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Using Liberating Structures To Promote Inclusivity and Engagement

As businesses across the globe, mine included, figure out how to navigate disruptions to our organizations and lives, I find myself relieved that I have my training to fall back on. My ability to pivot, make decisions quickly (even without all of the information) while maintaining cohesion throughout my team is only possible because of the lessons and curriculum I’ve gathered throughout my career. In particular, Liberating Structures has allowed me to bring my entirely remote team together, manage how this crisis is impacting our business and collaboratively design a path forward.

Through these simple, yet powerful tools, leaders have an immediate opportunity to foster collaboration, inclusivity and engagement across their workforces, even if they’ve recently been thrust into a remote environment they’ve never experienced before. When urgent decisions, innovative ideas and creative planning are paramount to organizational survival, companies must tap into the collective wisdom of their people.

Current structures are ineffective and limit what is possible.

If we want to stimulate employee engagement we must consider how we hire, onboard, manage, coach and reward performance. We must also uncover the invisible structures separating leaders from their employees, and employees from each other. Let’s look at three common structures existing in today’s workplace, why they fail to foster inclusivity and engagement and how using Liberating Structures can positively shift your organization.

Limiting Structure #1 – Outsourcing Business Process Solutions

An organization seeks change management consultants to tell them what business process improvements need to occur. They invest millions in consultants who assess and design solutions, only to find out six months later that the Consultants, who did not understand their business as well as the organization would have liked; solved the wrong problem and the “proposed process improvement solutions” are more of an impediment than an improvement.

Often organizational barriers and constraints are relegated to the expertise of best practices, yet purveyors of best practices are never as in touch with the internal workings of the organization as those who are in the trenches. This leads to a “one size fits all” approach and does not allow for the uniqueness and perspectives of those closest to, and most impacted by, changes to the process.

Liberating Structure Solution

Introducing a liberating structure such as Improv Prototyping gives stakeholders at all levels, who are impacted by the business process either directly or indirectly, opportunities to develop effective, collaborative solutions. Improv Prototyping is an excellent way to solve chronic organizational business process breakdowns while having some serious fun.

Limiting Structure #2 – Executive Team Owns Mission and Vision Ideation

The Executive Team meets and creates what they believe is an amazing mission and vision and tries to cascade the message throughout the organization later to find that the essence of the message is delivered in varying versions, based on the perceived reality of what each member of the Executive Team thinks they heard. When they finally realize the error of their ways, the Executive Team either can’t remember the mission or realize they have completely different interpretations of what the mission and vision mean.

Each leader is operating his or her own version of the mission and unintentionally or intentionally shapes their own unique culture inside of the organization. This is the root cause of misalignment and intra-departmental breakdowns in communication and cooperation. Rather than everyone working in service of one common mission and purpose, people think and behave in ways that demonstrate they are operating on separate teams, with separate purposes and separate rules of engagement – they experience the “The Silo Effect.” This is also the cause of communication breakdowns and misinterpretations of marching orders, as each “team” within the team is hearing the directives through their own unconscious biased filter.

Liberating Structure Solution

The “Nine Whys” Liberating Structure transforms this type of thwarted communication and makes the purpose of the work clear to employees. With breathtaking simplicity you can rapidly clarify for individuals and groups what is essentially important in their work. Utilizing the 1-2-4-All process, share the Mission from the front of the room. Share what it means to you as the leader. Then ask the following questions: What does the mission mean to you? Why is the mission important in your role ? What does its importance to your role mean to you? Continue asking versions of these questions up to nine times or until participants have reached the fundamental purpose of their work.

This structure clarifies the overarching purpose and mission of the business while at the same time, deepening each employee’s relationship to their role in fulfilling that purpose. The total time of this exercise takes 20 minutes, and drastically reduces misalignment, thwarted communication, separate realities and silos.

Limiting Structure #3 – Top Down Problem Management

Day to day crises and breakdowns solved by the Executive Team leave an organization on thin ice in terms of developing competent, resilient problem solvers. When top level leaders intervene on a regular basis, the human system cannot learn to navigate through issues with a solution mindset. Quite often, quick solutions are created as a means to an end, without consulting those actually responsible for doing the work. This old school approach to solving problems in the boardroom discounts the people with hands-on experience and unintentionally shapes a culture of complacency, dependence and avoidance.

Liberating Structure Solution

A liberating structure that is certain to unlock the creative genius of the people closest to the problem is 1-2-4-All. This structure with the partnership of a skilled facilitator gives the people closest to the problem the opportunity to define the problem, understand how it impacts the system as a whole (including the customer) and empowers them to tap into the collective intelligence of the team to create innovative solutions. When those expected to implement, deliver and sustain the solution are involved in shaping it, buy-in and engagement towards making it happen soar.


If we want to unlock human potential at work, we must set out to uncover and shift the organizational macro structures that constrain and limit connection, collaboration and teamwork. Liberating structures are the day to day micro structures that allow us to get work done, communicate and make changes happen in an inclusive and engaging way.


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