Liberating structures—the idea

A pattern language for effective facilitation and meaningful group work.

Liberating structures—the idea
Photo by kaleidoscope / Unsplash

Here’s an entry point into systems thinking: there’s always a process. The more certain you are there is no process, the more you’d benefit from hanging back and identifying the process. That’s why an important part of continuous improvement is getting everybody to agree about the animal.

Let’s talk about what happens when people walk into a room for a meeting.

When people walk into a room, it’s a disaster. Competing priorities. Hierarchy. Unshared understandings. Constraints. Hopes. Expectations. Needs.

A friend once told me that he learned to cook a chicken by overcooking a hundred chickens. I learned to facilitate a conversation by wasting everybody’s time many times over in a great many overcooked meetings. Sensing this problem, I became a collector of systems and methods that address how and why people work together.

It took until my first encounter with liberating structures in 02012 that I found something that really worked for me, works for my colleagues, and—I hope—might do some work for you as well.

What is this thing already

Well, here’s what they say.

“Five conventional structures guide the way we organize routine interactions and how groups work together: presentations, managed discussions, open discussions, status reports and brainstorm sessions. Liberating Structures add 33 more options to the big five conventional approaches.”

For me, the value in liberating structures starts with naming the kinds of ineffective slurry we do by default in group discussion or group work environments. The stuff that goes onto agendas.

What you do with liberating structures is this:

  1. first, identify the process of what goes on in meetings;
  2. then, find something better to do with the time.

Liberating structures are a menu of riches. Tiny “microstructures”—or specifications for things a group can do—ranging from groups as small as four to as large as hundreds. (Largest group I’ve ever used liberating structures with was about 150 and the tools worked great.) Time commitments range from a quarter-hour to a three-day workshop.

Each liberating structure is published with tremendous detail on why, how, and when to introduce it. This information is an amazing gift, all of it useful.

Liberating structures can be chained together. When facilitating, I put liberating structures in sequences designed to help everybody in a room get from their various current situations to a coherent, better situation.

Finally, liberating structures adapt and adopt widely. Very little of what you’ll find there is “new”. For example, the What, So What, Now What? structure is a specific presentation of a rhetorical device you may have encountered in academia (from Chris Argyris) or by other names (“ORID”, “focused conversation”, etc.). But the liberating structure:

  • gives specific, comprehensive information on how to facilitate it;
  • presents it with a bare minimum of touchy-feely horseshit; and
  • explains how it might sequence in with other things a group is doing.

Getting started

Here’s the fun part. Liberating structures are easy to dip into. There’s a comprehensive website, with its own, very specific guide to getting started, as well as access to tools like local user groups.

My advice to you is to figure out a way to experience some of the liberating structures before you start using them. But if you can’t—at the very least—find a way to try out 1-2-4-All (as described on the getting started page).

My next item on Improve something today will list a few of my workhorse liberating structures and where and how I use them.

Now, it’s only fair to let the liberating structures folks have the last word

“We want everyone to learn to foster big changes by inviting people to make small structural changes in how they work together.”