Delivering outcomes with distributed teams using Liberating Structures

By using Liberating Structures you can learn how to:

  • Identify and mitigate risk across multiple teams and organisations.
  • Effectively measure progress and demonstrate value for a distributed team.
  • Run effective workshops, with a flexible design and toolkit.

Tried and tested with:

  • 20 people from 5 organisations, working in the same location, but usually based in 6 cities in 4 countries. We focused on identifying and mitigating risks to product delivery.
  • 8 people, working from 3 cities in 2 countries, connecting remotely for a project retrospective. We focused on how to more effectively measure progress and demonstrate value.
  • Using the same sequence of Liberating Structures (also known as a string) we got the different outcomes we needed.
Spiral JournalSpiral Journal
What risks do you see in our work together?
What concerns you?
What do you hope can happen in the future?
What practical first steps can you take now?
How do we demonstrate our value?
How could we measure our progress more effectively?
If you were ten times bolder, what big ideas would you recommend for quantifying progress?
What first steps would you take to get started?
Anxiety Circus25/10 Crowdsourcing
What concern or risk do you see in our work together?A bold, yet practical, idea for measuring our progress more effectively
15% Solutions15% Solutions
What could you do (to address any/all of these risks) that’s completely within your control?Without extra time, money or permission, I could get us closer to measuring better by…

What I designed & delivered

Spiral Journal gave us the time and space to:

  • surface our fears and concerns, and identify the most urgent and important risks
  • generate ideas and consolidate our thinking around demonstrating impact and value

25/10 Crowdsourcing (including Anxiety Circus riff) made it possible to:

  • identify the unspoken risks in the room, and prioritise them
  • share and score ideas for measuring value effectively

15% Solutions enabled every participant to:

  • take action to address risks & issues immediately
  • improve how we measure our progress

Spiral Journal for surfacing risks and generating ideas

I knew I wanted something to help people come up with lots of thoughts before refining their thinking and selecting one thought. I find Spiral Journal so useful to use alone that it was easy to choose that for my teams to try.

Tips & Tricks

Let people know in advance if they’ll be expected to show or share their writing with anyone else, and in what ways, so they can respond to the appropriate level for them.

This activity starts with participants drawing a spiral as slowly and as tightly as they can in the centre of a sheet of paper, to encourage mindfulness. When we did this remotely, I asked participants to tighten and relax their shoulder muscles instead, to include more physical movement.

25/10 Crowdsourcing and Anxiety Circus for sharing unspoken risks and ideas

I love 25/10 Crowdsourcing because it’s high energy (therefore contrasts well with the quiet and reflective Spiral Journal). The unique way of anonymously sharing and scoring ideas eliminates a lot of the issues that can arise with power dynamics and hierarchies when it comes to ideation.

Scoring here is about how committed you are to making the idea happen, rather than how ‘good’ it is. Therefore, it’s an extremely practical structure that’s biased towards action. When you get ideas with high overall scores, the people committed to those ideas can immediately form action groups for those initiatives.

Using the ‘Anxiety Circus’ variant, we quickly learned the previously unspoken fears in the room and got a sense for how keenly these concerns were felt. When it came to scoring, 1 meant “I understand this risk, but it’s not one that concerns me” and 5 meant “Yes, I’m really concerned about that too”.

Of the 8 cards with the highest scores, 3 unique risks came up. Which demonstrated that multiple people were aware of those risks and that multiple people were strongly concerned about those risks too. Doing this activity, made it possible to spring into action to address what was previously bubbling beneath the surface.

Tips & Tricks

Using the Benny Hill theme music worked well. You can use any music that encourages people to race around the room. Because it helps to get people moving, even whilst they’re uncertain about the novelty of this activity. If you stop the music every time you want people to swap cards (like musical chairs), it helps cue participants to what to do next and you don’t need to give as much verbal direction.

Make sure to prompt people to explain their idea clearly when they’re writing it down, because they won’t have a chance to explain or clarify it before it’s scored.

Virtual 25/10 Crowdsourcing

Trying this activity virtually was an interesting experiment that changed the fundamental structure.

  1. I created a form with a single comment box for individuals to anonymously submit one idea each.
  2. I created another form with options to give a score of 1-5 in response to a series of reference IDs.
  3. Once every participant had submitted an idea, I matched each idea to a reference ID, and shared the reference list and the second form, so that people could score the ideas

So, instead of each person scoring 5 ideas, each person scored every idea. Which made it harder to think and talk about ideas that have enough backing for individuals to take action together, rather than ‘best’ ideas.

On the plus side, scoring is much faster remotely (depending on the number of participants, and therefore the number of ideas), since there’s no moving around the room or swapping of cards. In addition, reading typed text is clearer than reading handwriting!

I’ll continue experimenting with remote versions of 25/10 Crowdsourcing, and many other Liberating Structures. Thank you Tas for co-designing this modification with me and championing better remote working practices.

15% Solutions for everyone to take action

love 15% Solutions. Sometimes when I’m excited about an idea I generate a huge list of things to do; I might feel overwhelmed and get stuck. 15% Solutions is so simple, and so easy to use. It immediately gets to what an individual can quickly and easily do next to move forward and make progress. It makes getting started so easy and sets you up for success with a small win, which can then be a building block to further actions.

15% Solutions is so effective because as well as making it possible to break down ideas and activities into achievable tasks, it also focuses on what’s within an individual’s sphere of control. Empowering people to move forward when they’re blocked, by focusing on what they themselves can do, rather than what they’re unable to do or what other people could do.

Tips & Tricks

Make sure to encourage participants to supportively challenge any proposed 15% Solution that doesn’t fit the requirements. They must be actions for the individual proposing the solution and be something that individual can do without additional time, money or permission. Do step in yourself if you need to, asking ‘Is that something you can do?’ etc.

You may like to strengthen the 15% Solutions by following up with GROW model coaching questions. You can encourage participants to support each other by asking these questions too.

For example,

  • Will you do this?
  • When will you do this?
  • What could stop you from achieving this?
  • How would you overcome obstacles?
  • Who could help you?
  • How committed are you to doing this, on a scale of 1 to 10?

What now?

You can use Liberating Structures for great outcomes, even if you’ve never tried them before

You can use Liberating Structures to improve the quality of your interactions too. Better meetings are within your reach. Your role or position doesn’t matter, your experience doesn’t matter.

Dive in!

The brilliance of Liberating Structures is that you don’t need to be an expert. You can have no experience and get great results using them. Some of them are so simple you can read through the instructions online and use them straight away. I recommend 1-2-4-all and 15% Solutions to everyone to try immediately.

The beautiful simplicity of 1-2-4-all #LiberatingStructures makes it so quick and easy to deploy in a facilitation emergency. Having done so, a group can use it again and again, and gain confidence that they will create what they need together.

— LiLi Kathleen Bright ✨🌈 (@gobrightly) January 18, 2019

Learn more

There’s a wealth of resources available if you want to know more: A book, a website, trello, blogs… the list goes on.

More impressively, there’s a vibrant and responsive community of people around the world, willing and able to support and provide feedback.  and get into the #wisecrowds channel. I cannot recommend this Slack highly enough. It’s really incredible. Brilliant community. Go, join!

There are local user groups globally, as well as virtual events. Kathleen and Tas design and deliver events as co-organisers of user groups in London and Berlin. Come and join us! Or, find events near you, including remote.

Because you don’t need to be an expert to use them, it’s easy to talk about your ideas with colleagues and friends, and get their input too.

Lots of LS practitioners are on Twitter too.

What next?

Check out my compilation of Liberating Structures resources for more. Do get in touch with any questions or thoughts about Liberating Structures, you can reach me on Twitter.

This article was first published on the Novoda Blog on 7th March 2019.

Fist bump of 5 fists, over a table with laptops open, mobile phones out, notebooks... Camaraderie in the office, connected to colleagues who are physically located elsewhere