Liberating Structures: Unleash and Involve Everyone

If you're a Scrum Master, Change Agent, Agile Coach or otherwise interested in involving and tapping into the wisdom of everyone, Liberating Structures are a wonderful extension of your toolkit. In this post I explain why and offer some concrete examples. If you'd like to experience Liberating Structures first-hand, Johannes Schartau and I gladly invite you to join our workshop at Scrum Day Europe 2017.

The way we communicate in groups is broken

Ever been part of a status meeting where most people are checking their phones or staring into the distance? Ever been part of a brainstorm where only two participants are actively coming up with ideas, while the rest is struggling to keep up? Ever dozed off during a PowerPoint-presentation?

Lets face it; 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 few 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 the previous point.

This is a huge problem if you are interested in tapping into the wisdom, experience and perspectives of the people in a team or organization to resolve impediments, make decisions, share knowledge and innovate.

So this always bothered me. But I never knew how to solve this. I hoped that more innovative co-creation tools like Gamestorming might help. But despite how nice and how much fun these tools can be, they frequently require a group to discuss whats happening on a flip-over or a whiteboard. Although these methods are more fun, more transparent and technically allow room for everyone to be involved, they often still exhibit the same limitations.

Liberating Structures

Thankfully, two years ago, Johannes Schartau pointed me towards Liberating Structures as a way to counter these limitations. Liberating Structures are a set of 33 'microstructures' by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz that are designed to 'involve and unleash everyone'. Every individual microstructure strikes a balance between structure and control on the one hand, and thinking individually and as a group on the other. They are simple and easy to learn, making it easy to pick them up and spread them throughout your organization. Another benefit is that most microstructures easily scale from small to huge groups.

The website liberatingstructures.com offers a full list of the 33 microstructures. But there's also a book.

Some examples

1-2-4-all (~12 minutes)

1-2-4-all with coffee at the start of a PSM training couse

The easiest and most versatile example is the microstructure 1-2-4-all. It can be used for reflecting on something that happened, 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: Ask people to individually and silently reflect on the question and generate potential ideas;
  • 2 minutes: Ask people to share their ideas in pairs, and generate more ideas building on the ideas from the first round;
  • 4 minutes: Ask 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: Ask 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 deceivingly powerful. Because we start individually, everyone has some time to reflect on the question. We then start building and integrating the ideas in rounds, 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.

I've used 1-2-4-all for a lot of different things, such as:

  • To find solutions for an impediment identified during a Sprint Retrospective;
  • To identify key learnings after a workshop;
  • As a structure for an entire Sprint Retrospective. I used 1-2-4-all to identify what went well, and what could be improved. Then used a seconds round of 1-2-4-all to work out actionable improvements;
  • For refinement of the Product Backlog;

Impromptu Networking (~20 minutes)

Impromptu Networking at the start of a Tech Talk with Developers

Another simple, but powerful 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.
  • 4 minutes: Introduce the question and ask the pairs to answer the question (2 minutes per person);
  • 3 minutes: Ask people to form new pairs and repeat the process;
  • 2 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 icebreaker. 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 with a smaller group

25/10 Crowdsourcing is one of the best approaches to tap into the expertise of a large group, and come up with creative ideas in a short period of time. It works like this:

  • 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 to getting there on a post-it or index card. Or ask for the '15% Solution': what is a first step in the right direction?;
  • 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. The best ideas tend to automatically bubble up as they receive the highest scores. 25/10 Crowdsourcing also works for smaller groups (up to 8 people). Instead of milling and passing around, I just ask people to form a circle and pass cards clockwise a few times.

Troika Consulting (~30 minutes)

Troika Consulting during a peer coaching session for Scrum Masters

Troika Consulting is a great way to use the experience and wisdom of peers to find 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. 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 for ourselves 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.

Chaining Liberating Structures

The true power of Liberating Structures becomes apparent when you chain them. Begin with Impromptu Networking to warm up participants to the theme. Then use 1-2-4-all to identify the most important challenges. Focusing on the biggest challenges, use 25/10 Crowdsourcing to identify actionable ideas to resolve them. If relevant, finish up with Troika Consulting to have people coach each other with respect to the solutions. The set of 33 microstructures offers endless combinations. So whatever the topic, there's bound to be a combination that works for you.

Interested?

The website liberatingstructures.com offers a full list of the 33 microstructures. There's also an associated book that more extensively explains the background of Liberating Structures and the various microstructures. Or even better, download this cool app (Android or iOS) from Holisticon to help you select and chain liberating structures.

If you'd like to experience Liberating Structures first-hand, join our workshop on the Scrum Day Europe 2017. We'll be using 25/10 Crowdsourcing, Appreciate Interviews and Troika Consulting.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic