At Voltage Control, we are Liberating Structures enthusiasts. Liberating Structures is a framework for facilitation created by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, intended to provide simple rules that make it easy to promote inclusion and participatory decision making. At a high level, Liberating Structures consists of 33 microstructures designed to build trust and enhance cooperation and communication between teammates. In today’s increasingly hybrid environment, Virtual Liberating Structures will also become more prominent as more of the workforce elects to work remotely. Applying Liberating Structures virtually will also come with its own set of nuances. Learn how to utilize Virtual Liberating Structures to unleash engagement, provide space for good ideas, and address challenges your team or organization may be facing.
What is the Liberating Structures Framework?
The Liberating Structures framework is built around improving coordination and promoting participation by including and unleashing all team members. The framework consists of a collection of structures or methods that are meant to introduce small shifts in the way teams meet, plan, decide, and learn. They put the innovation once reserved for experts into the hands of everyone within a team or organization. Each of the 33 microstructures is easy to learn. Regardless if you’re an experienced leader at the executive level or new hire at the entry-level, this framework can work for you and your team (with a little practice, of course).
Most organizations in today’s business environment rely on what Lipmanowicz and McCandless refer to as “conventional microstructures.” These microstructures are structures that teams default to when meeting and organizing into groups. These conventional microstructures are either too inhibiting (i.e. status reports/updates, managed discussions, presentations), or too loose and disorganized (i.e. open discussion and brainstorming) according to Lipmanowicz and McCandless. They often are limited in the number of participants 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. Liberating Structures, and Virtual Liberating Structures, provide more constructive alternatives than the conventional structures by including everybody regardless of group size, seniority or comfort level, and distributing control among all participants.
For more information on when to use Liberating Structures and solutions on using the best Liberating Structure for the job, download our guide here.
Why Virtual Liberating Structures Are Important
Liberating Structures offer an alternative way to approach and design how people work together. In today’s distributed workforce, Virtual Liberating Structures will become more necessary as teams and organizations won’t always be all together in the same office anymore. Even when in person, conventional facilitation and microstructures can be creativity’s worst enemy. They often end up in the exclusion of the more introverted team members in the room, lack organization, and discourage out-of-the-box thinking. It’s difficult to feel encouraged and engaged after a 30 minute PowerPoint over Zoom presentation followed by an unfacilitated brainstorm (in which a couple of the highest-positioned extroverts do most of the talking).
When applied to virtual meetings, these drawbacks of conventional facilitation and microstructures only get worse. Little regard to the unique challenges of virtual facilitation and participation will result in frustration for both you and your team. Remote participants face more distractions, more technical difficulties, and less engagement than in-person participants in virtual meetings and/or workshops. You will want, and need, to put extra thought into inclusion, participation, and engagement to make the most of remote, virtual and hybrid communication. This is why Virtual Liberating Structures is such a great framework for remote teams.
The framework’s advantages–participation promotion, creative empowerment, and cooperation improvement–precisely counteract the challenges of meeting and working together remotely. When everyone in the virtual room feels enabled to participate, virtual meetings will naturally produce more and higher quality work. Team members and participants are invited because they have something of value to offer, regardless of title or level. Consequently, it’s critical to empower them to contribute. Collaboration between participants will promote individual creativity by enabling everyone to build off each others’ ideas and inspire one another. The group is smarter than any individual.
The Liberating Structures frameworks’ focus on participation will make attention management significantly easier, especially in a remote and virtual environment. Liberating Structures, whether in person or remote, operate under the philosophy that every participant has a lot to contribute, which means that every participant is being asked to take an active role. Participants who are actively engaged and engaging are much less likely to become distracted and/or disengaged.
Virtual Liberating Structures Examples
We understand that adapting all 33 Liberating Structures in a virtual setting can seem daunting. That’s why we detail Liberating Structure activities to strengthen virtual collaboration in another post here. In summary, here are a couple of Liberating Structures that are applicable to the virtual work environment and can strengthen virtual teams:
This activity allows an opportunity for two participants to become consultants for a third group member (the “client.”) The first client shares a question or challenge, then the consultant has 1-2 minutes to ask clarifying questions. When time is up or the consultants are finished asking questions, the client will mute their audio and allow the consultants to spend 4-5 minutes generating suggestions and advice. The consultants will then have 1-2 minutes to share their most valuable feedback to the client. This activity builds trust between teammates and helps participants better understand each other’s strengths and areas of expertise.
This is a longer activity that will make group discussion more structured and train participants to strike a balance between speaking and listening. Participants will break into small groups or breakout rooms in Zoom; one participant from each group will act as The Host, whose responsibility (in addition to participating in the activity) is to step in when another participant isn’t following a simple set of agreements. Within these groups, team members will move through four rounds of conversation:
- First round: Each group member will have one minute to share their thoughts or feelings regarding the given conversation topic.
- Second round: Each group member will get another minute to share their thoughts and feelings after having listened to what others had to say. Traditionally a “talking object” is passed around in person to signify whose turn it is to speak, but in a virtual setting, you will have an appropriate replacement. For example, everyone mutes their microphones and participants use the “raise hand” feature in Zoom to signal that they’d like to talk next, or each participant is asked to bring a common household item to the meeting, such as a mug or a spatula, to hold up in place of one singular talking object.
- Third round: This is an open conversation in which participants can speak when they wish rather than taking turns. You may choose to continue using your talking object method (or “raise hand” feature) or to leave them in round two. This is likely where The Host will need to step in the most; ask them to encourage quieter members to talk and over-sharers to leave space for them to do so.
- Fourth (and final) round: Give each member a moment to share their biggest takeaways from the previous three rounds of conversation, round-robin style.
This exercise helps the quieter or more introverted participants build confidence contributing during virtual conversation, and the small groups make it harder for a participant to fade into the background (which is a bigger issue on Zoom vs. in-person meetings).
We feel strongly that Liberating Structures has an approach to address almost any challenge you may have to overcome. Therefore, we developed a variety of resources to help support you as you navigate Virtual Liberating Structures for your team.
We will be hosting a workshop on Virtual Liberating Structures later this year. Let our expert facilitators guide you to better understand and integrate Liberating Structures with your teams, both in-person and virtual. You will learn the principles behind why Liberating Structures work and experience specific structures that will allow you to tap into the room intelligence no matter how large the team.
Finally, Voltage Control offers an online Liberating Structures course that provides you and your team with the key foundations in Liberating Structures to unleash creativity in your meetings through maximum participation.
Want more assistance helping your virtual team thrive?
Here at Voltage Control, we are exercising and sharing the best tools and techniques needed for teams to thrive in the virtual workplace, through productive meetings, remote work team collaboration, considerations for return to work, facilitation skills, virtual events, meeting culture, Magical Meetings, and design sprints.