Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop December 2018: Lessons Learned

I’m writing this while still basking in the warm afterglow of the Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop we facilitated on December 10 & 11 in Amsterdam. Together with a Design Team consisting of Barry Overeem, Ruben Klerkx - Createur, Jordann Gross, Max Brouwer, Rasheed Raya, Anna Jackson & Fisher Qua we managed to immerse a group of 121 participants in over 20 different Liberating Structures. In this post, we share the road to the workshop (sort of a ‘the making of’) and share our lessons learned.

Building The Neural Network of a group

Liberating Structures are an evolving set of 33 techniques that unflatten, enrich and deepen the 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. This means that Liberating Structures are not a rigid, static set of formats. New structures are being developed all the time and existing structures are modified, adjusted or removed.

All Liberating Structures build and strengthen the ‘neural network’ of groups

But one thing all Liberating Structures share is that they build and strengthen the ‘neural network’ of groups. By strengthening and increasing the number of connections within a group, the intelligence and creativity of a group as a whole increases. We know this sounds fluffy and vague. And that’s exactly what Immersion Workshops are for: to let you experience this yourself.

A Rollercoaster (by design)

Immersion Workshops are like roller coasters. When you sign up, we strap you in and take you for a ride across many different Liberating Structures and ways of interacting in groups. Rather than taking deep dives on individual structures, we focus on letting you experience as many of them as we can. This allows you to get a sense of how they work, but also how they interact and build on each other. Immersion Workshops purposefully break the mold of what you expect when you sign up for a ‘workshop’. This makes Immersion Workshops intense, crazy and sometimes overwhelming experiences.

Immersion Workshops are like roller coasters

May 2018: First steps

We organized our first Immersion Workshop with 85 participants in March 2018. Spurred on by the enthusiasm by Keith McCandless, we boldly decided to increase the size of the group to 125 participants. We formed a new Design Team in May of 2018 and met a couple of times online with Fisher, Anna and people from the other Immersion Workshops taking place throughout Europe to work on our ‘designs’ (or: the set of structures we were going to use and how to connect them).

We met a number of times online — also with people from the other workshops — using Zoom. Zoom allows you to use ‘breakout rooms’ to use Liberating Structures within your call.

A trip to Hamburg

In order to prepare for the workshop, we decided to travel to a 2-day Immersion Workshop in Hamburg taking place four days before ours. This trip served the dual purpose of teambuilding for the Design Team and to learn from the design in Hamburg. So we booked seats on a train and traveled to Hamburg while sharing personal stories and anticipating the workshop together.

An impression of the Immersion Workshop in Hamburg

The workshop in Hamburg was incredible:

  • We really like a bold experiment by the Hamburg Design Team: before showing up themselves, they invited a participant to facilitate Impromptu Networking. Using only a card with the invitation and the steps to read out loud, this demonstrated that everyone can use Liberating Structures. It was a great way to break the mold where people come in, sit down and ‘listen to the experts’;
  • We really enjoyed a simulation that was used by Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua to demonstrate how to use What I Need From You (WINFY). One of the challenges with Immersion Workshops is that the group usually consists of people that have no more in common than being there at the same time. This makes it hard to use Liberating Structures that rely on having a shared purpose, like WINFY. But the simulation worked nicely.
  • Some people felt lost during the first half of day one. Because Immersion Workshops focus on the experience of the structures, it can be hard for people to map it to existing models. be overwhelming.
  • A particularly powerful example of Improv Prototyping took place in Hamburg. In this structure, one participant becomes the ‘Creative Director’ of a scenario that embodies a challenge they face. This scenario is re-enacted by the others while the director provides lines and starts/stops/restarts as needed to try different kinds of behavior. During our run, one participant came to terms with his fear of flying. The actor playing him had another actor playing his fear. The act ended with both himself (as played by another participant) and his fear sitting down in a fictitious airplane while he put his arm around his fear;
  • The workshop underscored again how it is okay for individuals to struggle with a structure or a particular invitation. What matters is that the group as a whole can deal with it;

The Trip Back: A change of plans

Going in, we already knew that the workshop in Hamburg would likely result in many new ideas and insights. So we used the 6-hour trip back to Amersfoort to rethink the design for the workshop in Amsterdam. This included creating all the slides, coming up with good invitations and changing the order and structures in the strings. With only a weekend between the workshop in Hamburg and Amsterdam, you can imagine that this was a lot of work. It also demonstrated how we worked as a team, as we collaborated remotely throughout both days (and I saw both the slides and the Trello-board change continuously as the others worked on their ends).

Traveling to Hamburg (and back) was a blast, despite some delays. And we used it very productively for re-thinking our entire design

We agreed on the following as a Design Team:

  • Each structure would be run by two facilitators, allowing us to support, and learn from each other;
  • We made a list of Liberating Structures that felt intimidating-but-fascinating, like Improv Prototyping and Critical Uncertainties and decided to make sure that these structures would return in the eventual design. We also made sure that everyone had at least a couple of structures they’d never done before. For example, Heard, Seen, Respected and Improv Prototyping for me;
  • Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua would add depth wherever needed and requested, but we would take the lead in the facilitation — all with the purpose of minimizing the idea that this was an ‘expert-driven’ workshop;
Our final design (this screenshot includes updates we made throughout both days). A public version of this board is available here.

Showtime!

On Monday morning, December 10, it was show time for us. We felt comfortable enough with the design and with our team. One worry was the space. The initial estimates for the capacity of the room prove to be overly optimistic, and when we set out the chairs we discovered that it would be tight and noisy. So we decided to rent two more rooms and add more as needed (inspect & adapt).

An impression of both day 1 and 2 of the Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam (pictures by Lisanne Lentink)

The first day featured three strings of Liberating Structures. The morning was mostly spent on making personal connections (Nine Whys, Tiny Demons, Troika Consulting and Talking With Pixies) while the afternoon was spent on ‘theory’ (in the form of a Shift & Share) and another string about empathy (Heard, Seen, Respected, Drawing Together and B2B Listening). With the main room being unable to contain the vast energy of the group, and one participant leaving because of this, we decided to run the strings in parallel in two rooms (the main hall and a smaller room). Luckily, we had paired up facilitators for each structure. So each pair broke up to facilitate the same structure in each room. Though not prepared, the facilitators all stepped up to make this happen — even when it was quite nerve-wracking at times and took a lot of last-minute preparations. But we also felt that it was a good example of how you really don’t need to be skilled in facilitating a structure in order to make it work.

The UX Fishbowl at the end of the day one helped us to collect more feedback from the participants and to adjust for day two. All-in-all, day one went well enough. But we weren’t happy yet. So we spent the evening making changes to the design, renting more rooms and making sure that day two would allow a more comfortable experience for both the facilitators and the participants.

The second day started with a very cognitive-heavy string, featuring Conversation Cafe, Ecocycle Planning, Critical Uncertainties, and Improv Prototyping. This heavy start was on purpose, as we wanted people to experience different kinds of learning. We also wanted to demonstrate how heavy and powerful structures can follow-up on each other to build out ideas. The string culminated with a truly hilarious example of Improv Prototyping. One group featured an actor playing a whiteboard and another a computer. A lot of cathartic laughter was heard as people experimented with new behavioral repertoires that came emerged from the string. Day two continued with a Selection Matchmaker (building your own strings of LS) and an Open Space to address various topics. All-in-all, day two was incredible. The Open Space was a bit hectic — as expected — but we could tell that the participants were having a good time, learning a lot and feeling more comfortable.

Lessons Learned

  • One thing we noticed during the Open Space is that people still longed for the “expert opinion”. Some topics were suggested to be run by members of the Design Team. And this is totally understandable — its what we’re all used to. Thankfully we encouraged people to run their own sessions, and we’re very thankful for the many bold people that stepped up and tried both topics and Liberating Structures they’d never done before;
  • As discovered throughout both days — also by the participants: Liberating Structures are not about reaching consensus, making decisions or passing judgment. Its all about creating conversations where groups can explore a challenge. The idea is that out of that conversation, a richer, deeper understanding will emerge that helps groups move in the right direction (for them). This is also why invitations to many structures can sometimes feel so fluffy (e.g. “What is the good, the surprising and the frustrating of X”). We’re not interested in having groups merely exchange opinions, we’re interested in exploring the underlying assumptions, feelings, and considerations. This is really a paradigm shift for many;
  • Pairing up for all the structures worked really well. Not only can you support each other more easily, but you can also more easily adapt to situations (like running sessions in parallel). We also noticed that the simplicity of the structures made it easier for other facilitators to step in and help as needed;
  • Keep an eye on diversity. Although we had this in mind while forming the Design Team, and succeeded in some areas, we still ended up with a design team consisting of people from mostly the same age group. We also had one woman versus seven men. We can do better next time :)
  • You need a really huge space if you want to hold the energy that large groups release without overwhelming people. Next time we would go for at least twice the size;

Its all about Engagement

I love Liberating Structures. Or more accurately; I love what they make possible. These two days, I’ve seen many touching moments. From people sharing deeply personal stories to cathartic laughter. And from people that boldly stepped up to do something scary (like facilitating a new LS) to groups that bravely worked through difficult structures to uncover valuable insights. I’m certain that each participant has had personal conversations with at least 60 other participants.

There’s something incredibly humanizing about the interactions made possible by Liberating Structures. And despite the rationalist that I am, I can’t help but completely agree with this quote:

“All people are beautiful when they’re fully engaged” @Keith McCandless
All people are beautiful when they’re fully engaged. Something made possible by Liberating Structures, as shown on these pictures by Lisanne Lentink.

Thank you!

The participants truly make an Immersion Workshop a success. And the 121 participants of this workshop did exactly that. It was their enthusiasm, their persistence and their ability to listen and empathize that made our second Immersion Workshop a success. Thanks!

The Design Team for the Immersion Workshop, December 2018

Interested in joining an Immersion Workshop (again)? We’ve got another one coming up in May. If you’re aiming to join, book early. Our second workshop was fully booked months before the event. Or join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures