Multiple facets of Liberating Structures: interview snippets with Anna Jackson

In preparation for the upcoming Liberating Structures festival, we (organisers) have been interviewing each other to hear each other’s impressions on what Liberating structures mean to us, the groups around us etc.

I had the privilege of interviewing Alpinista Consulting delightful diva Anna Jackson  and we brushed over a number of topics. Find four small interviews covering:

  1. Getting started (and changed with Liberating Structures [LS])
  2. How vital it is to work with other people using LS
  3. Overcoming resistance to LS (and other seriously playful approaches, arguably)
  4. Changing our approach to LS over time, how our focus may change to specific elements

Better still: come meet Anna (and Fisher, Nadia and myself) at the LS festival 7-9 October in The Hague, The Netherlands (register here)!

Here for the interviews:

See more interviews from our team (and more to come still) – Nadia interviews Fisher:

Find out more about the Liberating Structures Festival:

Register for the Liberating Structures Festival:


Troika consulting – I help you, you help me, everyone helps everyone else, now and forever…

All evidence points in the same direction: the best way to be happy in life is to be a little less concerned with oneself and to be a little more caring about others.

This is one of the many touches of magical light of the Liberating Structure ‘Troika Consulting’.

What is Troika Consulting?

Troika Consulting is a simple ‘peer support’ participation format. Set up in triads (or ‘troikas’, ie. groups of 3), everyone gets to get some free support (‘consulting’) on an issue they’re facing. And the support givers become the support receiver in one of the three rounds of consulting.

How does it work?

As explained on the above-mentioned page, here are the -very simple- steps to it:

  • Invite participants to reflect on the consulting question (the challenge and the help needed) they plan to ask when they are the clients. 1 min.
  • Groups have first client share his or her question. 1-2 min.
  • Consultants ask the client clarifying questions. 1-2 min.
  • Client turns around with his or her back facing the consultants
  • Together, the consultants generate ideas, suggestions, coaching advice. 4-5 min.
  • Client turns around and shares what was most valuable about the experience. 1-2 min.
  • Groups switch to next person and repeat steps.
Troika Consulting in practice (Credits: The Liberators)

Troika Consulting in practice (Credits: The Liberators)

Find out more about it here.

What’s the magic behind it?

I find formats such as Troika Consulting an incredibly powerful mechanism for different reasons:

Much like a ‘peer assist’, not only the person being helped (the ‘assistee’) gets valuable advice, but others get help too in the process since the tips come out openly.

The brevity of the different steps, and in this case of disclosing the ‘case’ or ‘issue’ forces the assistee to formulate their question or request for support more clearly and crisply. It also helps them ask for help (it’s not easy).

Unlike a peer assist, Troika ends up being much more of a conversation between the two helpers, and that opens up more ‘informal’ insights that people might shy away from in a more formal and open format.

Because everyone turns to helping others and being helped, it creates a reciprocity bond that really builds up relationships without emphasising it. And that, to me, is really one of killer features of Troika Consulting. It’s the power of hot and fuzzy disguised as (nearly) evidence-based, objective support. So much for the human connection skeptics 😉

Because of the structure and forced ‘silence’ for the assistee, Troika also  stimulates our ability to listen carefully – something that we can never emphasise and practice enough 😉

By the same token, it also removes the defensiveness that the assistee would probably display otherwise. This absence of defensive reactions stands for suspending judgment and it encourages the two consultants to be more genuine, to keep going deeper in their conversation and to generate insights that can potentially lead to real breakthroughs that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

And because this Troika happens without any external support, it actually stimulates any group using it to build their capacity to self-organise and, for all the good reasons mentioned above, to keep doing so in ever stronger and deeper ways.

I have used Troika Consulting many times now and have always been surprised at how powerful that little technique is both at helping, gelling, surprising, energising, challenging people with one another. And the applications are nearly limitless… how about some Troika Consulting in your next class / book review / sports team game / friends’ get-together / holiday planning / family gathering ;)?

If you don’t know where to start with it, let me know and I’ll be happy to help!


LS Festival (image credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Troika Consulting will be one of the Structures that we will be exploring during the upcoming ‘Liberating Structures Festival‘ (7-11 October, The Hague, The Netherlands)…



Some introspection about what ‘Liberating Structures’ are to me, and a little more…

As we are getting prepared for the October Liberating Structures Festival, more people are wondering if they should come over, unsure as to what Liberating Structures (LS) are, what they might do for them etc.

So among organisers (us five here in the picture) we also decided to reflect on what LS mean, meant, might mean for us in the future. It is likely that all of us go through this introspective exercise sooner or later, hereby just my very own go at it,  in the spirit of sharing  our  inner  reflections…

What are Liberating Structures to you?

What are Liberating Structures? There’s different lenses I use to look at them.

The whole of what I’m going to say, combined, amounts to a strange artefact that seems to have a lot of power and yet I haven’t figured out most of what that power entails.

On one level, it’s a celebration of paradox and ambiguity, the idea of confusiasm (enthusiasm with confusion/being as happily confused as you can get, because that means you’re out of your square box) and embracing a lot of subtle elements of complexity (strange attractors, gradual then radical shifts in state/us etc.) and never just accepting to settle for the obvious, because the reality always displays more nuanced shades of grey (and colour).

On another level, it’s a structured approach to system change, and not only that but actually a very simple approach to it, in the sense that anyone can just ‘plug and play’ with LS without e.g. having 20 years of facilitation practice. On another level, it’s a very well thought-through set of facilitation and participation methods that enrich any facilitator’s practice, and offers them a depth of options and a strong invitation to stretch and adapt these very structures. I think the combination of all of the above is also what makes Liberating Structures a movement that is shaking small networks and large corporations in novel ways, adding spice and irreverence in the most unexpected ways. ‘LS inside’ is a near-guarantee of a fun and disruptive ride (and for a sharper focus and meaningful change though, not just for the sake of disrupting).

Can you share a short story of a time when you recently used them and something interesting happened? Why was that an important experience for you?

I mostly haven’t used LS in a strict/pure way as in the only reference and background to my facilitation practice in a given event, but I’ve meshed it in countless times, in fact nearly every time I facilitate I use at least one structure here or there and typically about 2-3 per day. Most recently I worked with a collective focusing on a complex development program in 10 countries and with 5 core partners and many alliances. They came together for their ‘country leads week’ whereby they invited the country coordinators to come and reflect on their work and make sure they don’t miss key opportunities going forward.

In the process design I ended peppering the agenda with a number of Structures. There was one particular session where the ‘owner’ was very ill-prepared and getting slightly anxious about getting it right. We discussed various options and I realised that there was a key issue preventing her team and the whole group from moving forward on this particular aspect (policy engagement) because of the relationships between global, regional and national teams.

After some conversation and exploration, we decided together to throw plans away and she accepted to give a try to ‘What I Need From You’. Something as simple as expressing what you need from others had just never been part of their conversation front and center. The session was in some way cathartic and the seed of a crucial change for the entire programme in cultivating relations, all the more so as they were getting focused on ‘Southern-led management/leadership’ for the next phase of the programme. 

What was interesting and important for me was how a step away from ‘what we have to do’ towards ‘who is in the room and what do they need from each other to develop a stronger ecosystem’ was both simple, complex, liberating, structured, and a peek into what is possible by stepping outside our routines. And it was all made possible with relatively little process ‘scaffolding’ (instructions etc.). It epitomises the power that comes with using these structures, sometimes out of necessity.

Using LS to explore our relationships and all these other things that matter beyond our immediate mission

Using LS to explore our relationships and all these other things that matter beyond our immediate mission

What’s an idea that’s been obliquely haunting you for a while? Something that seems just out of reach, elusive, or difficult to describe. Now’s your chance!

A couple of things come to mind in relation with Liberating Structures: power and difficult conversations, and sustainable outcomes. 

On power and difficult conversations, I’m still trying to understand how LS is really attempting at cracking down these informal power structures when so much remains under the surface – and the other part of that conversation with myself is in relation with the fact that many structures are relying heavily on sense-making in smaller units/groups, away from plenary moments, though the latter are still very important to ensure everyone is contributing to the same conversation. How to marry the luxury of smaller conversations and the necessity of consensual plenary moments remains a key point for attention. 

The other aspect is around sustainable outcomes and what happens to decisions and commitments made during any process that included LS. 15% solutions is an attempt at that, and I love it, but the question of how our energy remains sustained, how much we follow through with commitments we make in the space of a gathering (be it virtual or physical), how sure we are that what we have decided is understood, agreed upon and implemented, remains also a point of attention that is crucial in the way we conceive of collaboration and systemic change. How can we stretch existing Structures? How can we come up with new ones and enrich the DNA/structure of the Structures to have the opportunity to really encapsulate that dimension? 

This might just be one of the things we end up doing on our coddiwompling day at the Liberating Structures Festival.

Find out more about the LS festival in The Hague (7-11 October)

Get your tickets for it!

LS Festival (image credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Waltzing with the complexity of collaboration in three simple dances – a Liberating Structures festival…

The beauty of complexity is the choices that it gives you. Not like in the simple or complicated domain where there is a best or good practice to follow – or a simple set thereof.

If none of the above paragraph makes sense, I’m referring to the Cynefin Framework – of which I just stumbled upon a fabulous ‘dummy’ version.

Cynefin framework for dummies (image credit: Ron Donaldson)

No, when it comes to complex stuff, it’s actually a good thing to have various entry points. As we do in life.

And that’s what an upcoming Liberating Structures festival is aiming to do:  offer three entry points (or three different types of dancing with our realities) to unlock some simple ways to embrace collaboration between people in all its complexity – especially in all sectors that have a social purpose (ie. health, education, development etc.).

Liberating Structures reveal their layers, and help us unravel our consciousness (Credits: Soren Lauritzen)

Liberating Structures reveal their layers, and help us unravel our consciousness (Credits: Soren Lauritzen)

The simplest entry point is to go through an immersion workshop, along the lines of the ‘social’ immersion workshop that took place in December 2018. This is a great way to get familiar with the deceptive simplicity and subtle power of Liberating Structures (LS). That first part of the festival will essentially cover the ‘what are Liberating Structures?’ Liberating Structures are one of these funny constructs that bring a lot of things together – I’m still wondering what it is and will soon talk more about that in an interview.

A second entry point is to further deepen our understanding of how LS work, and particularly how they can work in our specific contexts, with the idiosyncratic challenges that come with those. This ‘Beyond the familiar’ clinic will really look at the technicalities of LS, the ‘how to get it to work better (for you)’.

A final entry point will be a creative practice jam that will aim at going all the way down to the DNA of Liberating Structures to understand how they work and how they could work differently, better etc. Essentially a LIVE lab of LS that could lead to a load of silly ideas, and some genuine gems for the next generation of collaborators. With a few steps back, it really looks critically at ‘why LS?’

Whatever ticket we follow, whatever pathway we end up with, all have a few things in common: the complexity-driven and -oriented DNA of Liberating Structures, their capacity to examine complex issues with systemic change in mind, the micro-structures that bind them all (see picture below), and their simplicity and elegance in helping everyone, absolutely everyone, question and augment their process and collaboration literacy.

The micro-elements of Liberating Structures (Credits: Full Circle)

The micro-elements of Liberating Structures (Credits: Full Circle)

And to me, this is one of the most precious aspects of Liberating Structures: they are one of the safest, easiest, least threatening and yet potentially most powerful ways of bringing important questions to the fore.

So pick up the train and join us on the Festival 🙂

LS Festival (image credits: Nadia von Holzen)

More information about the LS festival here:

Related stories:


Connecting gender and facilitation – why, when, how?

Next to my collaboration and facilitation practice I also work a lot on gender issues as part of the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research hosted by KIT Royal Tropical Institute (my half-time employer thus).

Working in the gender domain has been a wonderful experience so far. The scientists I’m working with are all experts of social inclusion – so they have a natural sensitivity for the unheard/unseen/unrespected (be it women, youths or others). And they are also natural listeners. In other words, they have been a great community to reflect on fertile grounds for better collaborative practices.

This leads me to today’s post: how can one combine facilitation with a bit of a gender lens?

BMGF empowerment framework (detail)

BMGF empowerment framework (detail)

And if I were to use a mini ‘gender framework’, as it were, to this issue, I would emphasise issues of ‘voice and choice’, ‘resources and structures’ centered around ‘agency’ (with elements of decision making, collective action and leadership) all borrowed from the empowerment framework from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Voice here is how women and men are taken into account in conversations and are visible, respected and put to an equal pedestal. Choice would be how men and women have access to ‘engagement’ resources and are able to engage in various ways as they see fit, and as much as possible, equally.

Bearing this in mind, here are some of the ways that I’m thinking about ‘genderising’ our facilitation practices:

Gender-focused attention to process design

Are you planning interactions that allow both men and women and just all participants to express themselves and co-create their future? (photo credit: European Institute for Gender Equality)

These are all the key opportunities you have ahead of people’s interactions to ensure that your process is as equitable as possible. And there are many many opportunities here…

  • Voice: Ensure there is as much as possible a gender/equity-balanced group of participants. How can you encourage more diversity in the group? Who is not there that should be? How clear are the organisers about the value of having diverse viewpoints and experiences in the room?
  • Choice: Think about processes that engage participants in different ways and certainly in other ways than just the typically old Caucasian male-dominated formats such as keynote presentations and panel (or manel) discussions. Buzz groups, break out group conversations, escalating conversations a la 1-2-4-all are all good options.
  • Resources: What engagement artifacts, tokens and props are you making available to your participants that could actually encourage more attention to diversity and equity? If you’re using pictures, do you have an eye for the kind of visuals you’re using? I was rightly blamed for relying too much on pictures of (active) males in my presentation on giving presentations for instance.
  • Structures: What participation formats are you going to use? Are they diverse enough and encouraging diverse connections, diverse ‘ways of knowing’, diverse knowledges etc.? How is even your venue set up? Does it reinforce participation formats that particularly (old) white males feel used to and comfortable with e.g. pulpits and lecterns, U-shaped rooms, inviting the (male) sage on the stage? And talking about key decisions etc., if you’re working with a (group of) ‘person(s)-in-charge’ in designing the process, how do you ensure that they respect and honour different points of views?
  • Agency: How diverse is the set of sessions and segments of your event or process? To what extent does it allow different decision-making dynamics that, as per Community At Work‘s typology of ‘informative, consultative and collaborative meetings’? Are there going to be moments when everyone in the room (men and women, young and old, tall and short, black and white, I mean EVERYONE) will be invited to co-create a decision together?  Or will it just be a pouring of information on participants? On that note, my friend Nadia von Holzen recently quoted Johnny Moore and Viv McWaters on Twitter with much sense and inspiration:

If you go to the trouble of getting people into a room together, you need to create emotional connection. If you’re simply going to push information at them, you could do that online

Gender-focused attention to process facilitation

Now that your design is in place, are you sure that in the moment you are doing everything you can to ensure equity among all participants, including women as much as men and all people generally?

How can you encourage balanced interactions (photo credit: Gender 2 & Interventions – ALa, Galway, FETAC Theatre of the Oppressed Facilitation Skills Training)

  • Voice: The Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making emphasises a number of active listening skills that prove really essential to create
    Heard Seen Respected (image credit: Liberating Structures)

    Heard Seen Respected (image credit: Liberating Structures)

    space for people that may not be encouraged to speak: encouraging, balancing, making space for the quiet person etc. Participation formats like ‘Heard / Seen / Respected‘ can also be pulled out in order to point to the lack of attention put on some people’s voices. Sometimes simple tricks such as ‘making space for the ladies’ (in one of my last posts on ‘a daily dose of process literacy‘ is a good thing to bear in mind at all times).

  • Choice: When specific decisions are being made, are women (or other non typically dominant participants) able to effectively choose what is happening? I’m thinking about when responsibilities need to be taken about taking notes in a group (usually a woman is pointed to doing it), or chairing (usually a man suggests taking it up) etc. Is there a conscious option available for both men and women to make decisions? Or does decision-making seem one-sided?
  • Resources: Are you putting in place some elements that allow also women and others to express themselves fully and uninterruptedly? Do you use a talking stick? Do you allow people to reflect and share their individual thinking at times? Do you decide to involve other resources that are bending the potential one-sidedness of your participants’ engagement? e.g. different ways of expressing oneself through music, dance, drawing, a camera or otherwise?
  • Structures: Do you reflect on how the structure of engagement and decision-making might be playing out differently than planned, and not necessarily in a way that advantages women or other participants that are typically not dominant in the group? What can you do (together with the people in charge) about it? Can you establish checks and balances along the way?
  • Agency: Are you checking generally how different participants feel ’empowered’ to discuss, decide and act or not? Or are you just assuming it’s all going fine and that’s ok? Are you checking in and seeing what else you can do to “support everyone to do their best thinking” (the Community At Work definition of being a ‘facilitator’).

You see, there are lots of ways to think about inclusive and equal participation. Again a lot of it as at the core of the Community At Work philosophy (and of other facilitation approaches) not because of gender issues but because it’s about including everyone in interactions that aim at tackling complex issues together or (not so) ‘simply’ collaborating.

But it takes a mindset, and a conscious set of options and decisions to turn that philosophy into a practice that redresses inequity.

What are your additional ideas?

Image result for nozomi kawarazuka gender platform

I’m now thinking that it would be great to entertain a conversation with all these gender specialists who end up facilitating a fair number of events and processes themselves, and are also very often the victims of poorly designed processes as women and gender specialists (read this interview to understand more about this).

I’m sure you also have some great ideas and tips and different ‘structures’ to go about inclusion and attention to gender and other issues of equity… What are they? I want to take this to the next level…

Related stories:

I am, you are, each of us is an ‘everyday facilitator’ – let’s cultivate this together!

While co-working on a facilitation training event, one of the themes we’ve been exploring is that of the ‘everyday facilitator’.

Become a facilitator, and cultivate collaboration, empathy, and sorting out the many problems that really need solving! (Credits: don’t need to always rely on superpowers from outside to facilitate our conversations and collaborations.

We can cultivate our own facilitative abilities here, today, now!

Why isn’t it the case already? As a species we humans tend to be lazy thinkers and prefer leaving the mental heavy lifting work to outside ‘facilitators’… that is when we even know why it makes sense.

There are different starting points here, as per this very rough typology of people’s appreciation of facilitation:

  1. Level 1 (the most basic) is complete Ignorance. “What is this ‘facilitation’? What does it look like?”.
  2. Level 2 is when people have a vague idea of what facilitation is and they simply don’t want to invest in it for sometimes good, bad or confused reasons (e.g. “why do we need someone from outside to come tell us what to do?” or “we can manage time by ourselves”). Rejection.
  3. The next level up (Level 3) is Confused appreciation, ie. when people are actually ok with the idea of having facilitation in the room, but they have the wrong idea of what it is – they think it’s moderation, or time keeping (see this post for some answers about that)… It’s an improvement from the previous level, but it still doesn’t really do justice to what facilitation brings in the room…
  4. The level up from that –Level 4Commitment– is when people not only understand, and appreciate facilitation but they actually invest in it on a regular basis because they really get the point of facilitated interactions – more often than not coming from outside.
  5. A final level (Level 5) is Cultivation – when the people in charge not only want to commit towards facilitated interactions but want to ensure it facilitation skills are actively cultivated among their ranks, so that facilitated interactions and general group collaboration depend less and less on an external ‘facilitator superhero’ meant to be helping a group. Facilitators are not superheroes. Great facilitators are just there to help the group do their best thinking, and the bulk of the work.

When people see the value of this cultivation, each of us is set to become (and be recognised as) an everyday facilitator. That is when we start using skills and approaches that bring us closer to one another.

That idea is one of the deep reasons I believe in process literacy. It is also the seed that shows where we should invest our scaling efforts (empathy), rather than believing in scaling up our results.

And frankly, how on earth can we stay away from cultivating facilitative skills?

  • Are we not facing problems that are so complex that we can’t solve them on our own and need collaboration?
  • Are we not working almost continuously with teams, collectives, networks, but still don’t have the baggage to make these interactions more effective?
  • Do we really have enough resources to keep on bringing an expert ‘facilitator’ from outside without getting them to share their expertise with the rest of us?
  • How many insipid meetings, boring-as-hell symposiums, agonising conferences, confusing workshops, pretending-to-be-participatory sessions, just all-out-awful gatherings do we need to go through before we act upon these every day business place sores?
  • Do we really prefer to save a few pennies now rather than save big pounds later by investing in everyone’s capacity to work with groups effectively?

I think this is a pretty universal issue. And certainly in the socially-driven sector.

So get started on your facilitation ‘cultivation’, it’s a decision you’re not likely going to regret.

A concrete opportunity to make it happen…

And because a good piece of news never comes alone, THIS is a golden opportunity to get started with it, whether you already facilitate meetings and processes or not. Go on then, join us and be surprised at the power of simple collaboration.

As you can see in the picture below (that’s our design team for this golden opportunity), working on collaboration is not the least exhilarating of experiences 😉

Our design team (Credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Our design team (Credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Dealing with the sticky elephants in the social room, and how simple facilitation can help

Many years ago, after working initially in the corporate sector, I happily switched up to global development cooperation. I could have just as easily ended up working in other socially driven work. In any case there was something really compelling in those ‘social’ sectors, compared with the online marketing I was previously busy with.

Complexity in social work: how to deal with it?

Complexity in social work: how to deal with it?

The attraction of the ‘social’ sector related to two things in my mind: a) socially-driven work is in principle not making matters worse for the universe or for our fellow human beings, and b) it is essentially a lot more complex than releasing a new product or service. Indeed we are talking about accommodating vastly different world views, experiences, skill sets, and dealing with globally challenging issues that some even characterize as ‘wicked problems’ (e.g. chronic poverty, gender inequality, climate change etc.)…

This high level of complexity is one of the reasons why process literacy is so important for the ‘social sector’ (if there is such a thing).

It is also the reason why we decided to incorporate some of the typical narratives of that sector into the fabric of our upcoming training course on group facilitation and collaboration ‘Liberating Structures Social Immersion Workshop’ in The Hague, the Netherlands, on December 12-13.

On that occasion we want to focus on some typical socially driven work narratives:

  • The essential importance of relationships as a necessary guarantee of long(er)-lasting change – how to cultivate trust; why active listening matters; what is the place of ‘caring’ in social work?
  • The complexity of the social sector – Understanding the big picture we’re operating from and the DNA of wicked problems; realizing the central concept of tradeoffs and choices; embracing paradoxes and uncertainty…
  • The necessity to learn and adopt an agile approach to work – focusing on ‘less is more’; happily destroying what we’re doing now to make way for what matters next; going beyond the ‘what’ we have to do, to focus on why and how we do it, and who with…
  • The power that comes from everyday facilitation – ie. no longer relying on the omnipotent expert from outside; the preciousness of peer learning and self-managing groups; going beyond organizational silos etc.;
  • The ‘fallacy of scaling out’ – why silver bullets, blueprints and the magic scaling machine are rabbit holes; what are the minimum we can focus on when thinking about such issues and agendas? Where are examples of more successful, deeper ‘scaling’ of good work?
  • Power dynamics – particularly in the global development cooperation sector (with donor-led financial flows) – what can we do to deal with paralyzing power and hierarchy? What are new ways of looking at this?
The Elephant in the room (Credits: Jeff Gates / FlickR)

The Elephant in the room (Credits: Jeff Gates / FlickR)

These narratives are not new. They come back around at various junctions in socially driven work, they are ‘sticky’ narratives. They are the elephants in the room that some people ignore, or do not acknowledge they exist. But they really are blockages or free passes to the next level if understood well.

Next December we’ll use simple group participation (liberating) ‘structures’ to peel the layers of this social onion, to explore its dimensions, get happily confused, find seeds of genius, rally energies, contemplate paradoxes, imagine the future, learn from the past, explore ourselves and our relationships and a whole lot more.


Come join us for a one-of-a-kind experience in The Hague, 12-13 December.

Register HERE

The principles at work with Liberating Structures

The principles at work with Liberating Structures