By Tom Peterson
Many of us at the Clinton School of Public Service are into something called Liberating Structures. It’s because of fellow adjunct professor, Arvind Singhal. I first learned of it when two students facilitated a meeting I held on revitalizing our Main Street. They used a few Liberating Structures exercises, and the results were great. Since, one of those students (now alumni) wrote a post on Liberating Structures. The other works with me on Stakeholder Health (where Liberating Structures are practiced) and leads a group I’ve joined that meets monthly to explore the processes. Consider me a true believer.
What are Liberating Structures? At the first level, they’re a set of 33 practical, easy-to-use methods for group work. And last month, the whole body of work came out as a book, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures. Authors Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless spent years gathering, testing, codifying and describing these processes in real-world settings.
Liberating Structures, the Field Guide
The heart of the book is the “Field Guide” to the 33 Liberating Structures. Each one takes the group down a different path. For example, the Nine Whys is a process to help “make the purpose of your work together clear.” This process that asks why, why, why. In 20 minutes it helps both the individual and the entire group dig deeper to get greater clarity on what’s important. What’s the underlying reason we’re doing what we’re doing?
The goal of another Liberating Structure, Wicked Questions, is to “articulate the paradoxical challenges that a group must confront succeed.”
Lipmanowicz and McCandless have also identified “Sets of Strings.” These are combinations of the 33 structures that, when used together move a group toward a goal, such as drawing out prototypes or finding everyday solutions. But this whole Liberating Structure is open source, and we’re encouraged to find our own strings, as well.
Liberating Structures goes far beyond how a planning process is facilitated. Organizations that adopt them, can find themselves radically changes. The authors have identified some “principles that emerge in organizations” where LS have become part of the everyday culture:
- Include and unleash everyone
- Practice deep respect for people
- Never start without a clear purpose
- Build trust as you go
- Learn by failing forward
- Practice self-discovery within a group
- Amplify freedom and responsibility
- Emphasize possibilities: believe before you see
- Invite creative destruction to make space for innovation
- Engage in seriously playful curiosity
The book tells stories of Liberating Structures helping in different settings: the classroom, a child-welfare system, a business turnaround, and so on. Because of their easily seen impact, these approaches to group work will undoubtedly find quick acceptance from many tribes.
And they may create a revolution. The authors quote one participant’s reaction: “Warning—you may never be able to tolerate another endless conference/meeting again and might feel that everyone is in ‘The Matrix’ except you!”
Here’s the Liberating Structures website.