3 applicable ways to use the Liberating Structures format in retrospective meetings


In the world of innovation, retrospective meetings are an essential component of a project lifecycle. They’re the crucial debrief or “look back” at the work that took place during an agile project to evaluate effectiveness and gather feedback on how to improve and mitigate risk moving forward. We’ve been a part of many retrospectives with our internal team at Voltage Control as well as with clients after Design Sprints and innovation workshops, and after each iteration of an agile project. To get the most out of attendees at retrospective meetings, and to ultimately optimize the retrospective process, we utilize the power of the Liberating Structures format. 

In this article, we’ll review Liberating Structures and the retrospective concept, then go through some examples of how to apply the Liberating Structures format to a retrospective meeting. You can also find additional options, strategies, relationships, and solutions using the best Liberating Structures in meetings here.

The Impact of Liberating Structures on Retrospectives

Liberating Structures is a framework created by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, intended to promote powerful ways to collaborate and engage everyone within a team and boost collaborative team interactions. Liberating Structures consists of 33 microstructures, which are a collection of exercises that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group. They provide simple rules that make participatory decision-making easier and are a solution to the dysfunctional format of most meetings, or what Lipmanowicz and McCandless refer to as “conventional microstructures.” Conventional meeting microstructures are either too inhibiting (i.e. status reports/updates, managed discussions, presentations), or too loose and disorganized (i.e. open discussion and brainstorming). They often limit participation and the control is isolated to one individual or a select few–often the extroverted participants in the group. As a result, these conventional microstructures can routinely stifle inclusion and/or engagement. The Liberating Structures framework is built to encourage participation by including all team members, including those in today’s increasingly virtual environment

“Liberating Structures introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide and relate to one another. They put the innovative power once reserved for experts only in the hands of everyone.” -Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless

Before diving into the examples of how to use Liberating Structures in a retrospective meeting, let’s quickly review what a retrospective is. At a high level, a retrospective is an opportunity to reflect on a project and learn and improve. It may be a single long meeting after a large project is finished, depending on the environment. In agile environments, a retrospective is most commonly shorter and held often (i.e. 90 minutes at the end of a Design Sprint). Questions are asked and discussed such as:

  • What did we do well?
  • What did we do wrong? 
  • What can we do better in the future? How can we best move forward?
  • Pro tip: Share the questions ahead of time with team members so they can review and provide answers before the retrospective, resulting in time better spent during the meeting.

Retrospectives are an essential tool to help teams thrive in innovation. However, they can also get complicated and complex, leaving little room to extract team members’ ideas and input. Liberating Structures are an efficient and effective way to facilitate these meetings and help get the most out of them.

Find tips and tricks on facilitating Design Sprint retrospectives like a pro here.

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3 Ways to Use Liberating Structures in a Retrospective

Now, let’s dive into 3 Liberating Structures examples that can be utilized for a retrospective.

1. What, So What, Now What?

This is a Liberating Structures technique that helps groups reflect on a shared experience to build understanding while avoiding unproductive conflict during a retrospective. You collect information about “What Happened,” make sense of the information with “So What” and, finally, uncover what actions logically follow with “Now What.” It is a very helpful exercise to help the team identify the pain points of a project and how to solve them.

What, So What, Now What? Steps

  1. Individuals write down observations that stood out (1 min.)
  2. Discuss observations in a small group for (2–7 min.)
  3. Share with the whole group (2–3 min.)
  4. Capture the important WHATs on a whiteboard.
  5. Individuals write down patterns, hypotheses, and conclusions. (1 min.)
  6. In a small group, discuss patterns, hypotheses, and conclusions (2–7 min.)
  7. Small groups share with the whole group. (2–5 min.)
  8. Capture the important SO WHATs on a whiteboard.
  9. Individuals write down next steps (1 min.)
  10. In a small group discuss the next steps (2–7 min.)
  11. Small groups share with the whole group. (2–10 min.)
  12. Capture the important NOW WHATs on a whiteboard

2. 15% Solutions

This simple (but extremely powerful) Liberating Structure is great when a retrospective’s time is limited but you want to get a group or team focused on what they are going to do next. The activity helps individuals think about small tweaks they can make to move toward and improve upon the larger goal.  The 15% Solution is the first step or solution that an individual can do without approval or resources from others. It is something that anyone can start right now if they want to. “15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.” –Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless

15% Solutions Steps

  1. Introduce the 15% Solutions concept to the team.
  2. Each person generates his or her own list of 15% Solutions. (5 min.)
  3. Individuals share their ideas with a small group. (3 min./person)
  4. Group members ask clarifying questions and offer advice. (5-7 min./person)

3. TRIZ

This Liberating Structure is all about creative destruction and encouraging anti-patterns to unlock value and question the status quo. It forces teams to look at what didn’t work, targeting the “What did we do wrong?” question, or the worst-case scenario that could happen when bringing an idea to fruition. Do not identify net-new behaviors. Instead, focus on the worst-case scenario associated with the way your team functions, your product, project, or service offering. 

Pro-tip: Use our Triz templates for MURAL and Miro with your team during the retrospective to capture ideas, ideate, and reflect on the findings. 

TRIZ Steps

  1. Introduce the concept of TRIZ to the team.
  2. Identify an unwanted result that the group will focus on. If needed, have the groups brainstorm and pick the most unwanted result. (5 min.)
  3. Each group uses 1–2–4-All to make a list of all it can do to make sure that it achieves this most unwanted result. 1–2–4-All refers to working alone, then in pairs, then foursomes, and finally as a whole group. (10 min.)
  4. Each group uses 1–2–4-All to make a list of all that it is currently doing that resembles items on their first list. (10 min.)
  5. Each group uses 1–2–4-All to determine for each item on its second list what first steps will help it stop this unwanted activity/program/procedure. (10 min.)

Utilize Liberating Structures for Project Improvement

Next time you are planning a retrospective, consider incorporating Liberating Structures to get the most out of your team and capitalize on improving your project. These three Liberating Structure exercises can be pieced together or combined with other Liberating Structures to best fit your team and needs. To help you implement them in your next meeting, we created free interactive MURAL and Miro templates for you to use.

Additional Resources

For additional information and ways to use Liberating Structures, check out our Liberating Structures course where you will:

  • Learn key Liberating Structures principles
  • Practice 5 key design methods
  • Chart a plan for further application of Liberating Structures.
  • Connect with a Liberating Structures community

Start our Liberating Structures course today!

This course provides you and your team with the key foundations in liberating structures to help you unleash everyone.

We’ll lead you through our favorite Liberating Structures for opening, exploring, and closing in your facilitation. We’ll teach you about these methods and why and how they work. You’ll learn tips and tricks for using Liberating Structures across your work to facilitate lasting change. You can also learn hands-on in real-time at one of our Liberating Structures workshops: a deep-dive of Liberating Structures, when, and how to use them to unleash creativity in your meetings through maximum participation.