More effective communication through Liberating Structures

Do you think that your way of structuring communications is effective enough? Henri Lipmanowicz, the creator of the “liberating structures” (LS) method and the author of the book, “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures”, says no. He believes that “The groups are smart and organizations are smart as whole, but the so-called ’microstructures’ that they use to communicate and get the work done, do not really give voices to most of the people”. At the same time, the LS method assumes that an absolute minimum is required to get fabulous results. It is enough to change the way we communicate, to look at old problems from a new angle. According to LS, the classic communication methods, such as presentations, reports, and meetings, are often boring and demoralizing. The communication tools that are often used in organizations have been there for a very long time. They are traditional and were not designed to include everyone. They actually had a rather different purpose: they are designed to control and direct people.

What is so liberating then in this new method of LS? On the contrary from the “old”, which tells you what to do and gives “instructions”, the new one actually asks, “What do you think?”. It bypasses hierarchies and management levels. It is liberating because everybody is allowed to take part. The LS method transforms how people interact, communicate and collaborate.


What do we mean by “liberating structures”?

The method distinguishes two levels of structures that shape our understanding and accomplishments: macrostructures and microstructures. If office buildings, strategies and policies are part of the macrostructures, and generally difficult to change, then, on the contrary, microstructures, such as meeting rooms, the order of tables, and the way we facilitate discussions, are easy to change and their role is highly underestimated. For example, one CEO had two meetings with the staff of a newly acquired company. He very much wanted to establish a good rapport with the staff, yet he had two meetings with very different results. Reflecting later on why the results were so different, he realized that the only thing that had changed were the microstructures. In the first meeting, the chairs were put in the classical classroom order, he spoke from the podium, and he was unable to engage people. During the second meeting, he stood in the middle of the group and moved around, and here he was able to connect to the staff with questions and stories. This example demonstrates how effective microstructural change can be. It also shows the principles of LS – how the setting of the room and the way we facilitate the discussion can unleash creativity and spur people to work together to produce results.

Everything is important in LS: the invitation, how space is arranged, how participation is distributed, how groups are configured, and the sequence of steps. LS tries to avoid top-down communication, generated only by the director, or external experts. It assumes that the group is smarter than the individuals. To promote collective intelligence and creativity, it is crucial to set the agenda of the meeting together, because pre-set agendas can demotivate participants. Face-to-face interaction must be guaranteed through the organization of small round tables or even informal chats. The LS method suggests using the 1-2-4-All method: everyone should have the same amount of time to talk, but before that, one should write down his/her thoughts, exchange opinions in pairs, then do the same in groups of four, and afterwards exchange opinions in all the groups by rotating.

Self-Discovery, Inside-Out Change Progression (Source: Lipmanowicz H, McCandless K. “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures”, p.32)

 The interesting thing is that this method liberates by providing structures. To be precise it provides thirty-three different structures adapted for different purposes. The first few structures are very simple to start with, and the next ones use these as building blocks. Each structure has specific purposes that it can be used for, and advice is given on how space should be arranged, what materials are needed, how each group is allocated, the main steps and time limitations. These precisely designed structures, however, have one purpose at their core: including everyone and unleashing their ideas.

What is crucial and still not obvious is that engagement should be measured in the same way as other key performance indicators. One measurement should be done at the individual level, and the other one at the group level. Both can be assessed through questionnaires, using the qualitative scales provided in the LS.

The implementation of LS can provoke big cultural changes. For example, if there is a customer service problem, the classical approach would see a costly expert called to identify the problem, find the solution and implement it. In the case of LS, however, the front-line people would work together to find the solution, as who knows the situation better than them? Here top management would have the opportunity to learn from the staff. In applying liberating structures, you engage people with the first-hand knowledge, and they collectively identify the best solutions.

This method can be used for public engagement in the building of future scenarios. One good example of this is the application of LS for inventing future health-care practice, which led to the launch of the Innovation Learning Network (ILN) in the United States. The ILN uses one of the thirteen LS presented in the method, the “One Space” structure, which includes action-oriented face-to-face meetings with a “we fail forward” spirit. In this structure, participants are invited to tackle a complex common challenge. Having set a general complex field, the participants co-create the agenda together without centralized control. Here people are free to follow their interests in setting the agenda, and so they take responsibility very quickly. One of the questions posed during the ILN meeting is very topical: the gamification of health care: How can games help people change their behavior in ways that improve health, prevent illness, or help them live more fully with chronic disease? Together the participants managed to find many valuable and unexpected solutions, from using games for kids with diabetes that explain how to live with the disease, to virtual-reality games used to treat burn patients who cannot use pain medication. Chris McCarthy, who leads ILN, explains that “Open Space” works because “so rarely are people who gather at meeting ever given the chance to own it, run it, and decide it”.

The use of these liberating structures helps to unleash the potential of people. It creates a safe environment where everyone has an equal opportunity and plenty of time to take part. It stimulates trust-building, a creative way of thinking and self-discovery within a group. However, this method has some limitations. LS are effective for setting the meetings and it increases the quality of communication, but the method does not address how to implement the results. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to implement the solutions discovered through LS without a certain level of control, structure and discipline. When applying this method, it is important to keep in mind that it is very good at coming up with a range of possible answers but might not be the best way to implement them.