What Are Liberating Structures? | Omega

Innovation is what most companies desire, but few know how to create the conditions for it to truly flourish. Liberating Structures, developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, is a framework that can quickly change the way we work, lead, and create together.

Earlier this year a poll showed 17 percent of employees would prefer watching paint dry to attending another meeting. Eight percent would prefer to get a root canal. Nearly half of respondents said they’d like to do anything other than sitting in your standard business check-in.

If this poll is any indication, we’re clearly not collaborating as well as we might. Our conventional ways of interacting aren’t doing what we’d like them to do.

Liberating Structures offers a framework and more than 30 different "micro-structures" for improving those percentages and getting us to work better together.

Liberating Structures are intended to up-end the normal way meetings and collaboration are typically organized, which is usually top-down with restricted participation created intentionally or due to entrenched group dynamics.

“Liberating Structures introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide, and relate to one another. They put the innovative power once reserved for experts only in the hands of everyone,” cocreators Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz wrote on their website. “Liberating Structures are a disruptive innovation that can replace more controlling or constraining approaches,” they said.

The easiest way to understand what McCandless and Lipmanowicz mean is to look at some of these tiny shifts in more detail.

There are 33 Liberating Structures. To employ them, the creators recommend starting with the simplest, one of which is called "Wicked Questions." This is a 25-minute exercise to “engage everyone in sharper strategic thinking by revealing entangled challenges and possibilities that are not intuitively obvious [by bringing] to light paradoxical-yet-complementary forces that are constantly influencing behaviors."

In practice this means, working first alone and then in small groups for five minutes, identifying pairs of opposites or paradoxes in their work. Each small group spends another five minutes to pick the most “wicked Wicked Question.” The full group then spends 10 minutes refining the question. The idea is to “spark innovative action while diminishing 'yes, but…' and 'either-or' thinking."

Here are some examples of Wicked Questions: For parents, “How is it that you are raising your children to be very loyal/attached to the family and very independent individuals simultaneously?” For large companies, “How is it that you are an organization with a singular global identity and you are uniquely adapted to each local setting?”

These are the type of deeply important questions that need to be addressed if a group or organization is to be sustainably successful. Wicked Questions attempts to articulate the issues clearly and bring them to the forefront.

Some other examples of Liberating Structures are: "Heard, Seen, Respected," which aims to encourage deeper listening and empathy with colleagues. "Open Space Technology," designed to help make it possible to include everybody in a group in addressing issues important to them. And, "Purpose-To-Practice," which helps at the start of an initiative to identify and articulate its purpose, principles, and participants, before moving on to its structure and practice.

These micro-structures act more like a menu of options—you are meant to choose the ones appropriate for the challenge or situation facing your organization. They are not a universal set of best practices. 

How Are Liberating Structures Being Used?

There are numerous examples of organizations using Liberating Structures, from business to healthcare to academia. Some of the most telling testimonials of the framework's transformative power, however, come from individuals. 

Vanessa Vertiz, a business unit director from Peru, said, “Learning these new ways of sharing information, discussing and interacting, helped me understand that everything is more positive and enriching when the process is fun, participatory, and open. The application of Liberating Structures in business meetings provides better outcomes than the ones obtained from traditional interactions.”

Vertiz added that Liberating Structures has influenced her personal interactions, especially with her children. “I realized the poor impact I had when I told them what to do," she said. "Now I listen more, let them express their feelings, and let them get into the conclusions that are best for them, instead of imposing.”

© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies