Liberating Structures: A Pattern Language for engagement

The idea of liberating structures was first introduced by William Tolbert (1991) whose interest in an integral approach to leadership and action inquiry led him to explore the notion as a form of organization structure that gave guidance to people but in such a way that they developed skills to guide themselves. He developed a theory of power that generates productivity, justice, and inquiry and a theory of liberating structure through which organizations can generate continual quality improvement. Edward de Bono (1991), who is best known for his work in creativity, contributed, “We can distinguish between restricting structures and liberating structures. Tools are liberating structures. With the proper tools students will surprise themselves with ideas that they have not had before.”

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz (1991) talked about rhythms, boundaries, and containers as primitives: universal, fundamental patterns from which all life is built including our social life.
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They suggested that our face-to-face contacts often occur in regular rhythms, boundaries of many sorts pattern when and where we connect and when we do not. Physical and social containers frame and hold our meetings. The skillful use of these tools is the critical capacity of experienced group facilitators. Liberating structures give us multiple options for each of these primitives; the rhythm/timing of each round of interaction, the boundaries of group size and inclusion, physical containers like space and room set up, and conceptual containers created by the way a question is phrased. All of the dozens of liberating structures are made up of these simple sets of components that can be combined in literally dozens of different ways.

Liberating structures designs come from theories and principles drawn from complexity science about self organization and diffusion of innovation and change. Liberating structures help groups tap into collective intelligence, be creatively adaptable, and build on each other’s ideas to get results. They have a bias for action. Liberating structures are fractal – they can work at multiple levels – from small groups to large groups to the whole system. Impromptu Speed Networking can work with a dozen people or with several hundred. The processes are simple. They are fast to learn. In a somewhat heretical fashion some small pieces are “cherry picked” from many of the best methodologies such as the Appreciative Interview from Appreciative Inquiry or Discovery and Action Dialogues from Positive Deviance. The goal is to find small processes that anyone can pick up and use. They do not require explanation or theory in order to use them. They do not require extensive training or certification.

At Margie’s hospital, the introduction of liberating structures enabled everyone from the janitors to the Chief Medical Officer to engage in problem solving conversations they could facilitate themselves about reducing infections. For example a liberating structure, Discovery & Action Dialogues (D&As), offered a new pattern of questions about dealing with medication resistant staff infections (MRSA) that allowed participants like Margie to contribute knowledge from their experience and suggest new solutions. D&As invite participants from multiple levels in multiple roles to knee-to-knee conversations that treat those on the front lines as the “experts” whose ownership of any solution is critical to its successful adoption.

The best (and maybe only) way to learn to use these processes is to experience them. In a typical introductory workshop, participants experience rapid cycles of multiple methods in the course of working on something important to the group or organization. After each exercise, participants debrief the process as well as the content to help them notice things about its structure and the patterns across different methodologies. For example, after participating in some Impromptu Speed Networking participants are invited to notice different aspects of the process: how starting a meeting standing up builds rather than drains energy, how having several iterations of the same conversation with different partners change understanding, and how questions open up more space for creative thinking than presentations. Participants are invited to think about where this process might contribute to their own work. The goal is to introduce participants to the pattern language of these generative processes. None of the methods is presented as the right answer for any particular situation. Most participants find several methods that appeal to them and many find a place to try one out quickly. Something about the deconstruction – the demystification – of the processes makes them feel easy and forgiving.

Many participants try out one or more of the processes within days or weeks of their introduction. A division chief in the Army shared that after several other conference sessions with one or two individuals dominating the talk and focusing on their issues only, “We were able to accomplish much more in a day than the previous two days.” In another organization, a manager at the DC Office of the State Department of Education said, I didn’t think we were going to be able to pull together so many different departments that had not been at the same meeting without spending hours making presentations to explain what we were all doing. I was
amazed that we just got right to work. By the end of the day we were on the same page and had a way forward on things that would have taken weeks of meetings to accomplish.

The idea of liberating structures was first introduced by William Tolbert (1991) whose interest in an integral approach to leadership and action inquiry led him to explore the notion as a form of organization structure that gave guidance to people but in such a way that they developed skills to guide themselves. He developed a theory of power that generates productivity, justice, and inquiry and a theory of liberating structure through which organizations can generate continual quality improvement. Edward de Bono (1991), who is best known for his work in creativity, contributed, “We can distinguish between restricting structures and liberating structures. Tools are liberating structures. With the proper tools students will surprise themselves with ideas that they have not had before.” (de Bono, 1991, p. 136)

Liberating structures have been introduced in global corporations, hospitals, educational institutions, multi-stakeholder coalitions, and local community groups for purposes including developing new product marketing strategies, reducing infection transmissions, creating innovative curriculum, and designing solutions for intractable economic problems. Many of these applications have delivered significant bottom line results. But the potential of liberating structures goes beyond any one initiative or the convening of a successful meeting. The big payoff will come when facility with processes that truly engage everyone is widely distributed and becomes the norm rather than the exception everyplace where people gather for important conversations.

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