This technique was originally developed by
Henri Lipmanowicz & Keith McCandless
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Liberating Structures

Written in 2013, “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures” by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless seems even more relevant today, as we search for new ways to work together, both at home (virtually), and in the office (in-person).

Today, there are really only five methods commonly used to organize how people work together, and they each struggle to harness engagement across groups of 15-30 employees:

  • The presentation - a single person controls the content
  • The managed discussion - puts control in a single hand, for better or worse (safety?)
  • The status report - a small set of people control the content
  • The open discussion - easily turns chaotic, too unconnected to be productive
  • The brainstorm - often lacks enough structure to produce meaningful outputs

They offer a collection of methods as alternatives to these five “conventional structures”, that aim to increase the engagement of participants, and uncover innovative ideas.

In a way, they are all just different ways to facilitate a meeting. But don’t underestimate their power in driving culture from a top-down approach to something more empowering.

“Small changes in people’s routine practices produced big differences in the results they were getting.” (Lipmanowicz and McCandless, 2013)

For organizations that are seeking ways to balance the focus of WFH with the collaborative potential of RTO, Liberating Structures offers a full field guide of small, easy-to-implement changes that could justify that commute.

“The big shift that comes from using Liberating Structures is more collaborative decision making and more crowd-sourcing for solving problems or innovating and developing strategies. Liberating Structures connect the doers and deciders into productive assemblies.” (Lipmanowicz and McCandless, 2013)

There are 33 Liberating Structures covered in the book. We will introduce five of them here, with ideas on how to fold them into a decision architecture.


Duration: ~15 min

This structure delivers concurrent idea generation and refinement. It might follow a “silent reading” of an issue or proposal, as a group of people are gathered in a room or virtually (but it must be synchronous).

Frame a question like, “What ideas do YOU have for making progress on this challenge?”

The sequence of steps are:

  1. Silent self-reflection by individuals on the question (1 min)
  2. Pair up, and generate more ideas together, building on self-reflection (2 min)
  3. Form foursomes, and share and develop ideas from your pair, looking for similarities and differences (4 min)
  4. Each group of four ponders, “What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?”, then shares that one idea with the entire group, repeated for every foursome (5 min)

The exercise is intended to be quickly-paced, to avoid over-analysis. It is designed to support divergent thinking across the full range of perspectives in the group. It also helps build a shared understanding across the group.

Taking less than 15 minutes, it can replace the “Any questions?” segment after a presentation, as an easy, early experiment with the technique. 

Across strategic decision making, this exercise can help drive divergent idea generation for elements ranging from factors for scenario planning, to value drivers as levers-to-pull, to opportunity identification, to bet generation.

9 Why’s 

Duration: ~20 min

You’ve heard of the Five Whys? Well, this one’s got NINE! Seriously though, this technique can be a valuable way to elicit personal visions, to begin to form a shared vision across an organization.

Frame a question like, “What do you do when working on <the subject matter or challenge at hand>? Please make a short list of activities.” This is intended to anchor the conversation in their own work.

The sequence of steps are:

  1. In pairs, have one person interview the other, asking first about their list of activities, then repeating, “Why is that important to YOU?”. Continue asking “why” until you can go no deeper. Switch roles after 5 minutes. (10 min)
  2. Form groups of four. Each pair shares their experience and insights with the other pair. (5 min)
  3. Invite the whole group to reflect by asking, “How do our purposes influence the next steps we take?” (5 min)

This approach is a powerful way to shift “Vision” from being something that is imposed top down, to something that grows out of discussions of individual, and often personal, visions.

In Liberating Structures, they define the two essential attributes of a purpose as:

  1. A personal touchstone for you as an individual
  2. Fundamental justification for the existence of your work to the larger community

Aligned vision and purpose is a powerful part of a good decision architecture. But it should come from the bottom-up. This technique is a cheap way to explore this landscape across a part of the organization.

A variation of this could be to ask participants to “step into the shoes” of a customer (internal or external) and frame the question instead as, “Why would you spend money on our offerings?”

25/10 Crowdsourcing

Duration: ~30 min

This technique is good for larger groups, when divergent idea generation is desired. Its anonymous nature encourages bolder ideas to surface and gain attention.

Frame a question like, “For <this challenge>, if you were ten times bolder, what big idea would you recommend? What first step would you take to get started?”

The sequence of steps are: (if co-located in a room)

  1. Every participant writes on an index card his or her bold idea and first step. (5 min)
  2. Mill around and exchange cards with someone else. Quickly review their card. Move on to another person, and exchange cards again. (3 min)
  3. When the bell rings (after 3 min of milling around and exchanging cards), stop and pair up with someone. Exchange thoughts on the cards in your hands. Then each participant individually rates the idea in their hand from 1-5 and writes the score on the back of the index card. (1 min)
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 another four times, for a total of five rounds (16 more min)
  5. Ring the bell one last time, and ask each participant to add up the scores on the back of the card they are holding. (1 min)
  6. Find the ten best-scoring ideas. Have the facilitator ask, “Anyone have a total of 25 on their card?” then “Who has a 24?” and “Who has a 23?” until the top ten cards are found. (5 min) 

This technique “obtains results that are more likely to endure because they were generated transparently from within and without imported advice.”

This is a fantastic way to bring the traditional “deciders” together with the “doers” (from the execution teams) to generate bigger, bolder ideas for change, in the form of initiatives.

What, So What, Now What?

Duration: ~45 min

When we deliver outputs, we want to assess the resultant outcomes. Did we hit our desired outcomes? Did we validate a hypothesis? What insights have we uncovered to advance our collective learning?

In practice, it can be very difficult to bring this new learning mindset into an organization. We all know the idea of “pivot or persevere”, but where exactly is that supposed to happen?

This technique offers a simple way to build a shared understanding of new information, spark a dialog on the significance, and bring a bias for action to find next steps. Ultimately, it can support belief challenging.

After a shared experience, like a development demo, or customer feedback session, frame a series of questions: 

  • WHAT? What just happened? What did you notice, what facts and observations stood out?, then after the salient observations have been collected, ask:
  • SO WHAT? Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can you make or evaluate?, then after sense-making is over, ask:
  • NOW WHAT? What actions make sense?

The sequence of steps are:

  1. Show the “ladder of Inference” to ground the group on the progression of refinement
  2. Individuals work alone on WHAT? (1 min)
  3. Form small groups (if > 10 people overall) and build on the observations for WHAT? (5 min)
  4. Each small group takes a turn to present some salient facts with the whole group (5 min)
  5. Individuals work alone on SO WHAT? (1 min)
  6. Form small groups and build on the observations for SO WHAT? (5 min)
  7. Each small group shares salient patterns, hypotheses, and conclusions with the whole group (5 min)
  8. Individuals work alone on NOW WHAT? (1 min)
  9. Form small groups and build on the observations for NOW WHAT? (5 min)
  10. Actions from each small group are shared with the whole group, discussed, and collected (10 min)

The approach yields an appreciation for how the same events, and even the same observations, can drive different meanings, assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs among different people. Organizations need a shared understanding to effectively communicate, strategize, and operate.

Agreement and Certainty Matching Matrix

Duration: ~45 min

The best approaches for driving change will vary, based on the nature of the environment. The Cynefin framework <link> offers a popular taxonomy for these distinct natures, and in Liberating structures, they put them in layman’s terms:

  • Simple: like following a recipe
  • Complicated: like sending a rocket to the moon
  • Complex: like raising a child
  • Chaotic: like playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”

This technique is designed to help an organization avoid a mismatch between problems and solutions, and drive the conversation in a collaborative way.

Frame a question like, “What current challenges are taking up your time?”

The sequence of steps are:

  1. Individually, generate a list of challenges (5 min)
  2. Individually, place the challenges on their personal copy of the matrix (5 min)
  3. In pairs, discuss the challenges and their placement (5 min)
  4. In groups of four, look for points of agreement, difference, and where there are mismatches between problems and solutions [Note: this requires some knowledge of the Cynefin framework] (10 min)
  5. Invite everyone to post their challenges on a large, shared, wall matrix (5 min)
  6. In small groups, step back and reflect on, “What patterns do we see? Do any mismatches stand out that we should address?” (5 min)
  7. Invite whole group to share reflections, and decide next steps (10 min)

The aim is to reduce the wasted effort (and frustration) by matching challenges with methods. It can be used to source ideas for experimentation, share perspectives across functions, and expose the range in the nature of the challenges across the organization.

For organizations getting started with applying Causal Decision Diagrams and Causal Loop Diagrams, this exercise can help clarify where those methods are best suited to help describe a challenge.

Overall, these “liberating” micro-structures (as the authors refer to them to highlight the difference from macro-structures like the org chart), are “the way you organize all your routine interactions, consciously or not. They can guide and control how groups work together. They also present a powerful alternative to today’s defaults (i.e. Slack channels).

They are so cheap to employ, experimentation should meet minimal resistance. Looking for ways to reduce the cynicism around “RTO Wednesdays”? Need to increase engagement across your distributed workforce? Give them a try.