Tangible Ways to Apply Liberating Structures to the Scrum Framework

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – at Voltage Control, we’re Liberating Structures enthusiasts. Liberating Structures have many useful applications in the innovation world; one of the most useful being utilized for Scrum. Applying Liberating Structures into a Scrum workflow is a natural fit, as various Liberating Structures can be used for strategizing, problem-solving, and promoting collaboration and shared understanding. To get the most out of the Scrum framework and maximize productivity, try utilizing the Liberating Structures format. 

In this article, we’ll review Liberating Structures and the Scrum framework, then go through some examples of how to apply the Liberating Structures format to Scrum. For more information on when to use Liberating Structures and solutions on using the best Liberating Structure for the job, download our guide here.

What are Liberating Structures?

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–whether teams are in person, work in a virtual environment, or a hybrid one. 

“Liberating Structures start with something so simple and essential as not to seem worth doing and end with something so powerful and profound that it hardly seems possible.”Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless

What is Scrum?

Before diving into the application of how to use Liberating Structures for Scrum, let’s quickly review what Scrum is. 

Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber co-developed the Scrum process in the early 1990s. Here’s how they define it:

“Scrum is a framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value. Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems. In a nutshell, Scrum requires a Scrum Master to foster an environment where: 

  1. A Product Owner orders the work for a complex problem into a Product Backlog.
  2. The Scrum Team turns a selection of the work into an Increment of value during a Sprint.
  3. The Scrum Team and its stakeholders inspect the results and adjust for the next Sprint.
  4. Repeat.” 
liberating structures for scrum

In simpler terms, Scrum is a better way of building products and solving problems. The Scrum Guide, written by Sutherland and Schwaber, goes into more detail around Scrum Theory, Values, Team, Events, and Artifacts.

Tangible Ways to Use Liberating Structures in Scrum

There are several ways Liberating Structures can help improve and streamline the Scrum framework. Below, we’ve outlined various scenarios and paired them with a specific Liberating Structure to utilize in them–including example ideas of when and how to apply it. Of course, there will be more than one Liberating Structure that can be utilized to help improve Scrum within your team – these are just a few ideas to get you started!

Clarifying the Scrum’s Purpose

Liberating Structures can help teams define a common strategy. A Liberating Structure example that can be utilized for this is Nine Whys, which helps groups discover and identify their purpose. This Liberating Structure begins by having participants create a list of activities and tasks they are working on for the project, and then encourages the participants to interview each other about ‘why’ the activities are necessary and important.

“Keep asking, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ up to nine times or until participants can go no deeper because they have reached the fundamental purpose for this work.” –Liberating Structures

Examples of how to use it for Scrum include:

  • As part of a Sprint retrospective to recap the key findings during the past Sprint, feedback and discussion, and deciding on the best next steps and path forward. Pro tip: Learn about other ways to use Liberating Structures for a Retrospective here  
  • During Sprint planning or project kickoff. Doing the work upfront to identify and define the purpose will save time later

Improving Engagement during Scrum Events

As mentioned earlier, conventional meetings are often either too inhibiting (such as during status reports/updates, managed discussions, presentations), or too loose and unstructured (i.e. open discussion and brainstorming). Liberating Structures can be applied during Scrum events to optimize, improve and mitigate these drawbacks while promoting engagement and collaboration amongst a team. A Liberating Structure example that can be utilized here is Conversation Cafe, which helps “engage everyone in making sense of profound challenges.” 

Conversation Cafe has four rounds of discussion: the first is where each person shares their thoughts, feelings, and/or actions about the topic or project, the second is where each shares thoughts and feelings after having listened to everyone’s else’s, the third is for open conversation, and the final round is for each participant to share their takeaways. This Liberating Structure encourages engagement and ideation from everyone and promotes positive collaboration across the full team.

Some example ideas for Scrum application:

  • At Sprint planning or kickoff, try Conversation Cafe to discuss and level set on project goals and objectives
  • During a Sprint retrospective, utilize this Liberating Structure to create a positive environment where every single team member has the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, worries and ideas before moving forward

Supporting a Scrum Team’s Self-Organizational Capabilities

Scrums and Liberating Structures both support self-organization: “As with the Scrum framework, Liberating Structures offer clear boundaries and constraints. It’s up to the participant to self-organize within these constraints. When using Liberating Structures, the Scrum Team is encouraged to explore local solutions that fit their context.” –Scrum.org

A Liberating Structure that can be applied to encourage self-organization is Troika Consulting, which is meant for giving and receiving quick feedback and advice from teammates. It can help participants get insight, wisdom, and ideas on challenges they are facing. Through fast-paced “consultations,” participants ask for advice from others: “Peer-to-peer coaching helps with discovering everyday solutions, revealing patterns, and refining prototypes. This is a simple and effective way to extend coaching support for individuals beyond formal reporting relationships.” Everyone has an equal opportunity to both receive and give advice, which helps build mutual trust in the group, promotes innovation and new solutions, and encourages self-organization. 

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Through Round-Robin consultations, individuals ask for help and advice from two peers. This is an effective way for employees to support each other without a formal management structure.

A few ways to apply this to Scrum:

  • During a Daily Scrum, to discuss and help resolve any current problems or challenges through quick feedback and decision making
  • During a Sprint Review, as a chance for the team to gain insight on any issues faced and decide on the best path forward 
kickoff meeting

Consider utilizing these Liberating Structures to get the most out of your team. Remember, there are many other Liberating Structures (33 to be exact) out there too that can be combined to best fit your team’s needs and help you reach your goals. 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

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