Participatory decision-making vs. Liberating Structures, a facilitation showdown

I have just emerged from a really interesting event, the ‘AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair‘ which took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 25-26 May 2015. Liberating Structures

For this fair which strongly featured all types of ‘processes’ in service of global development, as opposed to specific ‘content areas’ (though one could argue a process expertise is as much about a content area as a ‘content expertise’), our team of process coaches used a wide set of Liberating Structures (LS) as a central feature of the fair. Two of us were based in Seattle and deeply involved into the global LS movement.

Sam Kaner et al.'s bookLiberating Structures could be seen as the new thing on the horizon for all facilitation enthusiasts, even though they are not pitched as a facilitation toolkit ‘per se’ but rather as a set of collaborative methods to enhance pretty much any kind of social interactions and their result.

Having been through a different facilitation training course, and interviewed the training coaches Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes, I thought this is a good time to look into the differences between Liberating Structures and Sam Kaner’s ‘Community at work‘ style (as epitomised in the ‘Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making’).

This is a very rough first comparison of what I noticed or experienced with both sets of facilitation styles and methods, not a thorough assessment based on what the thinkers behind these methods meant…

  Liberating Structures Sam Kaner style of facilitation Reflections
Philosophy Recognising complexity, fighting disengagement and wasted ideas Creating ‘healthy human systems’, i.e. establishing good collaboration at the heart of all human interactions A more profound approach in Kaners’ favour although the complexity insights of LS are also interesting for global development
Overall approach A quick set of methods to get everyone engaged and inputting A conversation approach to reach consensus through joint decision-making, paying attention to the type of meetings at hand There seems to be even more purpose in Kaner’s method, but it is strongly pitched at decision-making
Design principles Using storyboarding and strings of structures to achieve objectives Designing conversation sessions that go beyond the ‘groan zone’ LS pay great attention to how methods are put together, while Kaner considers the whole process instead, but perhaps with less attention to the sequence to follow
Operational facilitation principles Simple enunciation of the structures and how they run and participants are on their own to go through them Facilitator uses stacking, paraphrasing, drawing out etc. to get to a good, honest conversation Kaner’s style really pays off here on simple but deep listening techniques
Pace Very fast (with some variations) Rather slow (with some variations) Both use variations. The LS pace is great for some and more difficult for others (and online) but generally rather new
Methods of group and plenary conversations Many, quite innovative and some longer for more complex exercises Few, quite traditional and centrally revolving around open conversations for key moments LS offers some freshness here and uses riffs of traditional facilitation methods too – a more exciting menu
Dealing with tension Converting tensions into exercises that help people e.g. feel heard, seen, respected Using tension as the springboard for stepping out of the groan zone My sense is that Kaner’s methods probably go deeper but it’s only a hunch
Degree of complexity / need for experience Not so high (though experience helps) Quite high, putting the onus on more experienced facilitators LS gains points here as it’s probably easier to run without much prior experience


Both approaches are very good and useful, each in their own right.

The advantages of Liberating Structures are their fast pace, interesting set of novel methods and the stringing they offer, as well as the relative low threshold to apply these methods, which is a definite plus for developing facilitation capacity. The infinite set of combinations brings about a high energy in the room and probably does not easily/quickly lead to facilitation fatigue.

The amazing set of liberating structures

The amazing set of liberating structures

The advantages of Sam Kaner’s style of facilitation are its simple set of listening techniques that really help go deep in a conversation and are seemingly better tuned to reaching a collective consensus, as well as the general intention of healing broken human systems which goes beyond the bane of disengaged employees (although LS are used to a wide variety of situations, some of which certainly could be considered as part of creative healthy human systems). And the central idea of the groan zone is one that is really useful to keep in mind and to use as a creative tension, in order to go beyond ‘business-as-usual’.

The 'groan zone', one of the great concepts of the Community at work practice (Credits: S. Kaner)

The ‘groan zone’, one of the great concepts of the Community at work practice (Credits: S. Kaner)

For my own practice I sense I will basically invest, over the next period, a bit more in Liberating Structures in terms of designing events in order to get a good hang of them and of the stringing they offer. At the same time I will keep practicing the deep listening techniques of Kaner et al. and certainly remember the groan zone and distinction of meeting types at all times. When it comes to open conversations, which typically happen after a presentation has been given and a Q&A session begins, I will also use Kaner’s techniques centrally… and keep you all posted on how this experiment goes…

And by the way feel free to check the whole last issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal which is dedicated to ‘Facilitation for Development’. It has just been released a couple of weeks ago…