How do you structure a meeting so that goals can be achieved and there is a resulting sense of forward movement? How do you facilitate meetings so that communication is effective and people feel heard? While on the one hand we have the Art of Goethean Conversation which provides guidance on preparing for and working within a meeting, I often enough experience inadequate implementation regardless of the planning and intentions of the participants. Concrete form is as essential to a successful meeting as is a meditative and “listening” gesture during a meeting. While I’ve participated in a couple specific forms such as Conversation Cafe, I have been interested in exploring more of the actual meeting structures that have been developed over the years, which led me to finding this website, Liberating Structures, that documents 34 (yes, 34!) different structures. Reading through these, I find that they are suitable for strategic planning, reviews, team building, disseminating information, planning, communication, etc. These are structures that are applicable “horizontally” to businesses, study groups, think tanks, interpersonal development, and so forth. For example, as a software developer, I can see how many of these structures can be applied to all aspects of software development and management. As a person also with concerns and interests in local economies, agriculture, communication, and so forth, I can also see how these structures facilitate presentations, creative thinking, action groups, and so forth.
I recommend that you take a look at the Liberating Structures website. What follows here is a very brief summary of the different conversation structures. In order to facilitate choosing and working with a particular structure, I’ve attempted to loosely organize them into a few different categories, though certainly there is a lot of crossover. Here is the very short summary of these structures.
Wicked Questions illuminate the impossibly paradoxical-yet-complementary attributes embedded in transforming change efforts. Tension between espoused strategies and on-the-ground circumstances may be revealed safely.
“How is it that we are ____ and ____ simultaneously?”
You can move from either-or conflicts to a both-and strategies and solutions. Everyone can engage in sharper strategic thinking, mutual understanding, and collaborative action by surfacing the advantage of being more integrated and more autonomous. Attending to paradoxes generates opportunities for profound leaps in performance.
Participants sketch out and rehearse solutions to chronic problems.
A diverse group can quickly test the viability of current strategies and build capacity to respond quickly to challenges. This is form of preparedness strategy-making, not a plan to be implemented as-designed but rather a capacity to actively shape the system and be equally prepared to respond to surprise. Being prepared means an increased capacity to see different futures unfolding, act in a distributed fashion, and absorb disruptions resiliently.
TRIZ clears space for innovation by inviting creative destruction, letting go of things we know (but rarely admit) limit our success. A bit of heretical thinking is encouraged. What must we stop doing to make progress on our deepest purpose?
Engage everyone in making sense of profound changes.
Everyone can be included in making sense of confusing events and discovering new strategies. People can have a profound and calm conversation with less debating, arguing, and more listening. You can avoid unproductive conflict.
Agree / Certainty Matrix
Sort challenges into simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains.
Clarifying how to match different types of challenges with appropriate change methods. A loose analogy may be used to describe the types of challenges faced by change leaders as: simple like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child. Complex challenges are characterized by low agreement and low certainty; simple challenges have high agreement and high certainty. Mismatches are common (e.g., many complex challenges are made worse by more analysis that does not increase certainty or buy-in strategies that force agreement).
Social Network Webbing
Map informal connections and decide how to strengthen the network to achieve a purpose.
Network webbing quickly illuminates hidden resources in our social relationships and next steps. The approach builds better connections in a way that attracts people to organizing themselves rather than through top-down assignment. Further, tapping informal or loose connections—even your friends’ friends’ friend—can have a powerful influence on progress.
Purpose to Practice
Design the five elements which are essential for a resilient and enduring initiative.
By using P2P at the start of an initiative a large number of stakeholders can shape together all the elements that will be implemented and governed by them. The group begins by generating a shared purpose (i.e., why the work is important to each participant and the larger community). All additional elements —principles, participants, structure, and practices—are designed to help achieve the purpose. By shaping these five elements together participants clarify how they can organize themselves to adapt creatively and scale up for success.
Specify only the absolute “Must Do’s” & “Must Not Do’s” for achieving a purpose. In contrast to maximum specifications, they detail only must-dos and must-not-dos.
What I Need From You
People working in different functions and disciplines can quickly work out the “knots” by improving how they ask each other for what they need to be successful. Demystifying what is needed from each other to achieve common goals may mend misunderstandings or dissolve prejudices developed over time. Core needs are articulated rapidly while giving each person the chance to respond in a simple-yet-powerful fashion.
Discover & focus on what each person has the freedom and resources to do now.
Everyone can do something small immediately that may make a BIG difference. There is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. Pick it up a level. Focus on what is within your discretion; NOT what you cannot change. Solutions to big problems are often distributed widely in places not known in advance.
25 : 10 Crowdsourcing
Rapidly generate and sift a Group’s most powerful actionable ideas.
25/10 helps spread innovations “out and up” while everyone notices the patterns in what emerges.
Understand how embedded systems interact, evolve, spread innovation, and transform.
With a large group of people, you can identify obstacles and opportunities for spreading your idea or innovation at many levels. Panarchy helps a group of people visualize how systems are embedded in systems and their interdependencies influence chances to spread positive change. Participants become more alert to small changes that can help spread ideas up to other levels and how shifts at larger-slower levels may release resources to assist you at another level. Each level has Ecocycle dynamics at play that create “opportunity windows” for multi-level movement across boundaries.
Progressing in stages from exploring What Happened to So What and finally to Now What
Stories from the field offer social proof of local solutions, pattern recognition, promising prototypes, and spreading innovations.
Reconnect the experience of leaders and experts with people closest to the challenge at hand.
A large group of people can connect with a celebrity as a person and grasp the nuances of how they are approaching a challenge. The interviewer is acting as surrogate for the audience. A well-designed interview can turn something that is a passive (often boring) activity into a narrative that is entertaining and valuable. Often the interview is an invitation to action, drawing out all the elements needed to spark imaginations and encourage coordinated movement. Interviews reveal the full range of rational (logos), emotional (pathos), and ethical/moral (ethos) dynamics at play.
Make the purpose of your work together clear.
Individuals and a group can rapidly clarify the ground truth or essence of why their work is important. It is the most commonly missing ingredient in gatherings. Without clarity it is very difficult to move forward together. With a clear purpose, it is possible to spread and scale innovations with fidelity. An unambiguous shared purpose can unleash more freedom and more responsibility.
Get practical and imaginative help from colleagues immediately.
You can unleash local wisdom with give-and-take reciprocal action. Individuals ask for help and get help immediately from two others. Peer to peer coaching helps with discovering everyday solutions, revealing patterns, and refining prototypes. This is simple and effective way to extend coaching support for individuals beyond formal reporting relationships.
Tap he wisdom of the whole group in rapid cycles.
Individuals ask for help and get help immediately from many others (from 5 to 150 others). The consultation taps inventiveness of everyone in the group while deepening inquiry skills. Individuals gain more clarity and capacity for self-correction and self-understanding. Supportive relationships form very quickly.
User Experience Fishbowl
Share know-how gained from experience with a larger community.
A subset of people with direct field experience can quickly foster understanding, spark creativity, and facilitate adoption of new practices among members of a larger community. Fishbowl sessions have an inside and an outside circle of participants designed to illuminate how a slightly more experienced group of people have made concrete progress on a challenge. Breaking down the barriers with direct communication, people learn best when they make discoveries themselves within the context of their working groups.
Observe and record actual behaviors of users in the field.
Novel approaches to challenges are revealed by immersing yourself at the feet of the people with local experience—often your clients or colleagues on the frontline. Beyond what people say and think, exploring what people actually do and feel in a local setting opens wide the door to change and innovation. Anyone that uses your service or product has valuable tacit and latent knowledge. Drawing out user-centered observations can spur rapid improvements and prototype development.
Heard, Seen, Respected
Fostering empathetic capacity to walk in the shoes of others. Many situations we face do not have immediate answers or clear resolutions. Recognizing these situations and responding with empathy can improve the cultural “climate,” building trust among group members.
Drawing together makes it possible to access hidden knowledge. Hidden knowledge may include feelings and patterns difficult to express with words. When people are tired, their brains are full, and you have reached the limits of logical thinking, drawing together can evoke ideas that precede logical, step-by-step understanding of what is possible.
Management / Team Work
Without an agenda controlled by a few, a large group of people can take responsibility for what they care about most and move into distributed action very quickly. Letting go of control (i.e., the agenda) and putting it in the hands of participants generates more action, innovation and follow-through. When confronted with a common challenge, Open Space releases the inherent creativity and leadership in people as well as their capacity to self-organize.
Shift & Share
“Hidden” innovators and positive variation can be revealed to everyone in the community. Very short sessions help presenters “cut to the chase,” sharing a concise and compelling story. Drawing out innovators and their stories inspire creative mash-ups in the community.
Change how you choose to work with others by utilizing a progression of practical methods. Heuristics are short cuts that help us identify what is important when entering a new situation. These structures helps you develop deeper insight into your own interaction patterns while making smart decisions quickly. A series of short exchanges reveals heuristics or simple rules of thumb for productive helping.
Reveal relationship patterns that create surprising value or dysfunctions.
Understanding how a group works together and identifying changes that can be made to generate better than expected results. All members of the group together diagnosis current relationship patterns and decide follow-up actions steps.
You can eliminate or mitigate common bottlenecks that stifle performance by sifting your portfolio of activities, identifying which ones are starving for resources and which ones are rigid and hampering progress. The Ecocycle makes it possible to sift, prioritize and plan action with everyone involved in the activities at the same time. Conventionally, this is done behind closed doors with a small group of people. Additionally, it helps everyone see the forest and the trees—where their activities fit in the larger context with others. Ecocycle invites leaders to focus on creative destruction and renewal in addition to typical themes regarding growth and maturity or efficiency. All elements are needed to spur agility, resilience, and sustained performance.
Rapidly share challenges and expectations, build new connections.
By focusing attention on the problems individuals want to solve, a deep well of curiosity and talent can quickly be tapped in large groups. Establishes a productive pattern of engagement if used at the beginning of a working session. Loose yet powerful connections are formed in 20 minutes by asking engaging questions. Everyone contributes to shaping the work, noticing patterns together, and discovering local solutions.
Five elements define the underlying design of all microstructures—conventional or liberating. We call them design elements because you can make choices about them based on what you want to accomplish. The five design elements for a conventional presentation or lecture are illustrated below:
- a structuring invitation (listen to me);
- how the space is arranged and what materials are needed (rows or U facing presenter, screen, projector and PPT slides);
- how participation is distributed (nearly 100% of total time for presenter);
- how groups are configured (one group, one presenter); and,
- a sequence of steps and time allocation (presentation for most of time; possibly Q&A for balance of time).
Liberating Structures are designed with variations on these five structural elements.
Engage everyone simultaneously in generating questions, ideas, suggestions.
You can generate better ideas and more of them faster than ever before. You can access know-how and imagination that is distributed widely in places not known in advance. Open, generative conversation unfolds. Ideas and solutions are sifted in rapid fashion. Most importantly, the ideas are owned by participants so follow-up and implementation is simplified.
The most common causes of dysfunctional meetings can be eliminated: unclear purpose or lack of a common one, time wasters, restrictive participation, absent voices, groupthink and frustrated participants. Designing a storyboard draws out a clear purpose and matches it with congruent microstructures. It reveals who needs to be included for successful implementation. Storyboards invite participants to carefully define all the micro-organizing elements needed to achieve their purpose: a structuring invitation, space, materials, participation, configurations, facilitation and time allocations. Storyboards prevent meetings without an explicit design. Good designs yield better than expected results by uncovering tacit and latent sources of innovation.