The power of liberating structures explained
Change is exciting; lack of participation is not.
Yesterday, I had a sense of déjà vu. I was kicking off a cultural transformation project with a client. The CEO was overly optimistic sharing the most recent employee survey results — a vast majority of employees seemed happy about being part of the organization.
However, when I started reviewing the results, I observed that 48% of people expressed they weren’t included in the decision-making process — they saw a clear division between ‘deciders’ and ‘doers.’
As a change facilitator, that was a big red light. That people say they like their job, means nothing if they don’t feel included.
Lack of engagement, alignment, and participation are why most organizational transformations fail. People want to play a bigger role. Having a say is not enough — they want to help design and shape the future.
To create an enduring impact, leaders cannot impose change — they must liberate it.
People want more power, not control
Moving change forward is a top priority for most CEOs. They must drive large scale organizational transformations, disruptive innovation, and adapting to the future of work — while leading in permanent whitewater.
Leaders understand that they need support — people are their most important asset to drive change forward.
Four of the five biggest challenges for CEOs relate to talent optimization, according to a survey by The Predictive Index. Finding the right talent, aligning teams with strategy, getting the most out of people and creating a great environment are key priorities to succeed in 2019.
So, why is it that so many organizations are filled with disengaged people, dysfunctional teams and frustrating practices?
The answer is simple: change is designed at the top and then spread out across the larger organizations. People feel excluded from the conversation. However, change cannot be imposed. No one wants to be told what to do or how to do a job.
A top-down approach erodes trust — people feel they are being controlled. Their way of working is defined by practices that are imposed by senior management:
- Mandatory meetings that are boring, useless, or draining
- Adopting someone else’s best practices
- Not addressing the real tensions, because they are not strategic
- Forcing people to change by coercion, fear, or empty promises
- Implementing new processes that won’t solve pervasive and recurring problems
- Adopting innovative and agile methods without changing mindsets or distribution of authority
Control less; trust more.
The solution to a top-down approach is not bottom-up one, but to drive change from within — it can happen anywhere, and be initiated by anyone, in the organization.
Leaders, managers, and teams should work together to co-design the future.
Involving people is more than just making them feel part of the conversation. It’s realizing that those in the frontline have a bigger interest and understanding — they are better prepared to solve everyday organizational problems.
Also, when people are part of the design process, you don’t have to sell them anything — they’ve already bought into the idea they co-created.
Your team wants more power, but not for the reasons you might think. Research suggests that people who desire more power are looking to control one thing — themselves. They don’t want more power to influence others — employees want the freedom to make their own choices.
People want to control what they do, how they do it, when and with whom.
Changing an organization requires letting go of control — give your team control on how they work, when, and with whom.
The Power of Liberating Structures
Hierarchy is not the problem; control is.
We usually use the word ‘structure’ to refer to something rigid and siloed.
Without structure, there’s chaos. Think of rituals for example; they have a clear process and dynamics. Structures define how we collaborate with others — regardless if they’re explicit or unspoken, forced or embraced, efficient or frustrating.
To turn people into agents of change requires more than a nice purpose or rallying cry — the mindset and ways of working must change. Let’s start by understanding how structures can hinder or unleash innovation.
In the book, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures, Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, explain the difference between macro and microstructures.
Macrostructures are designed for the long term — they can’t be changed easily or cheaply. This category includes things such as building, corporate strategy, policies, org chart, and core operating processes.
Microstructures, on the other hand, are less complex and can easily be changed from one event to another. These small structures help us define how we collaborate with other people. For example, meetings, conference rooms layout, agendas, people’s roles, and participation
Macrostructures provide a foundation to manage a business on the long-run. Microstructures are more fluid and flexible; they allow us to experiment and innovate every day.
However, for many organizations, their microstructures are fixed. Take meetings for example, how people interact, contribute, or who sits where happen by inertia — they are not purposefully designed.
Liberating structures are adaptable microstructures that accelerate collaboration within groups — they radically improve how people interact and work together.
Let me share an example.
Do you want to improve feedback? Ask better questions. When Steve Jobs was the CEO at Pixar, he used two simple questions to engage people.
What is NOT working at Pixar?
What IS working at Pixar?
The first question cuts to the chase — it invites people to discuss what needs to be fixed. It comes from a place of honesty and vulnerability. The second one provides balance — it helps people appreciate the positive, not just focus on what’s broken.
Liberating structures are simple and small but create a big impact — they make it easier to include and unleash everyone in shaping the future.
Focus on what you can control
Most of the things are out of our control. Like it or not, you can’t control the environment, the economy or what your competitors do. Even worse, people are out of your control too — they don’t want to be changed by others, as I explained above.
However, you can manage and design how people collaborate and innovate — Liberating Structures provide an engaging playground rather than a rigid roadmap.
1. The invitation
Defining how people are invited to contribute to a change initiative can drive engagement from the getgo.
Invite and conquer — let your team choose rather than being forced to support change. Explain the case for transformation and give people the autonomy to decide to join (or not). Autonomy doesn’t equal to chaos — it increases personal accountability.
The “Law of Two Feet” is an essential component of the Open Space Technology (OPT) approach. Simply put, it encourages people to leave a meeting when they feel they are wasting their time — everyone becomes more mindful about being more productive.
2. Space arrangement and materials
The design of a room is one of the most undervalued hacks in corporate meetings.
Want people to collaborate? Get rid of tables and other power symbols. Want your team to brainstorm more energized? Ask them to stand up instead of stay seated. Want to encourage trust and address sensitive issues? Sit in a circle.
Small changes in the environment can dramatically improve collaboration and engagement.
3. Participation distribution: roles and time
Organizations lack the expertise on how to engage people effectively and broadly. They spend way too much time building decks and agendas and then overlook how to inspire active participation and not turn everyone into passive spectators.
What’s expected of people? Who will do what? How will people interact and share their ideas?
Design your meeting for participation. Define clear roles so everyone can contribute. Set time limits for specific activities to keep the energy flowing.
Conversational turn-taking is an effective way to listen to the voice of quiet people. Software developer Atlassian practices it to ensure even participation among all team members. When participants speak one-at-a-time in alternating turns, you can avoid interruptions and groupthink. Also, senior executives get to talk last, so they don’t influence or intimidate others.
4. Groups configuration dynamics
Different tasks require different group sizes.
For intimate conversation or self-reflection, smaller groups work best. For brainstorms, groups of 4–6 are more effective than asking a team of 20 to create together. Rotating people from one group to another or turn-taking are simple practices that create a big impact.
Troika Consulting is a great way to get feedback from other teammates as well as to create a safe space. The purpose is to answer two questions “What is your challenge?” and “What kind of help do you need?”
Divide people in small groups of 3 chairs (no table needed). Participants will take turns — one is the ‘client,’ and the other two are the ‘consultants.’
The client shares her/his challenge (1 min) and then turns around with her/ his back facing the other two people. The consultants generate ideas, suggestions and provide advice (5 min). The client turns around and shares what found most valuable of everything the consultants said (1).
Switch roles and repeat the sequence.
5. The sequence: steps and time
Organizations like to understand and design customer journeys to provide a more satisfying experience. However, when it comes to internal experiences, we expect it to happen organically. The same principles and practice should be applied to improve group collaboration in both casual and formal gatherings.
Effective collaboration requires design and intentionality.
The 1–2–4-All exercise can be used in a brainstorm or meeting. It increases participation by integrating all voices progressively. This tool creates a safe space for introverts too.
- 1 — After a challenge is shared with the entire group, each person reflects on it for 1 minute
- 2 — Brainstorm in pairs for 2 minutes
- 4 — Group people in foursomes. Ask them to continue brainstorming building on the ideas each duo generated
- ALL — Integrate everyone’s ideas. Each group, one at a time, shares key ideas with the larger team. Everyone votes — the best ideas get selected.
Change cannot be imposed. Successful organizations design and build a human, adaptive, and innovative culture — their teams are agents of change, not just passive adopters.
Liberating structures are not a silver bullet, but simple ways to accelerate participation and collaboration. Change happens from within. Distributed authority is anything but chaotic. Autonomy brings out the best, not the worst, within your people.