(by Lipmanowicz, McCandless; ISBN ...)
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.
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.
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:
(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.
macrostructures: Buildings, strategies, policies, organization structures, and core operating processes are examples of what we call macrostructures. They are built or designed for the long term and can’t be changed easily or cheaply.
microstructures: In contrast, meeting rooms, offices, presentations, agendas, questions, and discussions are examples of microstructures. They are the small structures that we select routinely to help us interact or work with other people. They can be changed easily from one event to another or even in the moment.
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.
People, supported by resources and macrostructures, make decisions and take actions that generate results.
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.
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:
Provides direction in the form of a question or a request. In other words, participation in the group’s work together will depend on someone’s invitation, explicit or implicit, to listen or speak up, to contribute to an objective, and so on.
How space is arranged and what materials are used
All the choices that can be made about the tangible and intangible elements such as tables, chairs, podiums, projectors, flip charts, where people are located, whether they are standing up or sitting down. These arrangements can contribute to the invitation but often conflict with it as, for example, when a large group is sitting classroom-style and people are invited to ask questions.
How participation is distributed among participants
How much time every participant will be given to contribute.
How groups are configured
The freedom that exists to change the composition of a group—for instance, by breaking up into small groups then reconfiguring into another formation.
The sequence of steps and the time allocated to each step
Every microstructure contains one or more steps, each with a specific purpose and time allocation.
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:
Presentation (or Speech or Lecture)
The Presentation is designed to make it possible for one person to tell and show the same information to many people simultaneously. Its purpose is to give one person full control about the content while restricting everybody else to listening (or not). Participation in shaping next steps is very limited, if present at all, in the Presentation structure.
The structural design of the Presentation is:
The invitation: Audience members are invited to listen to the presenter from beginning to end (except for questions).
How space is arranged and what materials are used: Audiences large or small are usually sitting and facing the same direction, toward the presenter. PowerPoint slides dominate, whether in face-to-face presentations or virtual broadcasts. A podium or a stage is used for large audiences.
How participation is distributed: One person, the presenter, gets nearly 100 percent of the time with the discretion to invite questions from others either during the presentation or at the end. Everyone else is given little or no time.
How groups are configured: The configuration is static, with the presenter in front and everyone else in one group.
Sequence of steps and time allocation: The first step, the presentation, gets 90 to 99 percent of the allotted time; the second step, questions, gets the balance.
The Presentation is neither an inclusive nor an engaging process since a single person controls the content. Furthermore, that person is the “expert,” the one who has prepared and is intimately familiar with all details. Participants are “forced” into a silent role that, instead of engagement, may invite passive acceptance, defensive reactions, or withdrawal. When the Presentation is used to convince or persuade others of a predetermined idea or decision, it tends to discourage engagement and spark resistance. In a time-constrained agenda, time allocated to the Presentation means time stolen from group interactions. When the Presentation takes up most of the time available, it becomes the dominant structure and sets the tone for the whole meeting (same thing for a class dominated by lectures).
An Open Discussion is one that is not managed or facilitated. It can have many different purposes: to collect feedback, share viewpoints, attempt to reach a consensus, allow people to ventilate, create the illusion of inclusion, search for new insights.
The structural design of the Open Discussion is:
The invitation: Participants are invited to respond to a topic, a question, or a presentation in any way each sees fit.
How space is arranged and what materials are used: One large group or several smaller groups sitting in a fixed configuration within a room (or connected virtually). Microphones are used if needed.
How participation is distributed: Participation is not distributed. Individuals assert their idea or opinion to the whole group at any time for any amount of time.
How groups are configured: The initial configuration remains unchanging.
Sequence of steps and time allocation: A few minutes may be used to restate the topic. Participants use the rest of the time for expressing their views and for discussing. Total duration is variable and may or may not be specified in advance.
In contrast to the Presentation, the Open Discussion operates with very little control of content, if any. If used to engage people in shaping direction, it easily turns chaotic, becoming too unconnected to be productive or too random to shape decisions or next steps. As groups get larger, Open Discussion becomes less and less open for all as a few people will inevitably dominate the discussion. In short, the Open Discussion has too few or too weak microstructural elements to provide everyone a chance to shape next steps. In simpler terms, Open Discussions easily turn into a mess. This usually incites someone with authority to take control and manage the discussion.
The standard way of avoiding a mess is to put somebody in charge. In a Managed Discussion, someone is in charge (leader, chair, professor) and responsible for guiding the discussion. Managed Discussions frequently come after a presentation or a status report. Their purpose can be to come to a conclusion or reach a decision or make some progress.
The structural design of the Managed Discussion is:
The invitation: Participants are asked to respond to specific questions by a person with authority/power.
How space is arranged and what materials are used: Participants sit around a long or U-shaped conference table, or are seated classroom-style, with the leader in the “power seat.” A presenter may or may not remain standing during the entire discussion. For large groups beyond a dozen participants, seating is multitiered.
How participation is distributed: Distribution is determined by the leader, by power relations, by expertise, or by whoever imposes himself or herself.
How groups are configured: The initial configuration remains unchanging. For regular meetings (or gatherings or classrooms), the configuration is usually the same, time after time.
Sequence of steps and time allocation: Total time is determined beforehand by an agenda or decided in the moment by the leader. If addressing the issue requires several steps or tasks, the leader decides, usually in the moment, how time is allocated between each.
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.
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.
(How easy it is for anyone to radically improve the way people work together)
Last modified 06 April 2022