Liberating Structures: Change Methods for Everybody Every Day
Liberating [verb]: to set free from imposed, controlling structures
Structures [noun]: simple rules that specify how people are included and participate
Liberating Structures (LS) are simple rules that make it possible to include and engage every voice in shaping the future. The LS repertoire consists of 33 practical methods versatile enough for anyone to use for a wide array of activities and challenges. None require expert training. Seeing them in action once is enough for many novices to get results and adapt them for use in other settings.
We have come to believe that most people wish to productively include and unleash everyone but do not know how. Using Liberating Structures makes it relatively easy and practical to start.
Since our book — The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures — was published in 2013, people have spread Liberating Structures over all continents and in every professional domain. To share our experience and the experience of users, we will address the following questions:
- Why do we need change methods that everybody can use every day?
- How are the 33 Liberating Structures ideally suited to become people’s normal way to work and interact with one another?
- What principles are reinforced by Liberating Structures to promote improved performance and increased innovation?
- What makes Liberating Structures work well in today’s complex world and applicable to a full range of situations and issues?
- How do Liberating Structures invite individuals and organizations to unearth and develop possibilities that did not seem to exist before?
- How do people learn and spread Liberating Structures?
1. Why do we need change methods that everybody can use every day?
Most people want to achieve better results and be more successful. In other words, consciously or not, they are looking for better ways to do daily work, whether it is problem solving, learning, making decisions, working on projects, or planning. Still, they give little attention to the way daily work actually gets done and overlook how their daily habits are related to the results they seek.
At the same time nearly everybody is frustrated by the limitations of conventional approaches; just listen to the conversations at the end of most meetings: the usual themes are boredom, indifference, resistance, feeling unheard or pushed around. What’s more, conventional practices often encourage people to compete rather than cooperate and tap into the collective intelligence around them.
The traditional methods that people use instinctively and routinely to get their work done together with their colleagues are one reason this state of affairs endures. We call those methods microstructures; they are used automatically so often that they become “invisible” and their importance and influence on results are very easy to overlook. The Big 5 — the most commonly used and not very effective microstructures — are: presentations, managed discussions, status updates, brainstorming and open discussions (Figure 1).
The unintended consequences of these conventional routines are that they exclude, stifle, and over- or under-control full-throated participation in shaping next steps and the future. They frequently fail to provide space for good ideas to germinate, emerge, be shared, combined, and refined. This means that huge amounts of time and money are spent working the wrong way and in efforts to fix the problems these methods create or exacerbate.
On a broader level, change at any scale in organizations or communities will not “really” happen, or will not last, unless there are changes at the level of the individuals involved, namely changes in their daily habits, practices, and interactions. Change cannot be broad enough to make a real difference unless a large number of people become fully involved, not only as participants but also as change agents in shaping their future. For many tough challenges any organization faces, having everyone engaged in making changes is critical to success. This calls for change methods that everybody can use. It calls for change methods that productively distribute leadership and control in settings from classrooms to boardrooms, in community gatherings and professional conferences. It calls for methods people can use routinely, every day.
Innovation is another word for change. For an organization to be vibrant, opportunities for change/innovation must exist at every level. Only when everyone is included and unleashed can change become a staple of everyday work life. In such a scenario, change is evolutionary: everybody is invited to play an active role and becomes skilled in making contributions. This makes it possible for innovation and improvement to bubble up anywhere, at any time, at any level of the organizational ecology.
The requirements for small-scale changes are similar to the requirements for systemic large-scale changes. The manager who wants to improve department performance, the teacher who wants to engage students, the community organizer who tries to give more of a voice to citizens, the IT professional who wants an effective Agile team, the doctor who wants to improve teamwork, all need methods that are very simple, quickly learned, easy to use, and endlessly adaptable. Key attributes for such methods include:
- Versatile: useful in many different situations, regardless of a person’s profession, position, culture, or purpose
- Easy to learn: no extensive training required; people can pick them up easily
- Expert-less: require only a few minutes to introduce; everybody can use them
- Results-focused: generate tangible results so quickly that people will sustain the effort
- Rapid cycles: short enough to fit in the existing rhythm of work and to be repeated quickly to improve results
- Multi-scale: useable with varied group sizes for everyday tasks, projects, or strategy/goal setting
- Enjoyable: participants experience working together as pleasurable and satisfying rather than the usual drudgery
It is natural for people to resist change that is imposed, change that is someone else’s “good idea” or a so-called “best practice”. Hence, much effort gets wasted in trying to convince people and to get “buy-in”. No such resistance arises when the good idea is their shared idea, one that emerged from a process in which they were a full participant, including choosing the change methods used for the process. When that happens change has the potential of becoming evolutionary, meaning that changes emerge naturally, spontaneously and are perpetuated from within rather than being abruptly imposed from the top.
2. How are the 33 Liberating Structures ideally suited to become people’s normal way to work and interact with one another?
The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. — Ludwig Wittgenstein
Liberating Structures (LS) are simple change methods that anybody can use to improve or change the way work gets done, now and in the future (Figure 2). Every single one of the 33 structures rests on the idea that everybody is included and invited to participate in shaping the group’s shared future. The structures are easy to learn, requiring no lengthy training. They are easy to use and don’t require bringing in an expert. Step-by-step descriptions for each are freely available on the website www.liberatingstructures.com. The LS App available for both iOS and Android devices means that one can literally carry the description of all 33 in one’s pocket. Since most LS take only 10 to 30 minutes they can fit easily within a normal work or meeting schedule.
Selecting which LS to use is not difficult since each has a clear, one-sentence description of its result-oriented purpose (see Figure 2 below). Here is all it takes: write a couple of sentences describing your challenge. Print Figure 2, then based on your challenge, put a checkmark next to each objective you wish to achieve. Next, organize the objectives in a logical sequence of beginning, middle, and end. You have identified your first step and the LS you can use to structure and facilitate this step. Your middle choices give you the structures you can choose from after your first step.
Figure 2. Menu of 33 Liberating Structures
What makes LS ideally suited to everyday work is that, when one person uses them, everybody in the group will learn the structures in the process: it is easy for everybody to see how to use them and experience the results that each structure generates.
In our experience, people can quickly move from being a participant to actively shaping the selection of LS, to leading or facilitating groups, and eventually to improvising in the moment to build on momentum.
Although every structure is precisely designed and described, they are all in fact quite “forgiving”, meaning that interesting and worthwhile results will emerge even when a structure is not “perfectly” implemented. Users report that, no matter what happens, the results are much more useful than what conventional structures would have produced. Participants enjoy being fully involved and engaged from beginning to end, they like the pace and the animation, the not-infrequent laughter — in short, they appreciate everything they are missing with traditional microstructures.
Once people become “structure conscious”, they realize that everybody uses microstructures every day to get their work done. The Liberating Structures repertoire gives them the choice of 33 easy alternatives to achieve better results. In our experience, once people have experienced working with Liberating Structures they never want to go back to their old ways.
3. What principles are constantly reinforced by Liberating Structures to promote improved performance and innovation?
All too often, organizational values exist without clarity on how to translate them into everyday behavior; for instance “Foster collaboration across functions”; “Give more responsibility and authority to frontline people”, “Think outside the box” become meaningless principles when they don’t come with a set of practices that people can use to achieve them.
In contrast, when Liberating Structures are put into practice, a number of behavioral shifts emerge that can gradually become operating principles.
For instance, including everyone becomes the new norm as it is made routinely possible by all the structures. Figure 3 describes the ten principles that are constantly reinforced and made possible by Liberating Structures. The specific behaviors that are amplified or stopped become a way to evaluate progress, offering clear criteria to check on with questions such as “Did we include everyone?” “Did we invite creative destruction?” and the like.
LS come alive through active engagement in practice. In Figure 3, the middle column contains statements about what is valued but not often practiced because conventional structures make it too difficult. We call those statements Must Do’s to emphasize that they can guide action and behavior. We say the values are espoused because we frequently find, in our fieldwork, a clear gap between what is said and what is done.
In the right column are statements describing common behaviors and practices. We call the statements Must Not Do’s to emphasize that they stifle inclusion, trust, and innovation. We characterize them as unnoticed or autopilot because they are often unexamined habits, such as the Big 5 conventional practices — so familiar that they are easily overlooked. If they are noticed at all, it is by people who are excluded by the practice. Using Liberating Structures makes it relatively easy and practical to stop these behaviors.
When an internal working group is able to live purposefully by these principles, they become more creative in how they pursue purpose with their external clients. Fear, resistance, and division decrease. Deeper understanding and empathy co-evolve among participants. Teacher and student learn together. Consultant and client co-develop solutions. Doctor and patient shape recovery. Suddenly, divergent perspectives can be explored productively and new opportunities pop into view. Simultaneously and mutually, participants shape their future together more generatively.
4. What makes Liberating Structures work well in today’s complex world and applicable to a full range of situations and issues?
The development of Liberating Structures arose from our deep interest in the science of complex or living systems and how they could inform the nature and functioning of human organizations. The main metaphor that has guided organizational life since the beginning of the industrial era is that of the machine. A good organization was supposed to work like clockwork: a system made of interconnected reliable parts (people, functions, systems), directed and controlled from the top, designed to produce predictable results. We became convinced that this mechanical, linear approach wasn’t serving organizations well; that it needed to be replaced with an ecological metaphor. In other words, organizations are not machines, they are complex living systems that behave and evolve like ecosystems. That was easy to believe but raised an obvious and difficult question: if organizations are complex living systems how are their members supposed to manage their operations, make decisions, solve problems, manage people, and so forth in ways that are consistent with such a worldview?
We started to assemble a collection of methods that people could use routinely to “manage in a complex way,” methods that would replace or supplement the ones they were currently using to “manage in a mechanistic way”. We borrowed, modified, and fabricated methods that fit the bill (see Sources and Acknowledgments). Along the way we started simplifying our approach so that people would not need to plunge into complexity theory or use its language in order to use the methods. Instead they would use the methods because of the results they were able to achieve.
As we simplified and codified the methods, we discovered that we could describe every single one of them by specifying five micro-structural elements: an invitation, how participation is distributed, how groups are configured, the sequence of steps and time allocation, and how the space is organized (Figure 4). The methods that we were assembling were in fact structures, or more precisely what we decided to call “microstructures”: temporary structures to organize how groups of people can work together to achieve specific objectives. As it turns out every method that is used to organize how people work together has the same structural DNA made of the same five micro-structuring elements. (This is also true for the Big 5 conventional microstructures shown in Figure 1.)
So, what is different about the DNA of LS that makes them so well adapted to managing in a complex world while conventional microstructures are not? Their power springs from the five design elements:
- The invitations: Are tightly connected to the purpose of each Liberating Structure but they leave all participants fully in control for generating responses and content
- How participation is distributed: No artificial, a priori limit is imposed on the number of participants! EVERYBODY that is affected can ALWAYS be included and will get equal time and opportunity to contribute
- How groups are configured: Most of the work is done is small groups, everybody working in parallel, then sharing results and moving forward in rapid cycles
- Sequence of steps and timing: Work is broken down into easy chunks logically sequenced to achieve the stated purpose of the chosen structure
- How space is arranged: The space where work gets done is usually fixed. This element defines how the space is shaped, modified, or adapted based on what is needed to best implement the chosen structure.
For example, one of the most basic structures — called 1–2–4-All — is designed to generate and sift many ideas from group members in rapid cycles (Figure 5). It is an alternative to brainstorming and status reports and is often used within other Liberating Structures.
A question asking for ideas or proposals about an issue (e.g., What opportunities do YOU see for making progress on this challenge? What ideas or actions do you recommend? What questions do you have?)
Figure 5: Design elements for 1–2–4-All
How Participation Is Distributed:
Everyone is given an equal time and opportunity to participate
How Groups Are Configured:
Individual, pairs, groups of four, whole group (in this order)
How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed:
4 chairs per table or groups of 4 chairs with no tables at all, notepads to record observations and insights
Sequence of Steps and Timing:
[1–2’] Silent self reflection on a shared challenge or issue (framed as a question)
[2–5’] Generate and share ideas in pairs
[2–5’] Share ideas from pairs in foursomes
[5’] Each group shares one important idea with all and meanings/conclusions are recorded
LS users quickly discover that it is possible, and not that difficult, to include and engage everybody and give everyone the opportunity to contribute. Surprising better-than-expected, results emerge; enthusiasm as well as ease of implementation follow. Plus, each experience jointly liberates more possibility and confidence in each other. This kills all desire to go back to conventional microstructures and sparks a desire to spread or invent more LS microstructures.
When used alone, the 33 LS already cover a very wide range of purposes, from spreading ideas to developing strategies. But what makes LS truly powerful is the virtually infinite number of permutations that can be achieved by stringing them together. Strings provide alternatives not only for addressing any challenge but also make it possible to address complex problems that groups tend to neglect. Users report that much more can be accomplished with shorter cycle times.
For example, the strategic planning string in Figure 6 offers a fresh approach to including and unleashing everyone in strategy-making during a retreat.
During such a strategy session not only are strategies formulated but related work (e.g., clarifying operational and cross-functional interdependencies) can also be accomplished because many more people are included and fully engaged. Activities in the string (dubbed Strategy Knotworking) invite each participant to contribute to an interrelated set of challenges: purpose clarity, the context for change, shifts in operating structure, transitions in products/service offerings, and commitments to follow-through. With LS, we tap an intrinsic capacity to simultaneously and mutually shape our future.
Progress with each structure builds on the previous one and informs the next piece of the complex puzzle. Everyone is connected, making unique contributions on worthy challenges and relying on one another to generate ideas. LS distribute control in a way that helps people transcend functional roles and positions. The gulf between the deciders and the doers narrows or disappears. The need for elaborate buy-in schemes and incentives after the fact fades away because participants jointly shaped the strategies. The traditionally small circle of strategists is replaced by a much wider one. Momentum arises from all voices authoring their future.
We hesitated to write this because it feels over-the-top but it happens to be true: to date we have never encountered a single situation, in any country, for which it wasn’t possible to come up with at least one string — usually more than one — that would help to address it.
5. How do LS invite different types of individuals and organizations to unearth and develop possibilities that did not seem to exist before?
For consultants and professional facilitators, external or internal, LS offer the potential to change their role from being primarily an expert or change leader to being a teacher, coach, partner, and connector. In this role their primary objective is to transfer their expertise in using LS to their clients and help them transfer this expertise even further. Their other objective is to help clients identify opportunities for change and help them develop appropriate designs for addressing them. In some way this looks like asking consultants to make themselves unnecessary by giving away all their expertise to their clients. Scary? Yes, but in reality such a shift elevates the role of the consultant, making it more strategic and less tactical.
For managers or leaders LS offer easy methods for achieving better results in every situation; performance improvement is not a mundane or repetitive task provided they are willing to include as many of the affected people (employees, customers, etc.) as possible. Problem solving, making decisions, planning, or innovating then become processes that they are facilitating rather than directing. This means building the capacity to fundamentally redesign conventional functions and activities. And it means transferring the expertise of using LS to those all around you.
For teachers or professors, LS make it possible to design programs that capture every opportunity for engaging all students in their own learning, in peer-to-peer learning, and in self-discovery. This means cutting down or eliminating lecturing so that the classroom can become the special place for face-to-face interactions, with methods chosen for bringing about specific learning objectives and student self-authorship. This means teaching the use of some basic LS to students early on and eventually engaging them in program design. LS also provide teachers and professors structures with which to redesign their own professional development and learning together with their colleagues.
For the individual, whether engaged in one-on-one interactions with someone else or thinking something through (in other words, talking to oneself), LS offer structures for being more effective, more purposeful, more engaging, and more deliberate and careful. Most LS, in part or in total, are easily adapted to one-on-one conversations or individual thought. Conversations or thought process can be structured with LS questions (for instance: What are my 15% Solutions?) or as an entire sequence of questions, such as in 9 Whys or in What, So What, Now What? or in TRIZ. In this way LS offer everybody the opportunity to be more productive by becoming more conscious of their thought and conversational processes and then experimenting with some simple structural elements.
For an organization or community, the collective capacity unleashed when LS are used at a significant scale creates the opportunity for reinventing itself with everybody’s participation. Using LS generates favorable conditions for people to discover and decide how to change their habits. As results improve, confidence builds up and beliefs about what is possible evolve, leading to culture changes that emerge in a healthy, natural way. LS offer a new way to organize the ways in which everybody can work together at the top of their intelligence every day. This is enjoyable for everybody and even more so for top performers. People tell us that Liberating Structures enhance their ability to implement more effectively a wide variety of other established or new approaches such as Agile, Lean, Holacracy, Design Thinking, and the like.
LS make it possible and simple for everybody every day to have a voice as a stakeholder, for everybody every day to have freedom to act and seize opportunities, and for everybody every day to take into account other people’s voices, mutually discovering possibilities that did not seem to exist before. This is quality-of-life changing for sure and potentially life altering.
6. How do people learn and spread Liberating Structures?
Opportunities to learn and deepen skills include immersion workshops, user groups, consulting, action-research projects, and one-to-one coaching. Without a formal organization to spread LS, users have taken the initiative to offer workshops, organize user groups, coach novice users, start consulting firms, adapt LS for online use, and create supporting materials (e.g., the LS app, design playing cards). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the user community has co-developed creative ways to virtualize 95% of LS methods on a wide array of online meeting platforms (e.g., LS Slack, Zoom, Mural and Google docs).
Because LS are simple and easy to learn and because one LS is enough to take the first steps (for instance with 1–2–4-All), a fair proportion of users get started on their own by using existing free resources (LS website and LS App) or by buying the book. Many catch the LS bug through exposure when someone else uses a Liberating Structure in a gathering or work group and the experience turns them on enough to start experimenting.
When people become aware that they, and everybody around them, use microstructures all the time they start paying attention and become interested in other structures such as LS.
A common practice that encourages the spread of LS is inviting people to debrief their experience immediately after using one. Doing so regularly draws people’s attention to the way in which the results were generated and reinforces the simplicity and replicability of the methods. By bringing focus to the micro-organizing elements, or even just asking people to notice and explore what difference the structure made in their experience, further understanding emerges of the role micro-structuring plays in shaping people’s performance and experience.
LS diffusion has unfolded inconspicuously via shared experience and word of mouth. It feels more like a social movement than an orchestrated implementation or training. By design, LS methods are so small that they play well with existing change approaches. They are particularly well matched with initiatives that aim to distribute more freedom and more responsibility. This includes a diverse array of worthy challenges from employee/citizen engagement to social justice to Agile software management to the flipped classroom to innovation design hubs.
More structured group learning opportunities include user groups and immersion workshops. As of the end of 2019 there are some 60 user groups in 25 countries. They meet regularly and anyone is welcome to join for sharing, learning, practicing, and networking. The list is maintained on the website. Periodic one- or two-day immersion workshops take place not only in the US but in several other countries.
Learning and spreading often go hand in hand, through exposure and word of mouth since this happens automatically every time Liberating Structures are used. Users naturally want others around them to start using them, which is a perfect incentive for them to coach newcomers.
So, how do we get Liberating Structures into everybody’s drinking water?
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones. John Cage
We invite you to help get Liberating Structures into the drinking water of everybody around you — colleagues, friends, or family. You will do them a favor and benefit as well from being surrounded by people who use these structures.
Liberating Structures are universally useful for the simple reason that improving how people interact often influences how successful they are in their work and their lives. Traditional education or workplaces don’t equip people well to address this challenge. Too frequently they teach the same old handful of methods that educators and managers have always used. Something like LS is needed that is easy to learn and much more effective.
Liberating Structures are methods with a clear purpose: to improve personal and group performance. Anyone can easily learn and use at least a few of them. So let’s find ways to get LS into the drinking water and, as you do, take a sip, then a drink and see where that leads.
About the authors:
Henri Lipmanowicz Henri retired from Merck in 1998 after a 30-year career during which he progressed from Merck’s Managing Director in Finland to President of the Intercontinental Region and Japan (the world minus the US and Western Europe) and a member of Merck Management Committee. In 2000 Henri co-founded the Plexus Institute and served as Chairman of the Board until 2010.
Born in Carcassonne, France, Henri holds a MS degree in Industrial Engineering and Management from Columbia University and a MS degree in Chemical Engineering from France. His career gave him the opportunity to live in seven countries and made him a perpetual world traveler. He resides in the US with his Finnish wife; their joy in their seven grandchildren is beyond their wildest expectations. While in France he drives around in a 1961 2CV Citroen.
Keith McCandless Keith is the co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation (2013). He consults with business, government, philanthropic, research, educational, and health organizations worldwide, focusing on how to address complex challenges and include everyone in shaping the future.
Born in Cincinnati Ohio, he holds a Masters in Management of Human Services from Brandeis University in Boston and a BA from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Keith lives in Seattle with his wife, Annie, and Deacon the whippet with talent to amuse. Keith and Henri have worked as partners since 2002 to develop Liberating Structures.
Lipmanowicz, H., McCandless, K. (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press
The LS website www.liberatingstructures.com ; The LS App is available in the Google Play and Apple App Stores. Search “Liberating Structures.”
Lipmanowicz, H., McCandless, K. “Liberating Structures: Innovating by Including and Unleashing Everyone,” in E&Y Performance, 2010, Vol 2. Issue 4. (pp 6–19) Overview of how Liberating Structures are introduced, applied, and spread in a business.
LS origins: H. Lipmanowicz & K. McCandless https://vimeo.com/58955014
LS in education: Professor Arvind Singhal https://vimeo.com/51546509
Sources and acknowledgments:
As we composed Liberating Structures, we were inspired by complexity science insights. We stand on the shoulders of Ruth Anderson, Chris Argyris, Angeles Arrien, Geoff Bellman, David Cooperrider, Kathie Dannemiller, Kathleen Eisenhardt, Dee Hock, June Holley, Scott Kelso, Curt Lindberg, Joanna Macy, Reuben McDaniel, Gareth Morgan, Doug Mosel, Jay Ogilvy, Harrison Owen, Dan Pesut, Paul Plsek, Vicky Robin, Ed Schein, David Sibbett, Ralph Stacey, Jerry and Monique Sternin, and Brenda Zimmerman. Our thanks to all of them.