Learn through practice how and why Liberating Structures work

Over the years Voltage Control has hosted various Liberating Structures immersion workshops. We hold these workshops as part of a series of Liberating Structures immersion workshops with a focus on scrum masters, agile coaches, and technology leaders. In this post, we’ll take you through what liberating structures are and how we ran a liberating structures immersion workshop in the past. Through our workshops, 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. 

Our next Liberating Structures immersion workshop is scheduled for December 2021 – learn more and sign up here. We are also holding a mini-workshop on Liberating Structures foundations in November.

“It’s so fun to see people from a super wide range of domains connecting to one another and beginning to realize what’s possible if they begin to use Liberating Structures in their work all the time. New ways of working together really begin to open up and you can see how enlivened our everyday work can be.” — Anna Jackson, Liberating Structures Workshop Leader

What are Liberating Structures?

Let’s review Liberating Structures first. 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.”

Voltage Control Liberating Structures Matrix

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 Immersion Workshop

A couple of years ago Voltage Control co-hosted a 2-day Liberating Structures immersion workshop with Anna at Native, an Austin modern hostel, kitchen, and bar. Liberating Structures had been quickly gaining popularity among the agile coach and scrum masters communities. In addition to Anna’s typical audience of health care, nonprofits, and government we thought it would be great to include these people from the technology world. While not exclusive to them, we designed with them in mind to ensure they would find exceptional value in the workshop.

We also brought in Amanda Bowman, a Liberating Structures practitioner that has extensive experience leading workshops with Anna, to assist in leading the workshop. Like Anna, Amanda is a skilled graphic recorder. They took turns illustrating as we all facilitated individual methods. Adding the visualization always makes an event more engaging and memorable.

The design team used Purpose to Practice, Liberating Structures Principles, and Design Storyboarding to guide our workshop structure. We met four times before the workshop to plan and prepare for the day.

Amanda kicked off day 1 with an Impromptu Networking followed by Douglas facilitating Appreciative Interviews and we wrapped the day with a tour of the Liberating Structures Principles. Day 2 started with Anna facilitating spiral journal and finished the day with everyone’s favorite, 25–10 Crowdsourcing. We also covered TRIZ, Discovery and Action Dialog, Conversation Cafe/What, So What, Now What, Troika, and Open Space led by Anna; 9 Whys, Design 101, What I Need From You led by Amanda; Ecocycle Planning and Critical Uncertainties led by Douglas.

Voltage Control feels strongly that Liberating Structures has an approach to address almost any challenge you may have to overcome. Therefore, we created a suite of free and interactive Liberating Structures templates for MURAL and Miro for the activities we use most often and hope you enjoy using them as much as we do.

During the workshop, Douglas facilitated the strategic methods. Strategic methods are exceptionally well-suited for technology companies or anyone that may face potential disruption. 

Critical Uncertainties and Ecocycle Planning are two of the more robust strategic planning tools in the Liberating Structures repertoire.

Critical Uncertainties

Critical Uncertainties is a tool that helps you to assess the ability of current strategies and build an ability to respond to changes in the future. First, you consider all of the critical and uncertain factors that you are currently facing or may face in the future. From this list, you’ll select the two most important and place them each on an x- & y-axis.

Once you have drawn your matrix, it is helpful to name and describe each quadrant. Once you’ve considered each quadrant, you can then begin to explore each quadrant to determine strategies that may work in those scenarios.

After working on each quadrant, go back and review all your strategies. Consider which strategies are hedging strategies and only work in a specific scenario or prepare you for those conditions and which strategies are robust strategies and will work in all or most situations?

This structure does not help you generate a plan. It is a tool for developing your strategic thinking and building the capacity to respond to and anticipate changes in your environment proactively.

Critical Uncertainties is a great fit for exploring what features to include in your product, planning and preparing for multi-country IT implementations, and executives creating or refining a 10-year strategic vision.

“The workshop helped me learn and practice some of the LS tools. I now understand enough to read about the other tools and apply them as well” — Michael Smith, Director of Orquestando

Ecocycle Planning

Ecocycle Planning helps you to contextualize aspects of the system that you are operating and allows you to scan for bottlenecks objectively. An Ecocycle is drawn as an infinity symbol with four phases and two traps identified. These phases help you to determine where various components of your systems or products in your portfolio exist within the ecosystem lifecycle. The four phases are birth, maturity, creative destruction, and renewal. The two traps are the rigidity trap and the poverty trap. The Ecocycle is a continuous loop and activities and projects can exist in one place on the map and quickly shift to another.

The front half of the loop, birth & maturity is how we typically think of projects. The back of the loop, creative destruction, and renewal, is often new to people. This is an important opportunity for teams to expand how they think of their portfolio or system. Activities can also exit the loop if you decide to end them. The two traps are also an opportunity for series exploration. We find ourselves in the rigidity trap when activity in maturity has become ineffective and we haven’t made requisite changes. Projects live in the poverty trap when we discover opportunities for re-birth and are not investing in the change.

Ecocycle is effective at prioritizing a backlog, balancing a product portfolio, discovering resources that can be repurposed, stepping back, and shedding light on situations where killing one project allows you to proceed on another.

When running an Ecocycle internally, you’ll invite your team to begin by listing out projects and initiatives that occupy their time. Then you’ll organize into groups of four and explore the placement of these activities onto the Ecocycle. After everyone has finished plotting on the Ecocycle, everyone shares and explores areas where there is a lack of consensus. Finally, the group discusses the next steps how they might respond to insights from the Ecocycle.

During the workshop, Douglas asked participants to consider various Facebook products and services and where they fall on the Ecocycle. He encouraged them to think of themselves as part of a focus group, and Facebook is asking them: “As a Facebook user, where do these features and capabilities live on the Ecocycle?” The following Facebook services were explored: Groups, Events, Messenger, Dating, Newsfeed, Security + Privacy, and Facebook Live.

“I found the strategies and techniques provided by the LS methods to be ideal for the groups where there are frequently power differences amongst participants. The LS methods substantially reduce that differential “— Andres Guariguata, LCSW

The Value of Liberating Structures

Liberating Structures have many useful applications in the innovation world, such as for Scrum or a Retrospective. Liberating Structures don’t need to be practiced in person – in fact, Liberating Structures are more important now than ever in today’s virtual environment and are great for optimal remote team communication. For more information on when to use Liberating Structures and solutions on using the best Liberating Structure for the job, download our guide here

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 and connect with a Liberating Structures community. You can also learn hands-on in real-time at one of our Liberating Structures workshops as discussed in this article: a deep-dive of Liberating Structures, when, and how to use them to unleash creativity in your meetings through maximum participation. And, as an extra bonus, you’ll also learn how to do this virtually!