Liberating Structures @ Austin Design Sprint Meetup

I’m always seeking new ways to keep the monthly Austin Design Sprint meetup fresh and engaging. Anna Jackson and I are hosting a 2-day Liberating Structures workshop May, and we’re actively collaborating around the intersection of Design Sprints and Liberating Structures, so I decided to host Anna for this month’s meeting, on April 4th.

Design Sprints and Liberating Structures are beautifully well suited to complement one another. Sprints are a highly structured sequence of design thinking methods and practices that have been thoroughly tested and shown to produce significant results across five days. While Design Sprints work well for seven people meeting to solve specific types of problems, Liberating Structures can be applied more broadly and scale well for much larger groups. When you face a challenge that is not well suited for a Design Sprint, Liberating Structures offers a curated, tested list of methods that can be applied in a variety of sequences for different purposes.

Impromptu Networking
Impromptu Networking

Participants talk in pairs over three rounds, rapidly sharing challenges and expectations while making new connections.

After kicking things off with the typical announcements, I facilitated Impromptu Networking, a versatile Liberating Structure that works well as an opener. It immediately elevates energy in the room and gets people into a focused conversation. Many methods that are commonly used to get a session started is to start with a light touch that can feel patronizing, but Impromptu Networking invites people to think deeply about what they hope to get out of a session and a challenge they’re facing in their work. I’ve found that it elicits a more meaningful start to the actual work than other methods I’ve used.

Amanda Bowman, who will facilitate part of our workshop in May, delivered a micro-lecture on Liberating Structures, unpacking the core elements of the methods by going back and deconstructing Impromptu Networking. She shared how Liberating Structures differ from conventional structures such as open discussion (sometimes referred to as a “goat rodeo”) and why Liberating Structures are particularly successful at making it possible to truly include many voices in your work.

The Liberating Structures repertoire contains 34 methods optimized to address the weaknesses of our conventional structures. Each of these methods follows a set of rules which are informed by complexity science. The goal of these principles is to encourage broader control of content and include all participants in the shaping of the future.

Celebrity Interview
Celebrity Interview

Avoiding the pitfalls of an overly-planned keynote, participants can connect deeply with another’s experience through a candid, intimate interview.

Douglas being interviewed

After the micro-lecture, Anna and I sat down with Daniel Walks for a Celebrity Interview, which is similar to a fireside chat. We have been collaborating on the intersection of Design Sprints and Liberating Structures for a while now, so it was fun to talk about how we see the different approaches working together.

“I loved the insightful discussion about following the structured five-day Sprint plan vs allowing for improvisation and tapping into emergent possibilities with Liberating Structures” — Daniel Walsh

I have become especially interested in how Liberating Structures make it possible to more thoroughly promote inclusion and belonging to groups of any size, so much of our conversation centered around that topic. Anna was first drawn to Liberating Structures, like many people, in part because it makes it possible to include a wide range of perspectives more meaningfully. In her work with community-based organizations this is often the focus, so we were able to talk about different dimensions of the topic together.

“It was interesting to hear from Douglas about how the elements of the Design Sprint method could be pulled out and used routinely in other group work as we do with Liberating Structures” — Amanda Bowman

After the interview, Amanda led us through another versatile Liberating Structure that I use a lot of groups, TRIZ. The name TRIZ has a few other associations, but this one is based on an approach to problem-solving in engineering. You can read more about my experiences with TRIZ here.


Counterintuitively, it is planning for the opposite of what we want that makes it possible for us to stop counterproductive activities and behaviors, making space for innovation.

With TRIZ, you plan backwards — meaning that you design for the opposite result of what you want. In this session, we wanted to explore ideas related to inclusion, diversity, and belonging, so we looked at how to ensure that we sweep differences under the rug and perpetuate the same ways we’ve always done things. In doing so, we were able to unearth some meaningful ways to change our own practices and invite more diversity of thinking, perspective, and promote a greater sense of belonging.

25/10 Crowdsourcing
25/10 Crowdsourcing

With even the largest of groups, playfully sift and sort through a group’s boldest ideas and see what rises to the top in just a few minutes.

From there, I closed out the session with 25/10 Crowdsourcing, which is a fast-paced, high-energy way to quickly generate and sift through ideas created by the group. It is a voting method, but each participant votes on only five ideas — and you see what floats to the top. We continued to work with our ideas from TRIZ and asked: “if you were ten times bolder, what would you do to make the groups you are a part of more inviting to a wide range of perspectives and ideas?” We got some pretty wild ideas from the group, including that we all take hallucinogens before every meeting.

Workshop attendees at work

Ever since Anna and I first began collaborating on combining Design Sprints and Liberating Structures, I’ve been compelled by the vision of bringing these tools to the Austin startup community. This meetup was the first big step in that direction, and it was great to see the Design Sprint attendees so receptive to these tools. I am more convinced than ever that I need to bring this practice to our communities efforts to increase inclusion and belonging.

“What a great meet up! This is the type of events I want to be attending moving forward. We spent a couple of hours learning new approaches to lead group discussions and drive innovation effectively. I got to meet awesome people in a more structure and natural way as well. I felt that I invested my time into something that provided useful tools for me to use in the future.” — Mariana Jaeger, President and Founder — Break2be

We will continue this conversation in a 2-day Liberating Structures primer workshop we are hosting in May at Native Hostel. We hope you can join us.

Want to find out more about planning a Design Sprint? Read me next.