• Opinion
  • February 6, 2019
  • 12 minutes
  • 3

Liberating Structures: the simple rules that could transform public innovation

Opinion: In command, but out of control — a powerful path to enhanced collaboration

liberating structures

This piece was written by Alexis Palá, Research Associate, Y Lab (the Public Services Innovation Lab for Wales). For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


The familiar anxiety crept upon me; I sat gazing blankly at empty sheets of paper, data, whiteboards, post-its, endlessly running through my project ambitions but baffled as to how to achieve them.

In the words of Kees Dorst, “complexity without direction paralyses”. We want to do things differently, to reach new ambitions on the horizon, but what do our brains do? They fall back on our mental models.

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Mental models are our repositories of conscious and unconscious learning. They are one of the most powerful, but also, impeding facets of our brains. Conscious learning is the training you went to recently or the book you just read. Unconscious learning is trickier; a hidden vault in your brain where implicit biases are housed.

Mental models develop over time evolving to shape how we perceive, interpret, and respond to the world. Two potentially familiar expressions of mental models influence most of our decisions — heuristics and habits. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive burden of decision-making; like rules of thumb, guessing and intuition. Habits are “automatic behaviours triggered by situational cues” (Hooked).

Essentially, “total control” is an illusion. But we can learn to be in command by using methods to alter the structures of our decision-making. Being in command isn’t about controlling all possible scenarios: it’s a balancing skill, an intuitive sense refined overtime.

liberating structures

Figure 1: Adapted graphic from Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop

Liberating Structures place the minimum structure necessary for spontaneity to still flourish (see Figure 1); offering 33 more tried-and-tested ways to the “big 5” we commonly use (see Figure 2) when working towards solutions. Liberating Structures embrace randomness, creative destruction, our human ability to self-organise, and most importantly, centre on including everybody in shaping the future.

liberating structures

Figure 2: Adapted Liberating Structures graphic —Big 5 Conventional micro-Structures based on control

Random, spontaneous brilliance is a fallacy — it’s not random (Blink); good ideas are by-products of environments and the conditions that influence them, such as someone having written a thesis on the subject many years ago. Good ideas are typically slow, informed hunches that result from preparation and reflection (Where Good Ideas Come From).

Liberating Structures create fertile ground for good ideas. They also safeguard decision-making. Safeguarding means taking steps to avoid undesirable consequences, like simply tinkering with a prior solution or slapping a bandage over a problem. They safeguard by dedicating space for personal reflection, questioning thought processes and re-examining initial ideas through dialogue and inquiry. They place people in conversation instead of in opposition and prevent discussions from only hearing the loudest.

However, they are not a silver-bullet, and do not discount other useful methods. Instead, they complement and enhance previous learnings but, in themselves, are not the solution to a problem.

In December 2018, I attended an immersive workshop on Liberating Structures and discovered their ability to transform the public sector and enhance collaborations. Here are my four reasons why:

  1. Structure matters a lot — and Liberating Structures are tried-and-tested methods that account for power

“Does anyone else have anything else to add or does anyone disagree?” Think about how those questions make you feel when you hear them in a meeting. For me, they strike dread, signalling half-hearted attempts to open things for discussion when subconsciously the questioner wants everyone to pack up and leave.

Instead, envision the impact of using a Liberating Structure, such as 1,2,4, all. You pose an invitation to the group, such as “Do you have any concerns or comments after today’s presentation?”, and people silently self-reflect on their thoughts for a minimum of a minute, then share their ideas in pairs, fours, and lastly with the group.

This kind of process unearths everyone’s thoughts, allows perspectives to build, recombine and strengthen before group scrutiny. It challenges forms of group-think like the Abilene Paradox since it delays exposure to others’ views.

Not only does the decision-making method you choose matter, but the “micro-elements” of the structure do too. Liberating Structures stresses the following when designing interactions:

  • The importance of the question (invitation) you ask and how you ask it.
  • Configuration: how intimate or large should a discussion be?
  • How people will participate?
  • How you will arrange a space? How will people interact with that space?
  • Time: how much of it should be given to each phase? Too little or too much?
  • Materials: tools (such as post-its) help us to communicate things more clearly and can help facilitate listening and participation.
  1. Liberating Structures challenge your mental models, provoking a productive form of “creative destruction”

When trying to innovate and to get to “new” ways/frames/ideas, we have to let go, to challenge, to sit with difficult questions and potentially destroy some of our prior ways of thinking but do so in ways that are productive and generative. It’s critical that we embrace methods that force us to do the hard, deliberative thinking we shy away from.

  1. Liberating Structures embody collective intelligence, tapping into our social networks

Collective intelligence is a shared understanding, stemming from collaboration, that is greater than any one person’s intelligence. Many of the Structures focus on creatively crowdsourcing ideas and solutions; others start more inwardly focused but eventually reveal self-reflections to others after one is better oriented.

You shouldn’t use a Liberating Structure by yourself. Although, they provide space for individual reflection, they are inherently social tools, designed to collide and synthesise perspectives.

  1. It’s about mastery: utility doesn’t diminish over time

Mastery is a level of understanding that you achieve with time and experience. It’s what links all the great athletes, actors, politicians, philanthropists, entrepreneurs etc. Mastery is critical to human wellbeing and brings humans tremendous satisfaction.

Trainings and conferences don’t necessarily lead to mastery. Although mastery is fundamental to job performance, creating space and time for it is grossly overlooked in government (which is at the heart of my current research).

The more you use Liberating Structures, the more you recognise their utility and power to enhance results. Over time you will implicitly begin to understand the micro-structures which impede organisational progress and know how to use methods to overcome those barriers.

Liberating Structures alter your neural pathways, changing the way you approach conversations, even when you are not using them. They make you into a stronger facilitator and enactor of the change you want to see; rather than paralysing in the face of complexity, you will feel equipped to unpack it.

The key messages

Start with liberating structures today. Dive in, get your hands dirty. There’s a community of passionate people ready to support you, and each of the 33 approved structures were intentionally designed, tested and endorsed to be simple for beginners to learn and implement.

You can get plugged into the community and explore methods through the website, slack and/or download the phone application through your app store — they are all free. Additionally, there is likely a meet-up near you and if not, you can try starting one.

Do remember — “structures which we are unaware of hold us prisoner” (The Fifth Discipline). Structures can be your mental models, the physical layout of the space, your ways of communicating — they are things that send signals to our brains, consciously and subconsciously influencing the way we respond. Avoiding this mental imprisonment means being mindful, asking yourself “why” which is practice, the boring but essential element of mastery.

Lastly, embrace the awkwardness that comes with trying things for the first time. Each structure will reward you with new lenses for examining a problem and elevate you to higher levels of understanding. Why? The answer lies in “problem framing”, a process which encompasses both methods and mindsets.

This year I aim to translate these daunting terms into digestible, implementable learning pieces for the public sector. If you found any of my points alluring and desire follow this journey, keep an eye-out for more of my contributions on Apolitical.

If you happen to be in London, use twitter to contact the group’s lead and follow its developments. Or if you find yourself in Cardiff, Wales and would like to begin your journey with me, you can join our meet-up and send me queries at: palaa@cardiff.ac.uk — Alexis Palá

(Picture credit: Flickr/BCcampus_News)

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