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InfoQ Homepage Articles Power to the People: Unleashing Teams through Liberating Structures

Power to the People: Unleashing Teams through Liberating Structures

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Key Takeaways

  • Liberating Structures (LS) builds psychological safety, promoting empathy and trust
  • LS is a great tool for creative problem-solving, because it engages and unleashes everyone, resulting in a greater diversity of thought and opinion
  • LS increases engagement and participation by paying attention to the five microstructures of any meeting: the invitation, how participation is structured, groups, time allocation, and the way space is arranged
  • LS is a great fit for Agile, providing 30+ approaches that can be used alone or strung together to accomplish almost any purpose
  • LS promotes diversity and inclusion, because the structures foster respect, allow everyone to be heard, and subvert the normal in-group power dynamics


We’ve all been in our share of unproductive meetings.  You know, the ones where there is no agenda or purpose in the invite.  Where high-status people talk or argue, while everyone else tries to stay awake.  Where people try to check their social media without being noticed.  Or like many meetings I’ve been a part of, openly work on their laptops, oblivious to what’s going on around them.  

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Based on complex research and what we know about adult learning and motivation, Liberating Structures are specifically designed to include everyone, free up everyone’s voice, and unlock creative, innovative solutions to life’s challenges (and opportunities!).  You can read more on their website.

I’ve been using Liberating Structures at Capital One for years now, in my roles as scrum master, manager of scrum masters, and Agile coach at a local, regional, and divisional level.  I’ve found their impact reaches far beyond the meeting room.  They are powerful tools for change, enhancing engagement and cohesion, and generating unexpectedly good outcomes.

Build Teams That Thrive

One of the things I love about Liberating Structures is the chance to experience the warm, energetic buzz of a room full of engaged people.  This is a regular occurence in the Liberating Structures meetings I am a part of.  You hear laughter, you see people sitting forward in their chairs, and you end up with surprisingly good results.  People leave meetings energized.  Participants feel more connected to their work and to each other.  This in turn makes them more willing and able to work together in the future.  Walls are broken down. Connections are made.  I recall an engineering manager saying to me, “Now that we’ve been in this workshop together, I won’t be able to ignore Shawna’s emails anymore!”

These are the kinds of results that often come from using Liberating Structures, because they subvert the usual dynamics around power; who gets heard, what ideas end up on the table, who gets a vote.  Not only do they produce great results, but they also build the team’s resiliency and sense of comradery.

Sometimes, it is easy to dismiss people we disagree with.  Perhaps we tell ourselves that they aren’t working hard enough, aren’t smart enough, or don’t really understand the business.  Or maybe we view them as some kind of threat.  Liberating Structures place people in a constructive dialogue with other people - people they may not talk to all the time, people they may not know (or like) - and in that interaction, empathy, respect, and openness to new perspectives can develop.  No set of tools can force agility, creativity, or respect - but Liberating Structures does a better job than any other approach I know of, of opening the door to those possibilities.


Liberating Structures provide a way to have rich, respectful dialogue on a whole range of topics.  They do this without resorting to one-way conversations, in-group members excluding others, or everyone just trying to sound smart and look good.  For example, introverts often feel left out of discussions and decisions because of the way they process information.  People who belong to subordinated groups (e.g. women, POC, junior-grade employees, remote workers) often find that their voice is either missing from the conversation, or ignored.

Liberating Structures are designed explicitly with engagement and empowerment in mind.  From the opening invitation, to the way space, time, participation, and control are utilized, Liberating Structures create an experience that promotes safety, inclusion, and diversity.  As a result, people are often willing to bring more of their inherent ability, skills, and knowledge to the conversation.  

I was facilitating a tech leadership offsite of about 30 people.  We’d just finished Triz, where we playfully explored how to make one of our most pressing problems even worse, as a way of uncovering our bad habits.  One of the tech managers came up to me after the session.  “I feel like we are finally talking about the real problems,” Mike confided in me.  “We’ve had to pretend that everything was fine, but I feel hopeful now that we are going to talk about the things that really matter.”  Telling the truth takes courage, and Liberating Structures can help create a space where truth-telling can occur.

A Great Fit with Agile

A fundamental assumption of Agile is that we are part of a complex system, where the future is unpredictable.  In this context, the thinking goes, the best way to proceed is by conducting small experiments - mapping out the impact of our actions, learning about the environment over time, through trial and error.  This takes personal commitment and engagement, or else why take the risk?  It also takes a certain tolerance for error - if you can’t fail, then folks will stick to the tried and true, and innovation is stymied.

When we use Liberating Structures in an Agile environment, we encourage respectful conversations that increase the number of perspectives in the room.  One way to define creativity is the ability to combine disparate ideas.  It is no wonder then that diversity of thought is going to result in more and better ideas - and more creativity.  And as I’ve already mentioned, being heard, seen and respected fosters trust. Trust leads to a greater sense of psychological safety - which is what teams need to truly excel.

I was leading my team through a retrospective using a Liberating Structure called W3.  In the “What?” phase of the exercise, the team listed a litany of things that made their life hard -  problems with priorities, acceptance criteria, and stories changing - they felt like they were at the end of the proverbial whip.  During the “So What?” phase, where the team was invited to make sense of the data they had gathered from the previous Sprint, one of the engineers said, “You know what? We are always going to be dealing with changes, with uncertainty - we need to have Agile processes that can deal with that.”  Her comment acted as a pivot point, with the team shifting from feeling like a victim to taking ownership of their process.  What I loved about this is that I didn’t have to talk about self-organizing principles, or point out the tension between product and the team, or even ask powerful questions.  The team coached themselves using Liberation Structures.

Software development is hard work, and doing it on a schedule and a budget that businesses can afford is even more difficult still.  So I am not surprised when I see executives and managers doing a kind of “fake Agile.”  By that, I mean project thinking, with up-front requirements and a due date, even if the teams are doing their iteration thing.  There are valid business reasons to maintain the illusion of control (pretending you know when something will be done, or that you know months in advance just what the customer wants and the market demands).  But it’s still normally an illusion, and pretending creates a situation where we lose transparency, we lose honest dialogue, and we lose agility, if by that one means the ability to learn as you go from small, valuable experiments, and respond to changes in the marketplace.

Liberating Structures subverts this “I’m thinking of a number; please tell me what I want to hear” communication.  This is because Liberating Structures consciously include all voices, invites people to imagine success in new ways, think through issues from new perspectives, and listen to the concerns and insights of people we normally ignore.

Generate More Creative, Diverse Solutions

One of the outcomes of using Liberating Structures within your team is more productive and engaged workers. For example, we just had an off-site at our company and the main complaint that people had was that they were worn out. They had been so involved, so engaged, that instead of being bored or wishing that they could go do something else, they needed time to recuperate.

The way this works is that you let the people in the meeting own the content. Take something like understanding how intent flows through your system.  You might think that this pretty much involves someone explaining each step, using lots of slides with network diagrams.  And I’ve seen it done this way, with hours of listening to someone talk, with very poor retention - the research says we remember something like less than 10% of a PowerPoint presentation after three days.  We decided to try another approach: a Liberating Structure called Shift and Share.  For each “chunk” of the process, a knowledge expert put together an eight-minute talk on their area - highlights, major parts, biggest challenges.  

The meeting participants split into small groups, and rotated from SME to SME: eight minutes of talking, eight minutes of questions, then on to the next group.  We covered the entire process in about 90 minutes, and the leaders involved got to spend facetime with some of the key players at each stage.  They got the chance to really hear line-level perspectives and concerns. The leadership team came away with a deeper contextualized understanding of what was going on, plus they now knew the names and faces of the folks who were doing the work outside of their own areas.  This turned out to be important, because it built greater understanding, empathy, and trust throughout the organization.  This in turn led to less finger-pointing, and more cooperative problem-solving.

There are over 30 Liberating Structures, all of which can be used either singly or in a string (the output of one setting up the next Liberating Structure), leading to improved meetings.  You have to trust that giving up (the illusion of) control actually will get you better results - just like Agile.

Getting started with Liberating Structures

The Liberating Structures website has all the information you need to get started, including step-by-step instructions.  There is also an app, Liberating Structures, that has a lot of the same information, plus some easy ways to sort and search.

I’d recommend starting with two structures that can be inserted into almost any meeting:  Impromptu Networking, and 1-2-4-All.  You can use Impromptu Networking as a way of priming the upcoming discussion you want to have.  For example, if you are talking about prioritizing your team work list, you might ask, “What crucial thing are we NOT talking about?”  The question should be bold, a little ambiguous (to increase the diversity of thought), and it doesn’t hurt if it is a little playful.  Give everyone a minute to think of a response (provide paper and pens - it helps to write the answer down).  Then invite everyone to partner up with someone they don’t normally interact with, and have each take one minute to give their answer to each other.  After two minutes, have everyone find another partner and repeat, then after two minutes, have this exercise repeated with one more partner.  Encourage people to improve their answer as they go.  You could debrief by asking, “What did you hear that surprised you?” Or, “What did you hear that must be shared?”

To follow-up on this discussion (or to generate discussion on any topic), you could use 1-2-4-All.  Again, start with a juicy invitation.  You can perfect the invitation by riffing on it with a few colleagues. You might try something like, “What MUST be at the top of our backlog to reach our goal?”  Start with one minute of silent writing.  Taking this minute is important for introverts so that they can gather their thoughts, and important for extroverts so they can think before talking.  After one minute, break into groups of two, and share your ideas for two minutes.  You can clarify and improve your idea, concentrate on one of the two, or come up with something new.  If your team is small, at this point you could share ideas in a group.  In a larger gathering, have groups of two form groups of four, and take four minutes to discuss each idea.  Debrief by asking, “Who has an idea that the whole room needs to hear?”  Go from group to group and write up what you hear (you don’t need a full report from each group - capture what is important or different that should be shared).  You might end by asking, “Who else has an idea that we should hear?” to capture a disenfranchised voice.


Liberating Structures are a great way for teams to find their voice.  Liberating Structures make this happen by asking us to think creatively about the kinds of invitations we are making, and by subverting the normal power dynamics in a meeting.  Better questions generate better answers.  Unexpected questions can generate unexpected results.  Sharing power not only unlocks more of what your team knows, but signals to them that they are heard, seen and respected.  Liberating Structures are a great set of tools to develop engagement and buy-in on your team, and to generate better results.  I encourage you to give them a try.

About the Author

Greg Myers’ background includes software development, product and engineering management, workshop / training design & facilitation, and leadership and team coaching.  He loves connecting what we know about how to deliver software with what we are learning about how teams work. Myers has spoken about Liberating Structures at national, regional, local and in-house workshops and conferences.  Currently wrestling with Blender & 3D printing, Myers is also an avid potter, taiji enthusiast and a student of improv and mindfulness. You can find Greg Myers at Speaker page and on Linkedin

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