The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures

(by Lipmanowicz, McCandless; ISBN ...)

Website Liberating Structures Menu


The purpose of this book is to greatly expand your alphabet of possible ways to interact and work with others to achieve exceptional results. It describes and explains thirty-three new “letters,” simple methods that you can learn without difficulty, with only a small amount of practice.

These so-called Liberating Structures make it easy to transform how people interact and work together in order to achieve much better results than what is possible with presentations, reports, and other conventional methods. We call them Liberating Structures because they are designed to include and engage everybody. They “liberate,” so to speak, everybody’s contribution to the group’s success. How well you interact and work with other people often determines not only your success at work but also in other areas of your life. You will find that each Liberating Structure has its own specific benefits. By learning to use some or all of them, you will create your own alphabet and build a different vocabulary for getting things done with others. Your new language will be endlessly adaptable and applicable as you create more combinations to fit every situation that you face in your life, whether challenge or opportunity, large or small, simple or complex.

Chapter 1: Small Changes, Big Differences

Small changes in people’s routine practices produced big differences in the results they were getting.

The Invitation: Check all that apply when you think about a group or organization you work with:

At the core of the book is the practical idea that simple shifts in our routine patterns of interaction make it possible for everyone to be included, engaged, and unleashed in solving problems, driving innovation, and achieving extraordinary outcomes. ... Liberating Structures employ simple rules that are extremely spare and very specific.

What's Ahead:

We believe Liberating Structures are transformational because they are purposely designed to make it easy to accomplish what is missing in most organizations, namely to include and engage people effectively and to unleash their collective intelligence and creativity. They provide a wide variety of ways to:

Part 1: The Hidden Structures of Engagement

Chapter 2: Why Microstructures Matter

(How invisible structures shape everything that gets done)

Whatever we do, there is always a structure to support or guide what is being done. Without structures, there is just chaos. people. All sorts of structures shape all our undertakings and accomplishments, and we will explain how and why.

First, a Few Definitions

Hierarchy and Examples of Structures

Type Tangible Structures Intangible Structures
Macrostructures Office building; school; Hospital; Shop; Ship; Factory Strategies; Organization Structure; Policies and Procedures; Compensation/Incentives; Core operating processes; Grants of authority
Microstructures Boardroom; Classroom; Meeting room; Restaurant; Office; Water cooler Presentation/Lecture; Managed discussion; Status report; Open discussion; Brainstorm; Liberating Structure
Structural Elements Large round table; Large rectangular table; Small table; Chair; Flip chart; Post-its; Projector; Screen Purpose/Agenda; Question; Theme; Seating arrangement; Group configuration; Time allocation; Standing instead of sitting; Formal or informal

Microstructures may sound like small things, but they have a big impact.

The Neglected Power of Microstructures

People, supported by resources and macrostructures, make decisions and take actions that generate results.

Microstructures Enable and Constrain

Microstructures are the way you organize all your routine interactions, consciously or not. They guide and control how groups work together. They shape your conversations and meetings. They enable and constrain what is possible.

For our purposes, we can say they come in two flavors: conventional microstructures and Liberating Structures.

Conventional microstructures, in one form or another, have been around for centuries. They are designed for convincing, teaching, debating, brainstorming, controlling, or some combination of these purposes. Their usefulness, however, is limited by side effects that are difficult or impossible to avoid, such as unengaged participants or audiences, excessive power dynamics, and competition for attention, bodies present but minds absent. The resulting frustrations spark much talk about the need for engaging employees (in academia, the talk is about engaging students), but, in actual practice, there is too little expertise on how to engage people effectively and broadly. The standard decision-making formula is: meet with a small circle of coworkers, decide, and then tell the others. The Big Five: The presentation, the managed discussion, the status report, the open discussion, and the brainstorm.

The impact of the conventional microstructures is greatly dependent on the skills and personalities of their users. The reason is that, as structures go, they are either too tight or too loose in terms of how much control is exerted on the participant group. Each of these qualities—too tight or too loose—has its limitations. What’s more, all conventional microstructures make it impossible to engage more than a small number of participants.

Elements of Control

All microstructures are made up of the same five structural elements. These elements determine how control is exercised over a group of people who are working together:

Conventional Microstructures: Too Much Control and/or Too Little Structure

Liberating Structures are fundamentally different from conventional microstructures in the way they control and structure people’s interactions.

Conventional microstructures tend to provide too much control of content or too little structure to include everyone in shaping next steps. To illustrate, let’s look at the three most frequently used conventional microstructures:

The Managed Discussion puts control entirely into a single hand, with all the difficulties and complications that this entails. The most common challenge for the leader (or chair, or professor, or expert) is giving to all participants the time they need for comfortably expressing their views. Making it safe for everybody to speak up is another common challenge since acquiescing is the easiest option. Achieving true depth and quality of content within a predetermined amount of time is often impossible.

Chairing Managed Discussions at senior levels is a special challenge. Even though senior leaders are likely to be more skilled in expressing themselves in group discussions, the issues they address are much more complex and power dynamics tend to be significantly stronger. The boss may want more participation in shaping next steps, but if everyone doesn’t step up, this reinforces the pattern of making decisions at the top. Including participants from lower levels as equal partners in a Managed Discussion Discussion with a group of senior people is an art form too often neglected.

From Too Much Or Too Little Control To Well-Structured and Distributed Control

By definition, full engagement means that everybody plays an active and unrestrained role in contributing ideas, discussing options, and shaping next steps. The descriptions of the Presentation, the Open Discussion, and the Managed Discussion make it clear how and why conventional structures fail to make this possible.

Chapter 3: Liberating Structures for Everyone

(How easy it is for anyone to radically improve the way people work together)

Chapter 4: Liberating Leadership

Part 2: Getting Started and Beyond

Chapter 5: Getting Started: First Steps

Chapter 6: From First Steps to Strings

Chapter 7: From Strings to Storyboards

Part 3: Stories from the Field

Part 4: The Field Guide to Liberating Structures


Impromptu Networking

Nine Whys

Wicked Questions

Appreciative Interviews (AI)


15% Solutions

Troika Consulting

What, So What, Now What? (W3)

Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)

25/10 Crowd Sourcing

Shift & Share

Wise Crowds

Conversation Café

Min Specs

Improv Prototyping

Helping Heuristics

User Experience Fishbowl

Heard, Seen, Respected (HSR)

Drawing Together

Design StoryBoards—Basic

Design StoryBoards—Advanced

Celebrity Interview

Social Network Webbing

“What I Need From You” (WINFY)

Open Space Technology

Generative Relationships STAR

Agreement-and-Certainty Matching Matrix

Simple Ethnography


Critical Uncertainties

Ecocycle Planning


Purpose-To-Practice (P2P)

Liberating Structures in Discussion

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Last modified 18 April 2022