Liberating Structures: Unleash and Involve Everyone

If you’re a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, facilitator or change agent you’ll no doubt be interested in unleashing and engaging everyone in a group. If you are, we highly recommend exploring Liberating Structures. They are a wonderful approach to group interaction that have fundamentally changed how we facilitate workshops, Scrum events and classes. In this post I explain why and offer examples.

If you’d like to experience Liberating Structures first-hand — which is really the best way to learn about them — join the upcoming Immersion Workshop on December 10 & 11 in Amsterdam (video impression). The purpose of this workshop is to experience many different structures that you can use afterwards within your own team or organization.

Liberating Structures in action during an Immersion Workshop
The conventional structures we use to communicate, make decisions and come up with fresh ideas in groups is fundamentally broken

The way we interact in groups is broken

The conventional structures we use to communicate, make decisions and come up with fresh ideas in groups is fundamentally broken. They are either too structured and inhibiting, with one person talking while the rest ‘listens’ — like presentations, status meetings and managed discussions. Or they are too unstructured and loose, with only a handful of people talking while the rest is struggling to keep up — like brainstorms and open discussions. Furthermore, conventional structures tend to favor people that are more extroverted and can ‘think by talking’, whereas the more introverted people feel left behind because they are still thinking about a previous point.

This is a huge problem if you are interested in tapping into the full wisdom, experience and perspectives of the people in a team or organization to resolve impediments, make decisions, share knowledge and innovate. Then we discovered Liberating Structures (thanks to Johannes Schartau).

What are Liberating Structures?

Liberating Structures are a collection of 33 ‘microstructures’ that are being gathered, refined or invented by Keith McCandless, Henri Lipmanowicz and a group of pioneers. Their purpose is to involve and unleash everyone, which is essential in complex environments. Every microstructure applies five design elements to create an optimal balance between involving everyone without losing speed, structure and focus.

Liberating Structures are simple and easy to learn, making it easy to pick them up and spread them throughout your organization. This is evident from their viral quality; people feel comfortable using them elsewhere after they’ve experienced them once or twice.

Liberating Structures are open source. There are no certification programmes, extensive training or assessments.

Its also good to mention that Liberating Structures are open source. There are no certification programmes, extensive training or assessments. If you want to use them, just go to liberatingstructures.com, get the book or download the app for Android or Apple (by Holisticon).

Create strings of Liberating Structures

It might be tempting to approach Liberating Structures as a toolbox of facilitation formats. Although they certainly are helpful in their own right, the true power of Liberating Structures lies in stringing them together to build, create and sustain a flow of interactions.

In a sense, strings of Liberating Structures are like a flowing river where participants go along for the ride. If you facilitate well, and one structure flows naturally into the next, it becomes smooth and effortless while sparking the important conversations as you go.

An example string of 7 structures, intended for a 1-day teambuilding event

Some examples of Liberating Structures

1–2–4-ALL

The easiest and most versatile example is the microstructure 1–2–4-all. It can be used for reflecting on something that happened, spreading ideas or coming up with creative solutions or deciding what do next.

  • Start by introducing a question or a challenge that the group is facing;
  • 1 minute: Invite people to individually and silently reflect on the question and generate potential ideas;
  • 2 minutes: Invite people to share their ideas in pairs, and generate more ideas building on the ideas from the first round;
  • 4 minutes: Invite pairs to share their ideas with another pair (forming foursomes), and develop the ideas from the pairs. Ask people to pay attention to similarities and differences;
  • 5 minutes: Invite every foursome to share one idea that stood out or felt important. Ask the group what other patterns they noticed and what they observed;

This microstructure is very simple and deceptively powerful. Because we start individually, everyone has some time to reflect on the question. We then move the thinking into pairs and groups of four to, causing the best ideas to naturally ‘bubble up’ from the group. This is a great example of the kind of ‘parallel processing’ that Liberating Structures excel at; within a short period of time we can generate and sift through a lot of ideas.

1–2–4-ALL is very versatile and can be used for finding solutions to challenges facing Scrum Teams during their Sprint Retrospectives, to identify key insights after in a Sprint Review, to refine a Product Backlog or to find approaches to refactor difficult code.

A group engaged in a 1–2–4-ALL (notice how people are leaning into each other to really listen)

Impromptu Networking (~20 minutes)

Another simple microstructure is Impromptu Networking. Its a great way to quickly gather important observations and ideas from a large group:

  • Prepare a question that ties into the theme of what you’re doing. It can be something like ‘What stood out for you this sprint?’ or more broadly: ‘What big challenge do you bring to this gathering?’;
  • Ask people to stand up (preferably) and form pairs.
  • 3 minutes: Introduce the question and ask the pairs to answer the question;
  • 3 minutes: Ask people to form new pairs and repeat the process;
  • 3 minutes: Ask people to form new pairs and repeat the process. Ask them to search for similarities and differences, or patterns that emerge during the three rounds;
  • 5 minutes: Ask people in the entire group to share some observations or patterns;

Impromptu Networking is a great way to spread ideas, make personal connections and get a sense of whats important to the group. It allows you ask a question that ties into the theme of the gathering, but it also sets the tone for what the session will be like. But more importantly, it helps people reflect on a question in various rounds, helping them to refine their own thoughts on the subject, thereby ‘priming’ the group for further microstructures, games and discussions.

25/10 Crowdsourcing (~30 minutes)

25/10 Crowdsourcing is a wonderful structure to tap into the expertise of a large group and come up with creative ideas in a short period of time:

  • Introduce the question or challenge that you’d like to gather solutions for;
  • 5 minutes: Ask people to individually write down their boldest solution and the first step on a post-it or index card;
  • Explain the process (this is important — this microstructure can feel complicated when not explained upfront);
  • 3 minutes: Ask people to mill around and exchange cards with another person. People quickly review the card in silence. Ask people to continue milling and passing around until you give a signal (a bell or ‘Read and score!’);
  • 1 minutes: Ask people to read and review the idea on the card they are holding, and rate them with a score from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) and write it on the back of the card;
  • 10 minutes: Repeat the above two rounds four more times. This means that every card should have a maximum score of 25 and a minimum of 5;
  • 5 minutes: Ask the group to share the idea and action steps on cards with 25 points. Continue counting down until you have (say) 10 ideas;

This is a fun, dynamic and quick way to gather a lot of different ideas from a group. Because both the generation of ideas and their scoring is anonymous, everyone gets an equal voice. The better ideas automatically bubble up as they receive higher scores. We’ve used it successfully for gathering new ideas for the Product Backlog, for identifying the biggest areas of improvement during Agile transitions or for selecting topics for Open Spaces.

25/10 Crowd Sourcing with a large group

Troika Consulting (~30 minutes)

Troika Consulting is a great way to use the experience and wisdom of peers to find local solutions for a personal challenge. It works like this:

  • 1 minute: Ask people to individually identify a coaching question that they’d like input on from their peers. Preferably in the format ‘How can I …. so that ….’;
  • Ask people to form groups of 3 and identify who will be the ‘client’ in the first round. The other two people are the ‘consultants’. Ask people to stand or sit in a circle, close together;
  • 2 minutes: The client introduces the coaching question and provides some context;
  • 2 minutes: The consultants ask clarifying, open questions;
  • 5 minutes: The client turns around, so that his or her back faces the consultants. The consultants take 5 minutes to generate ideas and offer suggestions. The client, in the meantime, listens carefully and writes down useful ideas and observations. It is important the client remains silent during this round, and does not respond verbally or non-verbally;
  • 1 minute: The client turns back and shares what was most valuable about the experience;
  • The process repeats for every person in every group, meaning three rounds total;

Troika Consulting works really well for peer coaching or to help people grow individually. But you can also use it refactoring challenges. It is not necessarily the quality of ideas that works here, but the fact that two people with different perspectives offer suggestions. We tend to throw up a lot of roadblocks that others aren’t limited by. What often happens during Troika Consulting is that people realize that the roadblocks aren’t all that big or that there are novel ideas to deal with them.

Troika Consulting

Facilitation tips

We’ve been using Liberating Structures for almost two years now. This involved many different facilitation mistakes and other valuable lessons that you can use for free :)

  • Don’t mess with the timeboxes. It might be tempting to extend them. We’ve learned that its often better to just repeat the structure if you really want to go deeper. This is especially true for 1–2–4-ALL, Impromptu Networking and Troika Consulting;
  • Rather than strongly demarcating the timeboxes strongly, guide people into the next step smoothly. Instead of saying “the individual timebox is now over. Now form pairs of two” say “Now that we’ve started our thinking, lets move into pairs and continue”;
  • When creating strings of structures, add so-called punctuations and energizers to maintain the energy of the group. Some structures, like ‘Heard Seen Respected’, Appreciative Interviews and ‘What I Need From You’ can be very taxing. Give people time to wind-down;
  • Don’t organize pairs and groups on behalf of the group, but let people self-organize. Its perfectly fine to do Impromptu Networking with several pairs and one group of three, for example;
  • Facilitating Liberating Structures is incredible fun, but requires a lot of energy. Don’t facilitate large groups on your own, but create a ‘Design Team’ instead. This team works together to design the string and to facilitate the event;
  • The best invitations for Liberating Structures are specifically ambigious. As invitations go, “What has been the good, bad and surprising of [X]” invokes more pathways for the conversation and allows for more creativity than just “What did you like about [Y]”. Another example is asking “What has piqued your interest, drawn your attention or made you wonder?” instead of just “What stood out for you?”.

Want to know more?

Go to liberatingstructures.com for the menu of structures. We’ve written a number of posts on a variety of structures ourselves, focusing on their application within Scrum and Agile teams:

Let us know what your experiences with Liberating Structures are. We’re always happy to help (as is the Dutch User Group). And most of all, enjoy the wonderful conversations you will be having.

If you’d like to know more about Liberating Structures or experience a large number of them first-hand, make sure to join our Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam (December 10 & 11) or one of the others taking place in Europe in that month. Or join the Dutch User Group to give and get help from other users.