The Deliberate Irony of Liberating Structures

Keith McCandless
11 min readJul 6, 2023

By Keith McCandless , Arvind Singhal, and Steven H. Cady

[Adapted from a new Encyclopedia of Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity to be published by Edward Elgar Publishing focusing on advances and diversity of theories, methods and practices]


Liberating Structures (LS) is a repertoire of open source protocols and an innovative set of rules to guide routine interactions in board rooms, classrooms, and community forums. LS specifies how people are included and participate in ways that sets them free from unwitting patterns that exclude, stifle, and over-control. With deliberate irony, LS employs structural constraints to liberate. Codified in the early 2000s, LS consist of 10 principles and 33 practical methods versatile enough for anyone to use for a wide array of purposes and group processes. The transdisciplinary attributes of LS arise from its complexity science roots. The focus is on relationship patterns rather than individual behavior. LS makes it possible to work with complexity instead of engineering it away, and hence generates options where none existed. Every LS protocol in the repertoire has the same minimalistic “DNA” of five micro-structuring elements. LS use has spread across diverse organization types, social movements, and disciplines.

Keywords: complexity science, social innovation, inclusion and engagement, facilitation, action research, collaborative change

What are Liberating Structures?

Liberating Structures (LS) are a repertoire of open-source protocols and an innovative set of rules to guide routine interactions in board rooms, classrooms, and community forums. LS specifies how people are included and participate in a way that sets them free from unwitting patterns that exclude, stifle, and over-control (Lipmanowicz & McCandless, 2013; Singhal, 2016). With deliberate irony, LS employs structural constraints to liberate.

Figure 1: Liberating Structures (LS) employ structural constraints to liberate us from unwitting patterns that exclude, stifle, and over-control.

To grasp the essence of LS, let us contrast two classrooms. In the first classroom, students sit in fixed seats in rows and columns, and the teacher stands in front to deliver a lecture through a PowerPoint presentation. The topic: “How to Engage Customers”. The teacher, an expert, runs through a set of pre-prepared slides, occasionally pausing to ask or take questions, and moves rapidly to cover the required content.

In the second classroom, students sit in a circular formation with the instructor among them, and the class begins with the teacher asking the students to take one minute and quietly reflect on their own experiences as a customer, recalling specific instances when they felt deeply engaged or disengaged. After two minutes, the instructor rings a bell, inviting the students to discuss their observations in pairs for 2 minutes and then in groups of four (quartets) for 4 minutes. Then the instructor invites all quartets to share the gist of their conversations with the whole group, bringing attention to patterns of convergence and divergence, and offers the possibility of repeating the 1–2–4-All cycle to expand the exploration. The instructor then broadens and deepens the insights already generated by the whole class, paying attention to inconsistencies if any, and filling in the gaps as necessary.

While we are all too familiar with the first lecture-style classroom, the second type of classroom is surprisingly rare. The second classroom differs from the first because it employs a liberating structure (LS). Structure − a constraint imposed on participants − comes from a clear specification of progression from self to pairs to quartets to the whole group and the time allocated to each cycle. What makes the structure liberating is that it provides an equal opportunity for all students to engage − as individuals, pairs, or quartets − in interactions that would not happen in a one-way lecture. See Figure 1, participants engaging in the 1–2–4-All Liberating Structure (Source: Authors, used with permission). The teacher purposely establishes a structure so liberation can occur within its boundaries. When students in pairs talk to each other, the interactional space is much safer than students speaking to the whole class. Further, quartets can widen and deepen the pairs’ exchanges. Notably, with the same resources, the instructors of the two classrooms include and engage participants in radically different ways, generating very different outcomes.

Figure 2: Participants engaging in the 1–2–4-All Liberating Structure

Remarkably, the LS protocol (1–2–4-All) employed in a classroom situation could be applied in a boardroom or any other meeting. From our example above, we discern that LS introduces tiny shifts in the protocols of how we meet, plan, decide and relate to each other. Every LS protocol makes explicit five micro-structuring elements (Lipmanowicz & McCandless, 2013):

  1. How invitations are structured to focus the attention of participants: Notably, participants are fully in control of generating responses or content.
  2. How participation is distributed: No artificial, a priori limit is imposed on the number of participants. Everybody who is affected can be included and gets equal time and opportunity to contribute.
  3. How groups are configured: Most of the work is done in small groups, with everybody working in parallel, sharing results and moving forward in rapid iterative cycles.
  4. How space is arranged: This element defines how the space is shaped, modified, or adapted based on the chosen LS.
  5. How steps and timing are sequenced: Work is broken down into easy chunks and logically sequenced to achieve the stated purpose of the chosen LS.
Figure 3: icons representing the first-generation repertoire of 33 liberating protocols or methods.

First developed for use in healthcare and business, some 33 LS protocols have been systematized for use in a wide array of activities and challenges (Lipmanowicz & McCandless, 2013); see the 33 LS menu at They are now used in classrooms, community forums, boardrooms, NGO deliberations, courtrooms, and family conversations. They are versatile, easy to learn through direct experience, and can be scaled to very large groups.

LS offer an alternative to or liberation from conventional patterns of group work, such as podium presentations, facilitated discussions, and open brainstorming. Such conventional group practices represent deeply entrenched habits and unwittingly exclude voices, stifle novelty, and overcontrol people. The simple rules (Sull & Eisenhardt, 2015) underlying LS make it possible to include and engage every voice in shaping the next steps and the future.

Historical Antecedents

The historical antecedents of LS (see Singhal et al., 2020) can be traced to the (1) emerging science of complexity, (2) Torbert’s (1978) notion of ‘deliberate irony’, that is, putting structural constraints in place to free the participants; (3) the enablement of groupware, i.e., augmenting human intelligence into collective intelligence (Engelbart, 1995) ; and (4) protocolizing language to enable inclusion, engagement, and participation, i.e., paying attention to timing, rhythms, boundaries, containers, and procedure (Johnston- Lenz & Johnston-Lenz, 1991).

While LS praxis was deeply inspired by the science of complexity, its footprint can be traced back to the pioneering work of Torbert (1978, 1991), who, drawing upon his scholarly work in organizations and leadership, formally introduced a theory of LS. In his theory, Torbert questions the dominant notion that ‘all power corrupts’ and ‘all structure constrains’, emphasizing that an essential quality of a LS is ‘deliberate irony’ — that is, putting the structural constraints in place to free the participants (Torbert, 1978). In carrying out studies in the educational sector, Torbert advocated for teachers to create a learning environment where active inquiry is pursued, where collaboration between participants creates a shared purpose, a place where all participants have an opportunity to develop self-awareness, other- centeredness, and relational mutuality, and a sanctuary-like space where one could practice personal integrity without being afraid of ‘looking foolish, inconsistent, or inarticulate.’ In essence, Torbert believed that leadership emerged in the midst of local action, in the lived present moment, in social arenas that were ‘fundamentally friendly and caring’ (Torbert, 1978, p. 111).

Figure 4: LS protocols are designed as discrete modules with short durations, easily linked together in a logical progression toward a goal.

LS fits into a category of approaches called collaborative change methodologies or large group methods/processes. These methods were developed over several decades, starting in the 1950s and 1960s as the field of Organizational Development emerged. Techniques in the body of work were mixed and matched from large-group methods like future search, appreciative inquiry, world cafe, open space technology, and whole scale change (Cady, 2019). If one of the methods needed an activity not in that particular method’s toolbox, then an activity would be brought into the design from a different approach. This mixing and matching was done to meet the needs of the specific situation (Cady, 2019). Those facilitating group processes on small and large scales, are learned by trial and error. Some blending worked well, some didn’t, and some failed miserably. Facilitators, managers, and consultants often avoided this group process work because it was complex and challenging. While LS has built upon these methods, they have evolved into a unique repertoire that offers a distinct approach to fostering inclusive and productive group dynamics.

Lipmanowicz and McCandless (2013), who codified and systematized the 33 LS protocols, were directly influenced by complexity scholars (Qua & McCandless, 2020) and worked closely with complexity practitioners (Kimball, 2012; Zimmerman et al., 1998). Further, through their experimentation in corporate and leadership circles, they realized how LS distributed power and influence more widely, invited self-organization, connected networks by breaking down silos, increased transparency, enabled new feedback loops, and increased diversity by engaging more people and perspectives.

Transdisciplinary Attributes

The transdisciplinary attributes of LS arise from their complexity science roots (Zimmerman et al., 2001). Complexity science focuses on relationship patterns among individuals rather than the individual themselves. In complex systems − everything from the weather to stock markets to human groups − order emerges or assembles itself without much central control. In a person, this self-assembly may arise from reordering a huge store of memories sparked by a single comment from a colleague. The patterns are open-ended and often generate novel surprises. Control is distributed locally and may appear dis-ordered.

In human interaction, LS makes it possible to work with complexity instead of engineering it away. Complex system dynamics suggest that we can gain from distributing control, expecting surprise, and adapting the relationship patterns among the parts or participants. The organizing metaphor arises from biology and ecology − we organize and work like a forest ecosystem. In contrast, conventional organizing suggests that we gain from control, prediction, and focusing on finer and finer manipulation of the parts. The organizing metaphor arises from mechanical or physical systems–we organize and work like a machine or clock. See Figure 5, implications for how to organize and manage with machine and ecosystem metaphors. (Source: Authors, used with permission). For leaders and managers trying to address complex challenges, scholars outlined the provocative implications of working with complexity rather than reducing or ignoring it (Anderson et al., 2005; Zimmerman et al., 2001).

Figure 5: Implications for how to organize and manage with machine and ecosystem metaphors in mind.

Traditional organizing moves toward optimizing the parts through tighter control of functions, disciplines, and individual people. The parts can be replaced or finely tuned to generate predictable results, find an optimal solution, and maintain equilibrium.

LS organizing leans into how the relationships among the parts or participants give rise to novelty and creativity. The participants are not a problem to be fixed or replaced. Shifting relationship patterns among diverse parts or participants makes it possible to respond, grow, and adapt creatively to disruptions while generating surprising results. Additionally, LS espouses ten principles — must do’s & must not do’s — that guide fidelity and connection among diverse communities of users. View principles here:

In this way, LS avoids compartmentalizing, reductionism and embraces movement beyond single-discipline or single-function approaches to complex challenges. A primary goal is to generate options where none seemed to exist before. Order arises through working with more distributed control in adjacent spaces between disciplines. See Figure 6, eight attributes of LS that facilitate spread and local adaptation across disciplines. (Source: Authors, used with permission).

Figure 6: eight attributes of LS that facilitate spread and local adaptation across disciplines. Graphics credit: Barish Golland (UBC)

Complementary Approaches

Over the past decade, LS have spread across diverse organization types (e.g., .com, .org, .gov, .mil, edu, and .net), social movements, and disciplines.

Below is a short list of complementary and allied approaches where LS protocols are being adapted and interwoven in the field: Agile Software Development see; Systems Convening see; Lean Startup see; Collaborative Change see; Positive Deviance see; Human Centered Design see; Developmental Evaluation see; Human System Dynamics see; Dialogic OD see; Work That Reconnects (Joanna Macy); Facilitation see

LS influences and is influenced by people allied with these methodologies and groups. Users point to the intersection of LS and developmental work in their community of practice.

Shaping the Future

LS continues to evolve as the work spreads in dynamic networks and communities of practice. For example, within a few months after the COVID-19 pandemic started, the LS repertoire was fully adapted and expanded for use in online and hybrid settings. New protocols, designed for unique purposes, are continuously developed, prototyped, and spread through the LS user communities worldwide. For example, nascent LS in development have purposes that include: tapping social support after a loss or transition; identifying beliefs and assumptions that limit your progress; and, developing a strategy that is shaped, owned, and operated by participants. As users gain experience, it becomes possible to design interactions with a high degree of variability at the micro-scale (experienced as imaginative play) while retaining stability at the macro-scale (experienced as creative or useful results). Ongoing development is supported through user groups, learning events, and social media.


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Cady, S.H. (2019). Collaborative change: Generative approaches that transform organizations, revitalize communities, and develop human potential. Organization Development Review, 5(2), 21–25.

Engelbart D. C. (1995). Toward augmenting the human intellect and boosting our collective IQ. Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery. 38(8), 1–31.

Johnson-Lenz P., & Johnson-Lenz T. (1991). Post-mechanistic groupware primitives: Rhythms, boundaries, and containers. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 34(3), 395–417.

Kimball, L. (2012). Liberating Structures: A New Pattern Language for Engagement. The Systems Thinker, 23(1).

Lipmanowicz, H., & McCandless, K. (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Liberating Structures Press.

Sull, D., & Eisenhardt, K. (2015). Simple Rules: How To Thrive In A Complex World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Singhal, A., Perez, L. E., Stevik, K., Mønness, E., & Svenkerud, P. J. (2020). Liberating Structures as Pedagogical Innovation for Inclusive Learning: A Pilot Study in a Norwegian University. Journal of Creative Communications, 15(1), 35–52.

Torbert, W.R., (1976). Creating a Community of Inquiry: Conflict, Collaboration, Transformation. Wiley.

Qua, F., McCandless, K. (2020). More Magic, Less Mystery: Sustaining Creative Adaptability with Liberating Structures. Medium, Part 1.

Zimmerman, B., Lindberg, C., & Plsek, P. (2001). Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders. VHA Publishing



Keith McCandless

Keith is co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures ...