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.
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)