organizations. With Liberating Structures, we can start shifting entire organizations by tweaking the way groups and individuals interact.

Liberating Structures have been curated, collected and invented by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, supported by a host of users. Want to learn the language of Liberating Structures? Join one of the upcoming 2-day upcoming ‘Immersion Workshops’. The workshop in May is already full, but we’ve got more coming up in Barcelona, Boston, and Amsterdam (see link).