My first experience with Liberating Structures Labs

More and more these days, I’m seem to earn my crust helping people talk about technology, and their strategy around using it in an organisation, rather than writing code myself. Just like you have tech meetups to find out about out shiny new frameworks and software, you get meetups for where you can find out about shiny new frameworks for running workshops and meetings better. Liberating Structure Labs is an example, and I went last night. Here’s my write-up.

Liberating Structures?

As far as I can tell, Liberating structures is a free-to-use set of principles and activities to help structure meetings and events, as a response to the rigid, stifling structures of convention ways of getting people to work together in a shared space. Here’s the blurb from their website, explaining the problem:

Conventional structures are either too inhibiting (presentations, status reports and managed discussions) or too loose and disorganized (open discussions and brainstorms) to creatively engage people in shaping their own future. They frequently generate feelings of frustration and/or exclusion and fail to provide space for good ideas to emerge and germinate.

What’s proposed instead are a set of 33 or so different activities, with clear sets of rules, that you would apply, depending on the outcome you’re after when you have people in a room with you. you might recognise some of these from other disciplines if you ever facilitate UX workshops, run retrospectives in agile teams and so on:

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A list of the 33 (oops! 35) Liberating Structures to use

Testing these somewhere safe

One thing about these sets of activities, is that to test them at work is usually quite a high stakes gamble – you don’t know how well thought through they are at this point, or whether they’re a good fit for where you work.

Generally speaking, wasting a load of other people’s time with experimental techniques for workshops or meetings, could be seen as a career limiting move, so it’s useful to have somewhere to try them out first to see where the pitfalls are, so you know how to recover if things go south when you do talk your boss into letting you try them.

As I understand it, this is the purpose of the Liberating Structures Labs, and last night, we ran through a few exercises to get familiar. Each meetup has a theme, and last night the theme was Building a Culture of Collaboration.

Impromptu networking

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The first was an ice breaking opening game – with some nice easy to follow instructions on how to run through it. The page for it is here, but in a nutshell, the idea is to provide some prompts for conversation, and have some time boxes, to make it easy to chat with each other.

It worked pretty well, and I think I’d use it myself in future, as a quick ice breaking game, when I want some clear, rules. As an example of how careful application of structure can be liberating for people in a workshop, I found it a really effective demonstration of the key ideas I understand Liberating Structures to be about.

Panarchy

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The next part  was introducing a much larger activity, Panarchy, which as you’d imagine from the Pan part of the name is pretty ambitious in scope – you essentially look at how to answer a pre-defined question at a number of different levels of abstraction from the micro/individual level, through to groups, and industries, right up to policy and even myth-making.

Interestingly, it was initially introduced as a tool in healthcare to help structure a system-level response to the spread of MRSA in hospitals – so rather than being a comparatively vague question like “How can we build a culture of collaboration?“, it was a much more concrete problem to solve, with a much more measurable upside: “How can we stop accidentally killing people in our care with antibiotic-resistant super bugs?”.

For me at least, while I enjoyed the conversation with other attendees, I found it that we left the exercise without many useful insights we could take away – it didn’t feel like such a strong demonstration of the technique for me.

I think this is a function of the initial question being so vague to accommodate the free workshop format, where you can’t control who is coming, but also highlights how important it is to be able to provide context before you put forward a question for an exercise like this.

1, 2, 4

One thing that caught my attention, that I haven’t seen in other playbooks of activities like the GameStorming approach, was how composable the activities were – you would make new structures from combining other structures/activities. In Panarchy, a key mechanism for getting insights out of people was something called 1,2,4 – if you’ve ever run a design studio with Lean UX, or a charette exercise, the idea of going from individual work, then sharing in pairs, then progressively larger groups, will be familiar.

1, 2, 4 is a nice reduction of these ideas down to their essence – and looks to be applicable in lots of places where you might have groups where one or two people are more forthright with opinions than others, and you risk losing some useful information if you let them dominate discussion. For me, it felt like a good introduction to the structure (what do I call these? A Liberating Structure? An Activity? There has to be a less clumsy phrase than liberating structure to use in sentences).

The main niggle I had here was the issue of timing – when you don’t have a visible way of keeping time in a timeboxed activity, or a designated timekeeper, it’s still easy to end up giving the floor to the most talkative person (I try to keep track of this, I’m often a guilty party here).

An interesting grab of tools

I hadn’t heard of Liberating Structures before, but broadly speaking the activities seem very accessible, and there’s enough variety in the 35 structures for it to feel like a pretty comprehensive toolbox, that works in a wide range of contexts, in the same way that Game Storming provides a useful set of games to use in workshops depending on what you’re after.

I think I’d like go to the next meeting to explore it more, and if you’re curious about having a useful set of teachable techniques to help get more out of meetings with others, I’d happily recommend it.