On the second half of 2018 I was formally introduced to Liberating Structures in a meta-situation: a liberating structure in place that talked about liberating structures. It was an Agile Open Space. An open space being some sort of un-conference in which people gather to address issues important to them and to also construct the agenda together. An open space being a Liberating Structure itself.
With this introduction I had I then realized a few things about Liberating Structures:
- They are fun!
- They are inviting: to creativity, to collaboration
- They are inclusive
- They are powerful
I admit, so far it might be seeming either mysterious what Liberating Structures are or rather pedestrian: Are they ways in which you conduct group sessions? Are they activities you put in a meeting?
I would describe them as minimalist micro-structures that can be put in place to allow the best interactions to happen when searching for understanding or for solutions facing complexities. While many other methods exist to harness collective knowledge, such as brainstorming, surveys, not all of them are necessarily engaging. Some might not be free enough to allow for creativity while other might be too loose to allow for actual useful results. All in all, they will at least cast a huge load of responsibility on the facilitator to make sure the session is fruitful.
I will leave to you to discover more on the details and formalities of the Liberating Structures, aptly shortened as LS, in their official website. It is a vast space for learning. However, having stated my own personal definition, I would now invite you to understand how they operate via examples I have lived to show you not only what they look like, but how they are already present in some of the interactions you live in your work or your community.
Liberating Structures in Action
If you ever participated in a Scrum Retrospective or in a project Postmortem chances are you had some Liberating Structure in action. Have you been asked to draw a feeling or a sprint? Have you asked people to get their ideas individually first, silently, on sticky notes, only to share them later with a larger group? If so, you tasted Liberating Structures, even if more in their modified forms.
As an Agile Coach I decided to establish working agreements with my teams using Liberating Structures. It feels like a natural fit and allows you to start working with the team with the Liberating gears engaged. My favorite for this is variations on What I Need from You, a structure in which me and the team lay out the important items we need to have a successful coaching relationship. Instead of arriving with a set of rules that are to be followed that states who I am and what I can bring to the table and how the team should comply, this one is an invitation to discuss what the team really needs and how I can help _and where I cannot help. Making the possibilities and asks explicit and personalized create a much stronger agreement, but most importantly it models the behavior of openness and collaboration that coach and team need to be successful.
Another Structure I love and use is called 15% Solutions and this one I use in any situation a peer or myself feel stuck. It consists in asking yourself: despite all challenges, what is the 15% I can give, as in what are the actions I have the willingness and autonomy to take? It works with teams and individuals and harness the power of no longer feeling constrained, of finding a way out no matter the challenge. Despite not being a Liberating Structure itself, I often combine it with a vision of IN - UP - OUT, which is an approach to identify what is IN my power to change, UP with my leaders (so I can influence in some way), and what is OUT there and therefore I can only recognize and accept. By mapping events and challenges this way I find it sheds more clarity on what is going on, who are the actors and ending with the graceful reminder that I, myself (or our team) can always do something instead of victimizing ourselves.
Be aware that there are 33 Liberating Structures in the official catalog, but there are their modified versions as well as new ones in the making. It is an active, living body of knowledge, not a framework.
Structuring an interaction or Designing an LS String
Liberating Structures can be used alone or in Strings, which basically means a sequence of Structures put together to facilitate a discussion. Each LS you bring to the interaction should serve a purpose that combined makes for a successful work session. I will show you below one easy String that can fit in any session of 45min to 1h.
Impromptu Networking allows for a group to start sharing freely about a challenge they have been facing. It is really a moment for the group to get acquainted with the themes and connect on a more human level. It is also great because it allows people to get emotionally present in case they were not yet. This LS warms up their thoughts, they empathize and literally start moving around. Say with this Structure we invite our participants to exchange about how they perceive a certain organizational change, say a whole department restructure.
1-2-4-All is one that allows for everybody to have a voice, from the most shy to the overly extroverted, great for discovery. Individually in our example, people start putting down what they think can be the main causes of resistance to this given organizational change. We want to understand what can go sour and we need all voices in this. In this example, we are making sure we considered all sorts of reasons why the resistance, and potential failure, can or is taking place. Once people list their individual perception (that is the 1), they share in pairs, which is less scary and more organic. That is the 2. After that, these pairs share with other pairs in which all reasons are exposed so far, but gives the chance for the less talkative to take a backseat, because his contribution is done. That is the 4. After this round, the all step, all the items are made public and explored in the bigger group configuration.
Finally, with the 15% Solutions we just saw above we invite each participant to then explain how they contribute at their level to help easing the resistance to the change.
I think that by now you started to share the feeling that this is as fun as it is powerful as a way of connecting and engaging with others!
Great places to try
If you are a coach or a Scrum master or an engaged team member wanting to get started, I recommend you to use your Sprint Retrospective for that. It is naturally inviting of collaboration and expressiveness and you will not have that "awkward" vibe that sometimes permeates the room when people are exposed to less orthodox structures meetings. It will also be more forgiving of your learning how to use the structures. It is the utmost definition of safe space!
Have a team forming or a new team member joining? Great opportunity as well to acquaint everybody with this way of working while learning and building something together.
If you already has a team for a while, next time you facilitate a work or design session or a backlog refinement, try Min Specs. Ask the team the absolute MUST dos and the MUST NOT dos. With that you can get the discussion focused on the essential to be accomplished, instead of getting lost in details. It is extremely helpful to shape up the Definition of Done for tasks as well.
Are you an Organizational Coach arriving in the company for the first time for an assessment? There are structures thought out precisely for unveiling the help required or to understand the nature of a complex problem.