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Liberating Structures @CapitalOne



Greg Myers talks about Liberating Structures - a set of facilitation frameworks that enable shared ownership and inclusion. At Capital One they have found Liberating Structures to be a great fit with Agile approaches - bringing energy and life into sessions, workshops, offsites and in leadership coaching. He shares practical applications of Liberating Structures that we can use in our workplace.


Greg Myers is an Agile Coach at CapitalOne. His background includes software development, product and engineering management, workshop / training design & facilitation, and leadership and team coaching.

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Myers: I would like you to take a moment before we get on to more content to grab a pen. You should have gotten three cards. If you didn't, we can get you a card. You don't have to write on these cards, there's nothing special about them. I wanted to make sure you had something to write on. What I want you to do is I want you to think about on a worthy, but elusive goal. I probably should say, you should be willing to share this with somebody.

What I'd like you to do now is stand up and find somebody close to you or not, it doesn't really matter, but stand up and spend a minute each talking about what this goal is. What I'd like you to do is tell the goal to the other person for about a minute. Then come back and let the other person talk about the goal for about a minute. I am encouraging you to stand up even if you're close.

What Is a Worthy-but-Elusive Goal?

I want to notice that when I walked in, when I first started this, we're a pretty somber group, the energy was resting energy perhaps. A lot of people on their phones, a lot of people sort of sitting by themselves. What happened when you started talking? What did you notice? What happened to your energy?

Participant 1: It increased.

Myers: It increased. One of the things I love about liberating structures is that kind of warm, happy buzz. I was hearing people laugh, I was hearing people talk. You're bringing up the energy in the room in a powerful way. Now, the way this would work, if we were taking more time - I'm going to be running through a lot of liberating structures and kind of doing them in compressed mode - is we'd actually take a couple of more turns, we do it another two times. Something that I find that's really interesting about doing this is that you tend to improve your story. The second time you tell it, the third time you tell it, That it gets better, it gets more focused, you might even realize new things.

If we had all been in the same organization, we've just started talking about a worthy but elusive goal. If we were, for example, doing some sort of planning meeting or doing some sort of coming together for goal setting or something like that, we've primed the group in a powerful way and in a very positive way to start thinking about what we might be working on. Bring up the energy in the room, bring people together.

How many people feel like maybe you have some friends in the room in a way that you didn't before you started talking? Anybody feel like a little more connected? This is also something that's really powerful about liberating structures, it gets you out of your head, onto your feet and face to face with people, which by the way, the folks who do the emotional and social intelligence research tells you is what it takes to make a connection. You've got to put your phone away, you've got to look somebody in the eye, you've got to have some back and forth. That starts sending the information that you need so that people can know you and trust me. One of my favorite Capital One stories, it's really short, was I was doing a workshop and we were doing something similar to this. At the end of the workshop, one of the tech directors came up to me and said, I'm going to have to answer X emails after this. I said, "Why?" He says "I know him now and I can't ignore him." Fabulous result, that's the kind of thing that liberating structures will do.

How many of you have done liberating structures before? Just a couple. Well, I wouldn't be surprised if some of you have done stealth liberating structures because I often will do liberating structures without telling anybody. I don't bother to explain it, I just do it. You may find some that you recognize. I don't know how successful we could do with this part of the debrief but I have a question for you. What was liberated by what we just did?

Participant 2: Being shy.

Myers: Yes, being shy. What else?

Participant 3: The hierarchy of the social communication structure that says we all should listen to you.

Myers: Yes, I love that. Suddenly you all were in charge of the meeting, you were having your own meeting. What else was liberated? You had permission to talk to somebody that you probably would not have talked to otherwise. You probably would have gone out of here without talking to with that person. Especially if you'd gone three more. Oftentimes there's an instruction that says, find somebody you don't know. It's a great way of breaking down the barrier where people don't feel like they have permission to talk to each other. What's structured about it? Notice that this was not just do what you want for the next two minutes. What was structured about this?

Participant 4: The time.

Myers: Yes, the time. What else?

Participant 5: The topic.

Myers: The topic, right.

Participant 6: The task that you wanted us to do.

Myers: Yes, there was a specific task. There was time to do it in and there was pretty clear instructions about how you were to go about it. The interesting thing about liberating structures is it is both liberating and structured. It's a cool thing.


I want to talk a little bit about engagement. Few meetings have it, I guess that would be a fair thing to say. Most folks struggle with it. The research that I've read suggests that more than 60% of employees are not engaged at work. Sometimes the number goes higher depending on what you're talking about, 67% of managers think that meetings are a waste of time. The number for tech managers is nearing 70% of people, the tech managers thinks that meetings actually get in the way of them doing their work and thinking deeply. Meetings are often not so good. It also reflects some really interesting assumptions about power, and about how we learn. One of the things that's interesting about how we learn is that we typically need to engage in something and work at it to really understand or to begin to learn something.

One of the reasons that I ask you to write down your worthy but elusive goal is because once you start putting pen to paper, and literally feeling the friction and thinking about it and writing it down, if you're an introvert, you're getting your ideas organized so that you can have something to say. If you're an extrovert, you're being forced to pause before you speak, because extroverts typically learn what they have on their mind by talking about it. Whereas an introvert typically need some time to sort of organize their thoughts and think about it. This is actually a good way to increase inclusion in your group, and having more focus in your group.

One of the things that comes out of that is a lot more engagement because the meeting has been changed and so that we've also are playing around with the notion of power. One of the assumptions - this is going to be a subversive thing that I shouldn't say at a conference - but the assumption here is notice that I'm at a podium, I'm up high, you're all sitting in your chairs. There's an implicit, I know something that you don't know and I'm going to pour my knowledge into you, and after you leave, you're going to be better off. That's the implicit assumption of the way we've organized ourselves.

Strangely enough, if it were up to me this is not how we would be organized. We'd probably be sitting in a big circle facing each other, it would be much less hierarchical, and much more interactive. Because it matches the idea that especially as knowledge workers our problem is not primarily one of needing more hierarchical power. We really need to be unleashed to do our jobs, or at least this is one of my assumptions in the technology field. We are smart, we're capable of solving problems. We really need, when possible, to be let loose to do that. Something I also believe, and the research bears out is that we do a lot better when we can interact with each other, when we can learn from each other. When we can be in a place of psychological safety. We'll talk a little bit more about that in a minute.

Why Is It Hard to Make Progress?

I want to move to back to your pen and paper. I want you to think about the question, why is it hard to make progress in relation to your goal? Now you're thinking about your worthy but elusive goal. I want you to think for a minute about why it's hard to make progress. Now, we're going to do something in groups of three in a minute, as you might have guessed from the Troika consulting. Keep that in mind as we take a minute.

Why is it hard to make progress on your worthy but elusive goal? Writing it down is actually an important part of the process. Even better than typing, because of the fact that you physically interact with the paper and the pen. There's something about that, that interaction. Sometimes we think that we're rational creatures, we live in our mind. Science is telling us that we are physical creatures, sometimes capable of rational thought, though usually that rational thought just justifies whatever we've decided to do anyway. This is a part of the thinking process. You're essentially externalizing your brain, you think in a different way when you do this.

What I'd like you to do now is find two other people. Troika Consulting is a group consulting process. We're going to compress this, we're going to just practice one of them but this is the way it works. There are three people, and we're going to talk, would the two of you mind? Are you comfortable standing in front of people? Sean and Heidi, what's going to happen is we're going to talk about a problem.

Why is it hard to make progress on my important but elusive goal? I'm going to explain the process for about a minute. Then you're going to ask me clarifying questions for a moment until you feel like you understand. Then I'm going to turn around, and if I have a hard time listening to them, I'm actually going to put my hands like this. Sometimes people think that makes you look silly, but here I'm doing it. You're not going to look more silly than me, Here I am, I'm listening. Any idea why I'm turned away from them?

I don't talk, which is a very likely thing. They can't see my reaction when I go, "That was stupid." They're going to have a conversation between the two of them about my problem. I'm just going to listen. Then when I'm done, I'm going to turn around and go, "Thank you. Really appreciate it." That's the end of it. You're not going to track them down in the hall and say, "One more thing," Just forget about it. Do you understand what I'm asking you to do? Find three people.

Now we're only going to go through that again, only going to go through this once because of time. The person who has a burning question or the only one who was foolish enough to write it down can be the one who can be the client. The other two people are the consultants. You're going to take a minute to explain the problem, two minutes to ask any clarifying questions. Then I'll give you about three or four minutes to have the conversation while the client turns their back. Let's do it. Stand up is the best way to do it.

What was that like? Anybody get any good advice? Any interesting ways of pursuing? First of all, if you didn't say thank you, say thank you and then let it go. Don't pursue each other down the hall. Just let it drift away. You think I'm joking about that. I will also just encourage you not to say anything that you wouldn't be willing to share. Again, it would be my preference that maybe this just wouldn't leave the room. I'm not that we did did this. They say that, but whatever you talked about, it's just gone.

Now, imagine that this were a planning meeting. We've now just surfaced perhaps some of the biggest problems in the company. I would suggest that maybe many of them are those sorts of white elephants or things that we must not talk about, or those really thorny problems that don't normally get surfaced in a planning meeting because the agenda is fairly controlled, and people are, know what we need to talk about, this would get too. You can see that this is conceivably a pretty subversive way to go about having a meeting, because I didn't give you any instructions about what you can't talk about.

Now, depending on the amount of safety in the building, I know that there are some things that you may know not to talk about, but there's always one or two people who are foolish enough to bring up the real issues. Anything else you want to say about Troika consulting in terms of that experience before we move on?

Participant 7: There's an aspect where the consultants were disconnecting from the problem so we can say things and think things that he might find difficult.

Myers: You're saying that the consultants were disconnected from the problem so that they could say things that maybe somebody else or the client couldn't say or think. You've seen 2 of 33 of official liberating structures, and then there's another 10 or 15 or so in development. Then there are other things to do. There's actually quite a large repertoire for almost any challenge you're facing in terms of liberating structures.


I'm going to talk a little bit about the structure of a liberating structure. I'm going to try to tell you a little bit about what's going on behind the scenes and lift up the hood. I'll try to go relatively quickly about this.

I will say that when I looked at the room plan, I didn't really see a way of doing what I wanted to do, which is something called shift and share. The way shift and share would have worked is, I would have had a person who could have given a story about each one of the five design elements I'm about to talk about, and you would move as a group from element to element. You'd listen to a very short overview and then ask questions. It's a great way of processing information.

I'll tell you a fun story and I was facilitating a tech leadership meeting. We had a group of about 30 leaders of a tech organization, and we set up a shift and share around the release process. We went through, there was about five steps in the release process. We had somebody, a subject matter expert at each station talking about that. They talked for about five minutes, and then they answered questions, and then the people moved on. What ended up happening is that the leadership's minds were blown because all the leaders knew about one of those stations because they would be leaders in that area. By meeting people that were actually doing the work in the whole process, and being able to see it end from end and asking questions, they formed relationships, they understood things in another direction. It really changed the way the organization interacted with each other because they couldn't have other or blame or claim that they didn't understand or not think about upstream and downstream impacts because they experienced the process in a whole new way.

This could have been done as a series of PowerPoint presentations. I'm sure you've been part of those. Typically, in those kind of situations, the research says that we retain about 20% of what we hear in those situations after 3 days. When you do something face to face, and you ask questions, you remember the information, you make relationships, and it has a profound effect. You can use the liberating structures to even do something like teach people about the various parts of a technical organization.

What I wanted to say here is that the most common invitation in a meeting is "Listen to me." That's really the implicit invitation of this meeting. You're expected to listen, I'm expected to talk. The next most common invitation is tell me what I want to hear, which is otherwise known as a status meeting, sometimes a stand up, where we're not actually asking for honest feedback where we understand the answer that is being given.

I recently was surprised to hear a project manager saying, "One of my challenges is that I know that I have to bring a solution to every problem that I bring." I suppose that's nice in some ways. If that's the expected way that you communicate, it really limits the options and it limits the searching for information. The question that you end up having to ask is, is it safe for me to state my opinion? Do I care? Am I engaged? I remember one of my first Agile adoptions, I went into a team meeting and the BAs who were soon to be fired, that's the business analysts, had their arms crossed. The chair was leaned back, they had their legs crossed. People were talking about trying to do some story maturation. The business analysts knew the answers, they were saying nothing. They were so angry about the way they had been treated and the fact that they knew that their role was soon to be eliminated, that they had completely checked out.

This is oftentimes the kind of problems that you have in meetings where people because everybody understands the invitation that they've received, they don't feel like it's safe for them to talk or they don't care enough to talk. The invitation is actually a part of every meeting. It's either implicit or explicit. I studied religion for a while and my mentor said something that stuck with me, "Everybody has a theology. Some people just haven't thought it through." In the same way, every meeting has an invitation. Sometimes we don't think about the invitation that we're offering. In liberating structures, we think a lot about the invitation. For example, what is a worthy but elusive goal? Maybe a little whimsical, maybe a little ambiguous, hopefully a little juicy. That's an invitation, that encourages you to think about something, and give me a response back.

The other part that's important is, oftentimes, we're in a meeting and we think it doesn't matter what we talk about, what we say, what the outcome is. Why does it matter what our goal is? We'll never see the goal again. You have all these problems going on with meetings.

How Space Is Arranged

The second part is how space is arranged. I want to go back to this fact that we are not brains in a box, we are fully corporal people. We live in our body and furthermore, we live in our space. I don't know whether you've been reading the research recently that has shown that we have different thoughts and we have different emotions, if we're walking in nature, as opposed to walking down a city street, that our physical environment actually impacts us quite a bit.

Have you ever had the experience of walking into a meeting room and realizing, wow, there's a lot of tension here, somebody who just had an argument? Maybe nobody's actually arguing anymore but you can just feel the tension. That's not some sort of woo intuition. By woo, sorry, I'm betraying the fact that I'm not a theist. What I'm trying to say is that we have delicately honed exquisite mechanisms for knowing what's going on with our tribe, with other people, with the folks that we are interacting with. We have great neurobiological mechanisms for understanding what's going on that we cannot ignore, because they actually bypass our prefrontal cortex.

We can't turn them on and off. We have hard wired connections into our limbic system. You know things about me that I don't want you to know, and you don't admit to it, but we just can't help it. We just, on some level, know what's going on with one another, because that's how we evolved to be. You can ignore that and say, "That's not true. Just man up and be a professional" - I use that man up on purpose - that we can do that. We're just kidding ourselves. It's like a boat where everywhere you go, there's a bow wave, and everywhere you go, there's a wake. We just cannot help it.

How the space is arranged communicates a lot about what's going on in this situation. Using this space, this communicates that I know something that you don't, and that I'm important and you're not. That's how the space is arranged. When you were sitting up, standing next to each other in a group of three, that was quite a different communication, wasn't it? There was a communication of equality. There was a communication of respect. Everybody had the right to talk and to listen, nobody's opinion was privileged over anybody else's. If that wasn't your experience, I'm sorry. That's what the liberating structures supposed to create. It does that quite purposely, by the way it arranges space.

That's why I was encouraging people to get out of your chairs. In your chairs, you end up screwed around in your bodies and it changes the dynamics but when you can stand up and be in that kind of equilateral triangle and face each other, it communicates something at a deep level about what this meeting is about. It communicates this desire to be heard, seen, and respected. Some powerful stuff is going on. The body brain connection is profound. The signals, reinforces, and enables and prohibits activity. Just like the invitation, every meeting has a space arrangement. It communicates something, whether you thought about it or not. In liberating structures, you're encouraged to think about it.

How Participation Is Distributed

How participation is distributed. Here’s one of my favorite retrospective stories. I sometimes do this anonymous retrospective where I ask people to write down, I like it when blank, I don't like it when blank. What happens is without talking people come in, and there's these two piles of paper and they just fill out as many sheets as they want, if I like it when, I don't like it when. Then we process through them, and I like to create a kind of a little bit of an emotional bank account, a little positivity, "What do we like about this going on?" In this particular meeting, there were three employees who are longtime employees of the company. I mentioned that they're white males because I think it’s germane to the story. Then there were four contractors short term and they were from the subcontinent of India.

There were four anonymous comments that said, I don't like it when I'm not listened to. I made the point, I said, "This is an interesting set of comments that I noticed there are four of them" while looking at the folks from India. One of the gentlemans from the full-time employee gentleman said, "We don't have a problem with communication on our team." I almost didn't know what to say. It was a very interesting conversation. Oftentimes, as an older white man, I think everything's fine because the whole world, at least my world is pretty much made for me. It's very easy for me to make all of these assumptions, but the way we distribute participation is often extremely limited.

I remember a tech director telling me one day, "This was the best conversation of something that I'd facilitated. This was the best conversation I've ever had as long as I worked here." Now, I should have felt good about that. What actually was happening is that 2 people who went out drinking quite a lot after work together, had a conversation about something that they thought was important and not important to the other 12 people in the room who basically just sat around and twiddle their thumbs until these two people who are high status individuals finished. It's like, these two people had a great conversation. The other 12 people had a miserable conversation. They thought that was successful but that's how the participation was arranged. I did not view that as a successful retrospective.

Who deserves to take part? What does it mean to invite participation? What's the difference between being tolerated and belonging? One of the things that I like about Capital One is their focus on diversity and inclusion. One of the things that I was really struck by in the video was this comment that we don't want to be tolerated, we want to belong. It's very easy oftentimes for a certain subgroup, the people in power, the people who are the dominant group for them to feel like they belong, but it's very difficult or much more challenging to make sure that everybody can participate and feel like they're not just tolerated, but actually, that they belong. One of the things that I love about liberating structures is, it gives thought to how participation is distributed.

Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation

Then how groups are configured. This is another important part here, who is in and who is out? How do we know? What's made possible through FaceTime and one on one interaction? I've already touched a lot of these issues in other stories that I've told, but this is another thing that the liberating structures really think about.

Then the sequence of steps and the time allocation, how you allocate activities and time has a profound impact on what happens. One of the challenges that I've had in this group is I want to explain microstructures, but it means that I'm talking to you for a long time. What I'd like you to do is experience more liberating structures, this is a push and pull that I have in this meeting.

There was a film, I think it was "Robin Hood," it was animated, it was Disney, and there were a couple of robbers and they were dividing up the loot. One robber who's dividing up the loot goes, "One for you and two for me. Two for me and none for you. All for me and all for me." That's what I remember of the dialogue. This is often what happens in meetings. In terms of sequence of steps and allocations, it's our meeting, we have all sorts of exciting things to do, so we have a tendency to bring more and more of what happens to the thing that benefits me rather than ask the question, "What do we need to learn as a group or what do we need to do as a group?"

One of the underlying assumptions behind liberating structures is that actually, I don't know all that much more than you do. It pains me to say that. A lot of this stuff you can figure out, if we set up some discussions that we could invent a lot of this information on our own, and especially when it comes to a lot of the technical subjects and the goal setting and the different things that you're wanting to go, there's not so much difference between somebody who's a leader and a team member.

I'm constantly impressed by how much we as a group know. The other thing that I'm constantly impressed is how much strength there is in diversity. For example, even though I really like the whole no estimates sort of movement, one of the things that I like about doing poker pointing or pointing poker is that, to me, it's a diversity exercise. If somebody thinks a story is a three and somebody else thinks it's an eight, it means that they have a difference of opinion.

It's not important to me what the answer is. What's important is the discussion that happens as a result of that. If you have a no estimate situation, but you still have some way of having the discussion about what it's going to take to finish the story, then that's still valuable. The liberating structure practice that I've been through has given me more and more reason to believe that exploring the diverse way the people see the world is really a lot of the value. I had a conversation in open space just the session before last where a gentleman suggested that they were primarily motivated to make change because they wanted to be promoted and earn more money. I was explaining that in my stage of life, older perhaps than some of you, my children have left the house and I'm primarily interested in what is my legacy. I don't need to earn quite as much money, though I like it, I've become addicted to the stuff, but I'm really interested in what are people going to say in my eulogy, not what am I going to put on my resume. My focus is changing.

Then I looked at him and I realized that when I was his age, I probably had a very similar orientation. That it's ok to have different opinions. It's not necessarily fair to think that just because I think something then that's the right thing to think. That attitude is something that liberating structures constantly surprises me about, it constantly brings up people, a diversity of thought and a richness of opinion and a perspective on things that if you let people actually go for it is quite astonishing. That's one of the other things I really like about it.

15% Solution

What's one thing you could do now, totally within your control, that would get you closer to your goal? This is called 15% solution. This is a liberating structure that you often can use in a situation where you have talked about a lot of things and you want to move to the action, you want them to have people leave with something concrete they can do. The invitation here is, what is it that you can do to just move 15%? Because oftentimes people feel a little dismayed at the thought that they can't solve a problem or that the problem is too big for them. Oftentimes, you could make just an incremental improvement, just 15%. You do that a few times and actually, you move the dial pretty noticeably.

What I want to do here is a quick exercise and will just normally would be a one, two, four, all but they'll just be a one, two. Oftentimes, we had a situation where we had a new leader, had about 60 people in the room. They gave their inspirational talk, we actually did it in a liberating structures way, so it was cooler than just the usual talk. Anyway, then at the end of it, anybody have any questions? Kind of similar energy as there is today, there was one question.

Then we did a one, two, four, all, which is the exercise we're about to do. I don't know what will happen as a result. What we discovered in that situation was that we went from having no questions to running out of time for questions. It was just so many good questions, we had to write them down and answer them later. What I'd like you to do is take your pen and pencil again, and write down a question. For example, my invitation might be something like, what do you need to know in order to try liberating structures back at your office? What do you need to know in order to actually try liberating structures back in your office?

Take a minute and write that down. What do you need to know in order to do liberating structures? You can be brutal if you want to, it's ok. What do you need to know? Now, what I'd like you to do is find somebody that you haven't talked to yet, and I want you to read the question. The other person who's listening to the question, how does that resonate with you? What questions do you have? What are you curious about? If you don't want to be negative, you could just say, "I'm curious about this," or, "This is what resonated with me about the question." Then that gives you an opportunity to improve your question. Then flip it over the other way and see if you can improve their question or identify the question of the two, the questions that you think really ought to be asked. Find somebody that you don't normally talk to, we'll spend a couple minutes improving the question.

Normally, what we would do next is we would get into groups of four, and come up with the best question of the group. Another interesting encouragement during this would be to say, what question must be asked? You don't necessarily have to have every question come up. Something that you could do is collect these questions at the end and offer to get back to them offline. It's like, not every question is a fabulous question but maybe you heard a really good question. In fact, what I wonder is - my invitation is not the person who wrote the question but a person who heard a question - who heard a really great question? What did you hear?

Participant 8: What are some practical steps I could take to begin using liberating structures?

Myers: Great. Who else had a great question

Participant 9: How can I know that it's working?

Myers: How can you know that it was working? What have you got?

Participant 10: In a large organization, the person who I was talking to, or Capital One, how do you get started?

Myers: I'm aware that I'm running out of time. These are fabulous questions. I'm sure there are other fabulous questions. One of the wins, speaking of the metric, one of the things I want to notice is that when I answer questions before we did this exercise, we got a question and then a lot of down energy. Now, we had three people raise their hands and answer to what question must be answered, and I know that we've other great questions here.

There's a website called that has a description of every liberating structure, how to get started, worksheets, the email address of the two founders who will be happy to consult with you. They're really fabulous people. There is an app, Liberating Structures, you can download that app. It'll guide you through it. It even has a selection process tell you what to do. There's something on the liberating structures site called Matchmaker, which helps you figure out which liberating structure to use.

Then there's me, there's my email address, feel free to reach out to me, and I'll be happy to help you get started. In terms of metrics, I have to say that honestly, the thing I love about liberating structures is the warm, great energy, people are more engaged. There's always going to be haters. In general, you can just ask people, my experience is that people like using liberating structures, but one of my favorite responses was, "We're worn out. Can we have a regular meeting next time?" Which I think is an endorsement in and of itself.


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Recorded at:

Sep 03, 2019