The why, what and how of ‘9 why’s’

When not to partner, when not collaborate? (Drawing credit: Olivier Cornelissen / ILRI)

Whenever you can do something alone, without anyone’s help, just indulge yourself.

No need to embarrass yourself with collaboration. As the saying goes: “want to go fast? Go alone”. Because collaboration takes time. It’s not a ‘need to have’; collaboration is rather something that is unavoidable for high stake and/or high complexity issues.

But whether you go the lone wolf way or the collaborative way, one thing you can’t afford to miss is ‘why’ you’re doing this.

Well, actually you can spare yourself that trouble. Just that you may be wasting your time.

So why are we doing certain things? Why are we doing this activity? Why are we working in that position? Why do we like what we do (or not)? Why does it feel like what we’re supposed to do?

These are all good questions. And the reason why we all deserve to ask ourselves about the 9 why’s every so often. Asking ourselves why is generally a good idea

9 Why’s is a specific methodology from the Liberating Structures (LS) repertoire.

Why 9 Why’s?

If you consider that the single most cited mistake (in the Workshops work podcast of Myriam Hadnes) made about meetings and workshops is that they don’t have a clear purpose, 9 Why’s aims precisely at clarifying what purpose lay ahead of you. It follows the Simon Sinek’s gospel of ‘start with why‘.

I don’t think there’s any simpler way to lay this out… What makes sense?

What is 9 Why’s looking into?

9 Why’s doesn’t settle with asking why once indeed. It doesn’t have to ask precisely 9 times ‘why’, but the point the microstructure is trying to make is to get to the bedrock of our purpose.

It could be our collective purpose – and 9 Why’s can be an syncretic message combining various individual takes on the collective purpose.

It could be our individual purpose.

It could be as our personal or collective mission statement, or it could be what is motivating a one-off activity etc.

How to run 9 Why’s (originally) and what is not always working so well about it

These are the standard steps from 9 why’s in the original LS gospel:

  • Individually, list what activities you are spending time on (2-5 minutes)
  • Interview each other for 5 minutes each, starting with ‘what are you working on?’ and asking ‘why is that important for you’
  • Switch between interviewer and interviewee after 5 minutes
  • While interviewing, take notes about what the interviewee says that matters to them (“Take notes for your partner – capturing and documenting important statements, phrases, fragments, or words that might help them compose a description of their purpose”)
  • Begin writing your purpose statement e.g. ‘my work exists in order to…’, using inspiration from the fragments captured by your interviewer
  • Potentially mix pairs into a quartet to share statements and/or important insights that
  • Invite the whole group to reflect on ‘how do our purposes influence the next steps we take’ for 5 minutes.

The intention of 9 Why’s is wonderful.

The practice of doing it is, however, rather irritating.

Indeed after a rather short while it becomes really annoying to keep hearing ‘but why does this matter to you?’. Even more so to just keep hearing ‘why?’

Repeatedly asking ‘why’ tends to put people on the defensive. Indeed it feels like they have to defend the reasons that motivate their actions and at the same time it makes them feel like they haven’t thought it through. No one likes to be put in a negative light.

On the interviewer part there is a risk of transforming into an inquisitor that is tormenting the interviewee, rather than supporting them.

And finally, another limitation is that the structure may pan out differently if you focus on a personal / individual purpose or if you are asking people to define their collective purpose…

How to run 9 Why’s more effectively?

If working alone (e.g. on your purpose statement):

  • Individually (3-5 minutes)
    • List the immediate purpose(s) coming to mind about what you do
    • Also list activities that describe your work
    • Feel free to add your own meta commentary about what gives you energy in doing this
  • Interview each other (5 minutes)
    • Hear first the bits and bobs that the interviewee has noted down for themselves and what their immediate purpose seems to be
    • Ask them their 9 why’s by using a variety of sentences and tactics e.g.”
      • What for?
      • Because…?
      • Tell me more…
      • And the next step here is?
      • What is your ultimate goal with that?
      • Is that the rock bottom of it?
      • When everything is said and done…
      • And the gist of this is…?
      • And this is significant in the sense of…?
      • Is that contributing to something even more important?
      • You may also beat around the bush with ‘What if…’?
  • Switch roles following the same process (5 minutes)
  • Share your fragments, notes etc. with the interviewee and each compose your own purpose statement (5 minutes)
    • If time allows, offer your own purpose statement to the interviewee, from the best of your understanding and synthesis capability
  • Challenge each other to come up with a statement that feels like the most complete (5 minutes) and if this doesn’t feel sufficient, re-do the 9 Why’s from the place you landed with at the end of the previous iteration.

If working on a common purpose:

  • Individually (3-5 minutes)
    • List the immediate purpose(s) coming to mind about what you are collectively trying to do
    • Also list activities that describe that collective work
    • Write all of these on different post-its or virtual notes
  • Interview each other (5 minutes)
    • Hear first the bits and bobs that the interviewee has noted down for themselves and what their immediate purpose seems to be, and stay with them until they feel complete with their 9 why’s
    • When you feel they’ve exhausted their first draft thinking, ask them about their 9 why’s endorsing a complete supporter role, and using a variety of sentences e.g.
      • What for?
      • Because…?
      • Tell me more…
      • And the next step here is?
      • What is your ultimate goal with that?
      • Is that the rock bottom of it?
      • When everything is said and done…
      • And the gist of this is…?
      • And this is significant in the sense of…?
      • Is that contributing to something even more important?
      • You may also beat around the bush with ‘What if…’?
  • Switch roles following the same process (5 minutes)
  • Share your fragments, notes etc. with the interviewee and try to compose a purpose statement that emerges from your pair (5 minutes)
  • As a pair, meet another pair to form a quartet to discuss your purpose statements and to compare the nuances. the fragments you used and discarded etc. (5-8 minutes)
  • As a whole group, hear the different purpose statements, meta-plan/organise all your listed activities/purposes on the wall, and if needed and possible come up with one general purpose statement for the group, building upon the collective statements, fragments and ‘debris’ that are there… or delegate some people to do the next 8 Why’s based on all the contributions of everyone?

A final tip, in order to make this even more effective, you might want to run ‘helping heuristics‘ to identify what is your preferred heuristic to help and to being helped…

Just give it a try, and find out how meaningful, liberating and extraordinary it is to hit the true purpose of what you/we are trying to do and achieve! Perhaps, like me, you will get to see 8 Why’s as not just a method, but a go-to lens that precedes a lot of good things…

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea

(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Structuring our everyday liberation, because facilitation magic is not just for the workplace

It often feels invasive, particularly to the close relatives and friends of facilitators, to see facilitation ‘stuff’ (exercises, lenses, props) being applied to personal, private, moments.

It’s a pity really, because facilitation is a life skill. And it is magical too. It helps us improve our own and our bilateral or group communication, our empathy, our patience with silence, our staying focused on the other party and listening intently, our ability to build on each other’s point etc.

And on top of all of that, there’s the actual facilitation ‘exercises’ or structures or participation formats that can really help for ourselves (alone) and for our chats with other people, whether bilaterally or in larger groups.

Let’s take Liberating Structures and look at many ways that they prove handy in everyday life:

Liberating Structures - LS in Development


  • Get some answers about what feels stuck and what feels like it’s not moving fast enough with Ecocycle Planning – oh and you could even review your relationships through that lens 😉
  • Think about what really matters for: your travel list, what you hope to get out of everyday, principles of parenting, conditions for saving money or investing, the criteria that matter to find a romantic partner, this new project starting… I mean, with Min Specs, the possibilities of applying this ‘bare essentials’ approach are nearly endless!
  • Face your own demons and de-dramatise how they play up in your mind with ‘tiny monsters/demons
  • Embrace paradoxes rather than function in simplistic ‘THIS OR THAT’ mode with Wicked Questions
  • Imagine the future and find resilient ways of dealing with the risk and uncertainty with Critical Uncertainties
  • Etc.


  • Hear the unfortunate moments of not feeling respected, and get an opportunity to understand, and explore together how to prevent these moments from happening with Heard Seen Respected
  • Find out what your preferred way of being listened to or listening to is with ‘helping heuristics
  • Approach any question with a creative visual through Drawing together
  • Help each other find out what is the rock solid foundation of something that has true meaning for you with 9 why’s
  • Etc.

And on that note, Myriam Hadnes had already shared on LinkedIn how she could use Liberating Structures to go on a date.

In groups of 3 or more:

  • Find and offer help to each other’s daily or more complicated problems with Troika Consulting
  • Understand how you can do things with each other better (say in how your organise your family chores, how your group of friends is going to prepare for this trip or birthday party together, how your scouting association or book reading club is getting projects on the go) with ‘What I need from you (WINFY)’
  • Realise together, before it’s too late, what toxic behaviours you and your relatives / friends / neighbours / sports mates are occasionally guilty of and what to do about it with TRIZ
  • Share a lot of stuff with a lot of people in relatively little time and with a lot of dynamics and energy using Shift & Share – this could be handy for a local fair you organise, or even virtually with a group of friends that hasn’t been together for a while etc.
  • Etc.

And all of these are combinable, and then some more!!

So what are we waiting for?

Indeed, I would really advise everyone and anyone to explore Liberating Structures, and facilitation more broadly. You will find a wealth of life hacks and ideas to live a healthy, productive, successful, fun life!

Are you interested to find out more about Liberating Structures, get a proper feel for them, understand more deeply how they work and how they could transform your life?

Come join us at this upcoming immersion workshop 3-4 + 24-25 November (online)

And we get to meet each other and open up our little backpack of magic together!

Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Heard, Seen, Respected

(It’s been now seven years that I’ve been actively and centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at some of the not-so-common structures from the LS repertoire).

Heard Seen Respected

Today is a bit of an exception in this series, because Heard Seen Respected is not among the most obscure structures, but it may not get the visibility that it deserves because it’s one of the most emotional structures in the LS repertoire. Perhaps because of that, it’s also one of my favourite structures.

What is the purpose of Heard Seen Respected?

It happens to everyone to, every once in a while, feel either not heard, seen and/or respected. It’s so commonplace it’s actually mind-boggling. It also shows there’s a long way before we share more of what is going on in our life.

Heard Seen Respected (aka ‘HSR’) is there to:

  • Help people share these moments with one another and thereby a) just acknowledge what happened b) lighten their heart (“a problem shared is a problem halved”), c) process their grief
  • By doing that, focus on what is brewing inside of us before getting on with fixing, solving, acting. That is a crucial prerequisite
  • Understand what were, and what could be generic, factors that made these unfortunate moments happen
  • Realise how common place such experiences are
  • Analyse how we can avoid these situations in the future, for ourselves and others in similar situations
  • Potentially find solutions and even a catharsis for these moments
  • Invite emotions in our reflections, mobilise the ‘memory of our body’ in that process
  • Stimulate our deep listening to each other, and our empathy
  • Develop, stimulate, enable a culture of emotional feedback as a whole
  • Ritualise and normalise moments of acknowledging, sharing and processing these feelings
  • The LS website also indicates ‘help managers discern when listening is more effective than trying to solve a problem’

How does it work?

There are variations of it – one version is offered below, from the LS website – but essentially they all involve a pair and the following steps:

  • A short time telling a story of when you were NOT heard, seen or respected (about 5 to 7 minutes for each person)
    • When listening, practicing quiet presence (listening, not responding, possibly asking non-directive open-ended questions to draw the storyteller out)
    • When talking, selecting a story that is not the hardest and focusing on the facts, not on blaming the situation or other people
  • An optional, but very useful 5-minute step, of revealing what it felt like to recount that story, and to listen to it…
  • An even shorter time (3-4 minutes, or larger in a larger group as below) debriefing what happened and ideas we have to prevent more of these stories from happening…

The steps are summarised below

So this structure is incredibly easy to set up…

Read more about this structure on the Liberating Structures website.

Who could really benefit from it?

This is the thing: pretty much ANYBODY can benefit from it. Regardless of age, sex, ethnic group, geography, function. Whether at work or in (personal) life. Obviously, the more privileged the less it may be necessary but even white-haired white men can benefit from a moment of disclosure on the pains of their past.

We ALL feel invalidated, and almost rejected at times. Yet rejection is one of the deepest fears we have as human beings. HSR is helping everyone unpack that experience.

Beyond this universal value, in places of conflict or tensions between ‘groups’, Heard Seen Respected adds even more value by giving texture to the lived experience of each other. But even in places where seemingly no conflict arises, there are always mental frontiers and places of rejection. In a former organisation I worked for, the same HSR session helped two colleagues deeply apologise to each other, and revealed in stark contrast, and tears, the experience of one person from a different origin than the majority. HSR is deep, much like the whole Liberating Structures repertoire…

HSR, one of the most deeply liberating LS structures? (Image credit: Michael Nir)

What is liberating about it?

Like many LS, Heard Seen Respected is brought about by a very simple means: a couple of stories that are exchanged by two people. And indeed that simple step helps us trespass into another deeper, meaningful, heavy and yet hopeful dimension: the land of invisible scars.

HSR is liberating because:

  • Our pains become fears, and naming our fears diminishes their power – following the same logic as with ‘Tiny Demons’, another LS which I will explore here at a later stage…
  • Re-living that experience is helping us not flee from the pain but inhabit it, live it, feel and sense it again, without the emotional charge of being in it. It helps us activate our brain to analyse it also, and it may bring about different emotions again…
  • The forced ‘listening’ which is present in many LS is helping us get present, focused, attentive, intentional, supportive, empathetic. In the fast-paced world of social media antechambers we need to regain that attention, that slow pace and space that is the soil for trust, bonding, collaboration
  • The empathy that it develops is particularly crucial here;
  • It brings us to reflect together, co-solving the conditions that lead us to these moments of not respecting each other;
  • As the last reason exposed above, it helps us understand once again more deeply that fixing problems is sometimes not the way to go. That instead we have to acknowledge the pain, the suffering, the situation of somebody else before we can have a rational conversation together. And that that acknowledgement is probably overdue in many cases, because we tend to jump the guns and race to action and business, when our bodies, minds and souls are sometimes not even capable of getting in motion…
  • And last but not least, the shared experience of zooming in through our suffering history brings us closer together, it heals, melds and reveals relationships, and that is also the key to future liberation…

How to stretch the structure further?

There are various strings that can naturally incorporate Heard Seen Respected:

The applications are nearly infinite with HSR, but here are a few just thinking out loud here and now:

For managers and subordinates that want to hear from each other how they are not being helpful to each other.

For groups that have gone through a crisis or a major challenging moment, a big reform, a collective trauma, a pandemic etc.

For teams that want to improve the quality of their communication (the ‘tuning’ part of STAR).

For multi-stakeholder collaboratives that need to build stronger empathy and understanding of the different (groups of) people involved.

As part of a retrospective, after-action-review, assessment or evaluation.

For anyone keen on improving their empathy, social intelligence, communication…

The website also offers this daring variation: To bravely replace ‘HSR’ with ‘Loved’ 😉

At any rate, give it a try, and see for yourself 😉

This may be a unique Liberating Structure, and it’s nuclear power in bubble of speech…

Want to find out about HSR and Liberating Structures at large? Come join our immersion workshop in November!

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Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Integrated autonomy

(It’s been now six years that I’ve been actively and more centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at some of the not-so-common structures from the LS repertoire).

Today, I’m focusing on another structure I’ve hardly ever used: Integrated Autonomy.

This is both an excellent way to get my head around it properly, stretch it to imagine how it could be pushed and adapted, and imagine how it might work for groups that don’t share context – because many structures that thrive on shared context are typically sidelined in open workshops and that’s a pity.

What is the purpose of Integrated Autonomy?

Somehow echoing the logic of Wicked Questions, Integrated Autonomy invites teams and groups to ponder this wicked question: “How is it that we can be more integrated and more autonomous at the same time?”. Most organisations tend to either put the focus too much on integrating everyone and everything, or leaving everyone too autonomous.

This LS poses that embracing both aspects is much more conducive to a resilient group and more creative and productive results. It is thus naturally good for exploring strategies, for finding a balance in the way a decentralised organisation is operating, for attending to tensions between two different factions of an organisation etc.

How does it work?

Contributors involved in this LS draw a list of activities that are experiencing tensions between…

  • Integration and autonomy
  • Standardisation and customisation
  • Competition and cooperation

They then choose one of these activities and list down reasons for integration (list A), reasons for autonomy (list C) and identify which activities boost both integration and autonomy (list B).

They get on by pondering what could be done or adapted to move any item from list A or list C to list B.

Read more about this on the LS website.

The whole structure (face-to-face) takes 60-80 minutes to be appplied.

Who could really benefit from this LS?

Any team or organisation that is:

  • Developing a strategy and wants a more robust and resilient approach
  • Decentralised and needs both the headquarters/central agency and decentralised offices to work well together
  • Reviewing its decision-making procedure and wants to offer some level of delegation
  • Encouraging innovation and wants it to potentially emerge from anywhere in the system

As you can see, this is again typically a ‘team LS’, as in “a structure that is particularly designed for teams to operate more successfully”. I offer a few options to stretch it, particularly for groups that don’t share the same context…

What is liberating about it?

The liberating features of Integrated Autonomy

It helps everyone point to and express their boundaries, their needs for freedom and independence, which Dan Pink would describe as one of the three attributes of personal drive in (working) life.

Behind all of this, the ‘Trojan horse’ effect is that it brings people to discuss the very political question of ‘power’ and that in itself might lead to really confusing, annoying, difficult conversations, but necessary and potentially extremely liberating ones, at that!

Integrated Autonomy also encourages open and all-embracing ‘and-and’ (growth) thinking rather than narrow-minded ‘either-or’ (fixed) thinking… Integrated Autonomy is blatantly seeped in the spirit of Wicked Questions.

It is by nature inviting everyone – however close to or far from the centre – to find themselves in the whole system.

It is a creative structure that is requesting contributors to identify strategies that cater for both ends and to think about little twists that push a unidirectional strategy to get bi-dimensional.

Because of its paradoxical nature, Integrated Autonomy is a robust ‘living strategy’. It is not likely to get us to just think and forget about it. It keeps a live focus on the strategy. In that sense it follows the dynamic lens of ‘ecocycle planning‘.

How to stretch the structure further?

A few ideas of how this can be used either differently or slightly beyond its original comfort circles?

Stretching the structure to find new angles and uses (photo credit: Steve Snodgrass / FlickR)

In a group that is not a coherent ‘group’ (ie. a composite group of people randomly joining the same session):

  • Integrated Autonomy can be still used to to explore how that group acts as a coherent group for parts of the session (e.g. for debrief), or relies entirely on the individuals (thinking about their own context), and where things come together in between (ie. the breakout groups, )…
  • It can be tested with a fictitious case study of e.g. a large international company that has a global headquarter and some country or regional offices and how the two are operating together. Always a very interesting conversation about power.
  • As usual, it can also be used with individual cases discussed in parallels in pairs or in small groups. However there are generic questions that are worth drawing out (through a Spiral Journal, 10×10 writing or otherwise):
    • Has the balance historically been much more about one side?
    • What can we do to ensure we keep paying attention to both these dimensions?
    • Are we looking at the right two dimensions (perhaps use 9 Whys here to explore more deeply, or indeed Wicked Questions to get to the bottom of the dichotomy here).
    • Who (think Discovery & Action Dialogue and positive deviance) has managed to bring about this type of dual approach very well and what are the factors behind that success?)?


  • It can also be preceded by Wicked Questions and focus on the two paradoxical dimensions of a Wicked Question to follow the same logic of understanding what caters for one end of the wicked question, for the other, and for both ends. For instance ‘how is it that we are seeking to raise grown up and grounded kids that stand on their own while at the same time trying to teach them some important principles of life’: you can then unpack the what part caters for getting them grounded, what part gets them to be taught, and what lies in the middle.
  • Combined with ecocycle planning, it can also give an idea of the activities in the portfolio that matter for the individual, for the organisation or for both at the same time, and can thus provide a sense of prioritisation…
  • If used with a common context group and with both parties present, Integrated Autonomy can lead to a bit of an ‘us vs. them’ dynamics. It could be useful to bring a user experience fishbowl in the mix to really understand the respective perspectives in parallel.

No training workshop I’m planning will tackle this structure soon, but together with a little group we are cooking up some deep dive sessions on rare LS such as this. If you’re interested in joining one on integrated autonomy (or another no-so-common-LS, please leave a comment here 😉

If you’re interested in getting properly introduced to Liberating Structures you can always sign up for the upcoming general immersion workshop in May-June.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your own experiences, twists, tips, tactics to use Integrated Autonomy in fun, serious, playful, hopeful, productive, healthy ways 🙂

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Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Generative Relationships / STAR

It’s been now six years that I’ve been actively and more centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at specific structures from the LS repertoire.

Today, I’m getting started with some structures that tend to be used slightly less, among others because they require a shared context. One such structure is: Generative Relationships STAR.

What is the purpose of Generative Relationships / STAR

STAR looks at four characteristics of teams and helps its members assess how well they do on each of these characteristics, so they can identify adjustments for the gaps that they see. The four aspects are:

  • Separateness (and differences): How diverse is the team in its composition
  • Tuning: How well team members manage to listen to and learn with each other
  • Action: How frequently/intensively the team acts together on opportunities and/or innovate
  • Reason/purpose to be together: How clear it is for everyone in the team what the purpose of that team is and are its benefits

How does it work?

Working with a compass map, each team member develops their own version of the compass, then compares it with others and they negotiate how their whole team picture actually looks.

Then they discuss what are the pattern results of their STAR compass mapping in terms of how they work together.

Based on that, they identify some steps to become more functional etc.

Read more about this on the LS website.

The whole structure takes about 20-40 minutes to be worked out.

Who could really benefit from this LS?

Obviously, any team can benefit from this, and teams are the primary locus of this LS. But the STAR logic can be extended to small organisations and networks also. It’s helpful for team members, primarily, but also for managers, for consultants working with that team or group. It’s particularly helpful for groups of people that bring in partners from different organisations, to really understand how they manage to work together and make the partnership a reality.

Also: Particularly helpful for team retreats and capacity development, for interpersonal communication, for identifying the basis for strong collaboration. For weak teams that need to get their act together, and for high-performing teams that want to identify their edges and next focus.

It’s generally useful for anyone wishing to understand group dynamics and team composition better also.

What is liberating about it?

A few features from STAR are quite liberating, even though not uniquely in this LS:

  • The conversation about assessing the team, and collectively negotiating how the team itself operates, looking at the -sometimes wildly- different individual assessments, is always a great opportunity to surface differing perspectives. That conversation is in itself worth more than the eventual result of the negotiation.
  • The creativity that it requires to consider the STAR compass map and characterise the collaboration patterns of that group is great. Hidden patterns are revealed. Alternatively, while the patterns themselves might be recognised, STAR offers a basis to explain the deficiencies/edges of that team.
  • The initial assessment (the teams’ collective STAR compass) paves the way for further, future, deeper explorations of the team dynamics.
  • The compass map points in the direction of either developing the capacities of current team members, or of bringing in people that might stimulate either of these dimensions.

How to stretch the structure further?

While this is meant to be used by groups of people that effectively work as teams, it can also be used alternatively:

It can always be used individually reflecting on our respective teams, and bouncing ideas off with others, possibly preceded by Helping heuristics to offer the most adequate type of support to each other in doing so?

Even for impromptu teams (e.g. the group of participants in a public workshop), STAR can be used to reflect on useful variables of a well-functioning team. It could even be done as an exercise to get that impromptu group to understand how they are operating together and to keep that in mind as they further explore their interaction patterns…

The 4 variables of STAR can arguably be replaced by other dimensions of teamwork that matter e.g. their process literacy, their emotional intelligence (which is perhaps one of the elements in tuning), their recognition and pride, their stability as a team etc.

It can be stretched onto families (or even groups of friends) that want to understand how they function with each other.

We will be working with this structure in the upcoming general immersion workshop in May-June by the way.

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