"Liberating Structures can bring Agile meetings to life" - Interview with Frédéric de Verville

  • October 29, 2018
  • Maxime
  • Interview

The Stormz Team explores the far corners of Collective Intelligence and questions its impact on our organisations through a series of interviews with experts from our community of Facilitators.

Today, we sat down with Frédéric de Verville, who recently underwent a Stormz training and whom we met during an IAF meetup where he animated a workshop on Liberating Structures. His views, combined with his powerfully simple methodologies, made quite an impression on us, hence our desire to share his thoughts with you.

Hello Frédéric, could you briefly present yourself and tell us what, exactly, are Liberating Structures ? 

I have a pretty diverse background. I started as an engineer in telecommunications, including for system development and validation, then on mobile infrastructure projects in constant interaction with a wide array of professions. Then, I worked in theatre in a professional capacity and found myself in charge of training actors and comedians. After a few years, when I was thinking about going back to the corporate life, I chose quite naturally to stay in the training line of work. That's when I started asking myself questions directly linked to this position: how do you keep people active? how do you motivate people to create something new?

So I stumbled on facilitation, a fascinating world at the service of the client's needs. The Liberating Structures were an incredible discovery that really helped me grasp and get better in this line of work. It also gave me a significant amount of tools that I was then able to experiment and implement by myself. I was able to improve my skills as a facilitator thanks to the Liberating Structures, while relying on my experience and background as a trainer, teacher and actor.

Liberating Structures are very formalized, turnkey tools. Every structure's description includes many examples and possibilities and truly highlights all the factors to take into account (steps, physical space, number of people per group, etc.). It's an extremely handy guide to prepare workshops. This doesn't mean that you can't experiment things on our own, but this initial framework really gives you confidence from the very beginning: the two founders of the Liberating Structures wanted to make things easier for anyone getting started.

Who created the Liberating Structures? Is there a reference book or founding adventure?

The Liberating Structures were created by two people: Henri Lipmanowicz, a Frenchman who spent most of his career in the United States, including as EMEA President of Merck, and Keith McCandless, who comes from the consulting world. One day, they had to work together to animate a working group in South America with one goal in mind: bring everyone, from all hierarchical levels - including clients - together in the same room, and make sure they will all be able to talk and be heard, in a dynamic and ludic environment. And it worked incredibly well!

That's how it started. Over the following months, they organized other working groups while developing new tools and thinking about the best ways to spread the word. A website, liberatingstrectures.com, with all the relevant information to facilitate workshops. Then they published a book, "The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures", an extremely thorough guide highlighting the main advantages of the Liberating Structures. The book is very hands-on: there is, of course, a theoretical part, but it also contains many concrete examples, achievements, examples and shows the endless possibilities to link and alternate Liberating Structures.

What are the main methodologies of the Liberating Structures? What's their impact on an organisation?

Liberating Structures comprise 35 methodologies and practices. A basic one, for instance, is Troïka Consulting, designed to find possible solutions in a very short time: every participant asks a question and will be helped, to answer it, by two other people. This activity is highly rhythmic. In thirty minutes (10 per participant), it's possible to find potential solutions for all three members of the Troïka and therefore, regardless of the overall number of participants, for every single people in the room. This highlights one of the core principles of Liberating Structures: multi-tasking. Everyone is working at the same time and is involved one way or another.

Another example, rather basic but nonetheless fundamental, is the "1-2-4 All" structure: to tackle an issue, participants gather in groups of four. Everyone first thinks about the topic on their own, then shares his/her thoughts in groups of two, four and - through a group spokesman - to the whole room. Not only is it easier for people to express their opinion, but everyone is truly encouraged to do so.

The Panarchy structure is one of the most complex Liberating Structures, especially regarding the data to process. In that case, participants will focus on everything, at all hierarchical levels, that might influence and impact the projects that concern them.

More broadly speaking, the concepts of microstructures and macrostructures are key. Any organisation has some built-in structures (capital, buildings, people, production tools, etc.): that's what we call macrostructures. Then, the microstructures are linked to the ways people interact with one another, from the simple PowerPoint presentation to discussions at the coffee machine . The fundamental underlying idea of the Liberating Structures is to strive to add more types of interaction in addition to the pre-existing, everyday microstructures.

Could one argue that it's a set of 35 microstructures seeking to influence macrostructures? Could they be used in a change management approach?

There is indeed this fundamental idea of liberating and unleashing how organisations function. It's also the goal of collective intelligence and facilitation in general: how to make sure the interactions are more innovative, free, diverse and creative? How to break down the barriers? Stormz, which boosts working methods and practices through a digital tool, has a similar approach. The Liberating Structures operate at two different levels: freeing the interactional structures which, in turn, liberates the overarching structure, the organisation itself.

Take for instance the Social Network Webbing: its purpose is to create a map of the individuals with whom we interact, as well as the interactional possibilities, what can be improved, strengthened or even discarded. In other words, the goal is to improve the links and relations that already exist within an organisation. But an outward approach, towards the client or the ecosystem, could also be considered. We could very well imagine organizing common workshops with other companies part of the same ecosystem, even though there's always the issue of being competitors.

To come back to the change management issue: the Liberating Structures can be implemented at any level of a given organisation, with, for instance, in-house promoters or designated facilitators. That's why they can be viral and spread quickly if people realize that the methods actually work. Expertise grows within the organisation without any major obstacles, nor fee to pay.

There's no need for any certification: it's Creative Commons! Liberating Structures are only protected from commercialisation and self-appropriation attempts. In case of use, the only obligation is to say that they are Liberating Structure and disclose where they come from. That's why they can quickly become self-governing and spread within an organisation. This is how change management works: liberate and decongest processes by encouraging people to be more autonomous, accountable and responsible.

To liberate a structure, should there be a professional team of facilitators? Or is it better if everyone is familiar-ish with facilitation techniques?

The goal of Liberating Structures isn't to liberate organisations per say, but to make sure that collective work is more innovating and effective. For these practices to spread, it's of course preferable if as many people as possible, at every level of an organisation, are trained at the facilitation of Liberating Structures. It's a viral process.

By the way, to have a "liberated company", one needs a gracious and charismatic chief, who's able and willing to launch this process. One could even claim, although it would be a slight exaggeration, that the "kick-off" of a liberating company must come from a top-down decision, due to the simple fact that it's hard for a particular entity or department to adopt this process overnight. On the other hand, Liberating Structures can pop up at anytime, place or hierarchical level.

A facilitator operates at two levels: to prepare, define the goal and intent of the work sessions and, of course, during facilitation itself. The goal of the facilitator is to define the objective, question the clients and understand their needs and what they're trying to achieve. Once we have this general picture, with the main goal and sub-goals, we'll have to think about the best way to address a problem and create a series of Liberating Structures linked to one another. For instance, I could generate a set of solution goals with TRIZ and then use a "W.3" ("What?", "So What?", "Now What?") to encourage debate and mutual listening that could lead to action plans.

In any case, the facilitator should have a "low profile" as regards to the content (it's safe to assume that the participants have the knowledge), but "high profile" regarding the structure itself. The facilitator's goal in situ is to set the rhythm of the structure, make him/herself heard, stay visible at all times and remain alert to everything that's going on.

Jean-Michel Gode told us that Holacracy focused on the process rather than the egos. Is it the same thing with Liberating Structures?

Yes, there are similarities. Liberating Structures must make sure that the results are suitable for the organisation, but this isn't really the task of the facilitator. He must make sure that the facilitation goes well for workshops to make headway towards the results, but to which results exactly, we don't know. However, the perimeter of the roles and fields of expertise are rigorously defined in Holacracy. With Liberating Structures, if a participant wishes to talk about a topic "outside of his jurisdiction", he perfectly can. It's completely open. The only restrictive aspect is the rhythm: Liberating Structures are based on the assumption that a highly rigorous timing is more prone to foster new ideas than meetings lacking any real time limit.

Can Liberating Structures go hand-in-hand with Agile practices?

We noticed that people working with agile methods throughout Europe were very interested in Liberating Structures. The defining trait of agile methods is to promote operating modes in very short, cadenced cycles, like sprints and retrospectives, that also rely on the feedback from internal or external clients. Liberating Structures are also very effective when they include the end client and to foster as much content as possible in a very short time. But the agile method often leads to meetings that weren't specifically planned and that lack any animation canvas to support them. So there's a real risk of backsliding into an ordinary meeting. Adding Liberating Structures to the process could bring more diversity and efficacy. Liberating Structures can really bring agile meetings to life.

Do you believe Stormz is compatible with the Liberating Structures?

I'd really like to combine them. Many things in Stormz could actually compete with some Liberating Structures. But the tool undoubtingly brings something new to the table: like the quizzes, that I'd have trouble picturing organising only with Liberating Structures, the collaborative walks and, more generally, anything related to remote and online facilitation. In this regard, Stormz can improve the potential of a work session. Organizing a TRIP with Stormz would help us collect and improve all the ideas, even in very large groups. Technology brings a real added-value in terms of data consolidation and process compared to paperboards - which also have their own advantages. I'm sure that Stormz's digital solution could make the Liberating Structures more adapted to the needs of agile teams who are often remote, nomadic and connected.

More generally speaking, it's critical to alternate and combine different sets of tools in order to involve and engage participants according to the context and dynamics.

How can we learn to use Liberating Structures?

The first thing to do would be to visit the main website: liberatingstructures.com, which contains all the information, description of the structures, organisation modes, etc. Then, the book that I mentioned can also be extremely useful. And there's also a free application, available on IOS and Android.

And finally, In Exelcis organizes training sessions. We'll shortly hold a two-day workshop in Paris on the 15th and 16th of November open to anyone wishing to get hands-on training, discover the Liberating Structures and experiment with our methodologies.

Don't hesitate to join our Facebook group to discuss this interview! Can you think of situations, as a facilitator or within your organisation, where Liberating Structures could be put to use? If there are other topics you'd like us to explore, or people we should absolutely interview, our door is always open :)

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