Amplifying change in organisations through Liberating Structures

Inspired by lessons from behind the scenes of five LS Immersion Workshops powered by the kindness of others 

Most organisations have at least one significant company event such as the annual company-wide conference, the CEO company-wide meeting to share changes about the strategy or market, town-halls dealing with inclusion or cultural issues, sales conferences. These events may run yearly or on a bi-annual basis. There is an intensity of effort and one-off costs that go into putting the event together, in most cases run by a cluster of HR folk, maybe a few businesspeople, and comms peeps. Common motivations for such events are to introduce new thinking, recognise people, provide networking opportunities, share performance results and its consequences (growth, steady-as-she-goes, or restructure. Whatever the theme or the premise that brings this event to life, there is the assumption that it will trigger new awareness that will lead to behavioural changes – all positive, of course – to what they just heard or saw happening. The missed opportunity is continuing to deal with events as one off’s and not amplifying the results across time. In financial and resource terms, the return on investment for these types of events to jumpstart change is dismal. Let me explain.

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A key element in running a Liberating Structures event is forming a design team. What I want to share here is not the mechanics of how to organise LS design teams. This article is about my observations as a seasoned OD practitioner of what I saw emerge within LS design teams. My conclusion is that organizations are missing the opportunity of capitalising from these learnings. There is the opportunity to explore and re-produce these experiences internally to ignite transformative change that is sustainable through time. I’m speaking of the kind of change that is so impactful and remains even after the lights are off in the event venue, and people go on with their daily lives.

Liberating Structures (LS) is a repertoire of 33+ facilitative patterns. I describe them as whole-people technology as I see LS as the sum of different techniques, methods and processes used to create conditions for whole-person development at all levels. More about my thoughts around Liberating Structures as whole-people technology.

The Design Team

The Chilean design team

A crucial part of running a public (open) LS Immersion Workshop is to form a design team. The design team is a mix of workshop organisers (that run the logistical, marketing and commercial side of the event) and a few participants. The design team members can range from 2 to 15 people. Due to time differences and thanks to technology, we ran simultaneous sessions across two countries and with up to 20 people on-line. The design teams meet two or three times throughout some weeks in sprints of 60 to 90 minutes to organise the event, choose the LS structures that they would like to co-lead. 

Before and during the workshop

“Teaming” happens. I am using here Amy Edmondson’s teaming as a verb to explain the dynamic activity of collaborating. The design team gets together to co-lead the event with a shared purpose: to learn on the fly to deliver the best possible experience for LS participants.

In most cases, design team members are spread among multiple locations, even across continents and several time zones and come together for this one event, and then disband. Some members of the design team may have some connections with each other, but long-established relationships among them are more the exception than the rule. We try when possible to have groups with varying amounts of LS experience: from people that have never used them to some that may be frequent users of them. Another variable is the background of the design team members, more diverse backgrounds provide multiple perspectives, and the number of aha moments multiplies exponentially. We work under a very organic and loose leadership/guidance from the most experienced practitioner. 

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Unlike other methodologies LS does not do icebreakers, we get right into understanding our challenges by using an LS structure named Impromptu Networking and working on sensing our environment (3 W’s) where everyone senses and shares the patterns that are emerging. We use this as the canvas for the event. The design team members learn to ask questions promptly and clearly and build trust as they go without relying on past shared experience to generate trust. Everyone has a hand in the design, and in the delivery, people choose what they want to do and not do. This ability to choose allows members to feel accountable for their performance, seek help when needed, and set their internal learning and success measures. My colleague @David Bennett would say that the design teams work as it satisfies their basic psychological need for autonomy, relatedness and competency key ingredients of intrinsic motivation and that is why it works. 

The design team offers a context that is bounded yet flexible. It provides each team member with the ability to self-organise and feel equipped to deal with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the event. No two LS events are ever the same; this is the product of the structures, the invitations and the participants. 

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Organising the event and delivering the LS experience creates a context for every member to hone their adaptive capacity and make improvements to their performance through feedback. Edmondson talks about five key learning behaviours in teaming: asking questions, sharing information, seeking help, experimenting with unproven actions, and seeking feedback. These five key behaviours get used in repetitive cycles. Another key takeaway the capacity to learn on the fly- by acting their way into new thinking.

Whispering out loud with equal measures of loving provocation 

During the event, we provide feedback to each other real-time and in front of others. No need to shiver – it is not as bad as it sounds! @Nancy Wright White, an LS maestro, says this of Whispering Out Loud: “When you notice something changing in the room (going off track, in a new direction) that you notice/feel but is not being discussed, you can take a partner (co-facilitator, sponsor, leader, random person) and quiet the rest of the room and have a conversation about what is happening with each other – thus a “private conversation in public.”

Image by Thomas Wolter pixabay

You talk about what you are thinking, noticing, worrying about between the two of you- facing each other and not addressing the group. Nancy says that this role models many things – one important thing is “not knowingness.” Often these moments are where we ARE uncertain but think everyone else is certain. This revealing of more private or intimate thoughts can unlock things.” 

As we are all practitioners (who continue to learn), we understand that there may be aspects of our delivery that can improve. The design members know that this is just part of our learning on how to work with the structures. I have been the receiver of a few of these. In the beginning, it is a bit disconcerting, and through time, I learned that it helped me get better, faster. The feedback provided helps each of us deliver the best experience possible for the participants. We have debriefs at the end of the day to clarify what happened on the day and if the strings (or sequence of patterns) may need to be adjusted or changed to deliver better results.

A “Loving Provocation” is part of a LS called Helping Heuristics, which aims at changing patterns of unwanted giving or asking for help. In this case, support is provided by raising curious questions that may bring awareness to the other using phrases such as: What if you…? 

Failing Forward

I was fascinated and mortified with this concept. We look at failing as part of the process of learning, and from that awareness, we repeat the LS structure. There are some structures that with certain groups may take two takes rather than one. It could be the wording of the LS structure invitations (questions), the way participants understood them, just doesn’t do what it is supposed to do: e.g. Make the purpose of your work clear. So, we may re-run it the same or next day. My own experience is that through this type of repeat the learning accelerates. One of the things that we do and use as guardrails is to work with co-leaders. There is always a more senior practitioner in the room as the safety net. This is a great practice that encourages experimentation, rapid learning and more than anything forges quick bonds and psychological safety among people that hardly know each other. See more about the LS Principles.

Image by a href​="">Gerd Altmann/a> from a href​="">Pixabay/a>

After the workshop

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After a celebratory get-together, the design team members are off to their next gig. In public events, is common to find that most design team members belong to different organisations. This, of course, will be different from an internal LS Immersion, where all participants belong to the same organisation. However, the nature of the connections forged during the event is enduring. Many design team members decide to collaborate outside the events from organising LS Immersion workshops, to consulting gigs, to working together. Through the organising of the event, you get introduced to people around the globe that are ready to support you with time and advice.

So, what does a LS Design team have to do with amplifying change?

Amplifying change is a three-phase approach to model, nurture and embed ideas for change, based on the work of Roehrig, Schwendenwei and Bushe. In a nutshell, we are trying to make the most of our event, by encouraging and cultivating the energy, creativity and networks established during these events to produce desired organisational changes.

Change amplification model from Roehrig, Schwendenwei & Bushe

In the modelling phase, we create an internal LS design team for your event or events. The members use the LS structures to organise and deliver different types of gatherings. By doing this, you create a group of capable team members that can spread the use of LS in your organisation.

As LS work well on their own or enhance other processes such as agile or human centre design there are no drawbacks or allergic reactions to their introduction in the organisation. A key question is of course, who will those design team members be? We can also use LS to help you review your transformation and change strategies to get a birds-eye view of how best to connect those sub-systems to engage in different types of change.  

In the nurture phase, the design team members will organically find ways to introduce the structures where they see fit. Liberating Structures aim to disrupt the five fundamental conventional structures in which we interact and create meaning: managed discussions, presentations, status updates, open discussions and brainstorming. All these conventional structures sit in a gradient from uncontrolled to controlled ways in which people can participate.  

Image by a href​="">John Hain/a> from a href​="">Pixabay/a>

The transformative learning happens as your design team members, who are your newest change agents, start using LS to enable a new set of conversations and ways of working that nudge different types of interactions and patterns of thinking and doing. Your LS design team may spread their wings and decide to transfer their knowledge to others, re-creating their own design team experience on their own or with the help of more experienced practitioners.

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In the embedding phase, you are looking at institutionalising the gains of the first two phases. The use of LS on their own will help the emergence of multiple perspectives and innovative ways of thinking that are reflected in new actions, small experiments and desired changes.

And now what?

The golden nugget available to organisations that choose to develop their internal LS design teams is the cohesion forged through teaming that is generated as the members of the team collectively unlearn, learn and execute together.

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And if that is not enough, in the future-now shape-shifting organisations, the “economies of organisational structure” which Johansen describes as “you are what you can organise” will replace the economies of scale—where bigger used to better. 

We hope to see you at an LS event near you. People in this community are accommodating and generous with their time.