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Fostering collective intelligence through “Liberating Structures"

Recently, I had the opportunity to introduce a small network of counsellors and consultants in Canada’s beautiful Pacific Northwest to a both effective and inspiring set of methods designed to generate positive energy when it comes to organizational change and transformation.

These methods are called „Liberating Structures“, developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz who had both worked in and for Health services and the pharmaceutical and chemical industry. McCandless and Lipmanowicz have spent the last seventeen years to create and promote an „open-source“ toolkit to release the visionary power of groups and organizations, resulting from their professional experiences that real change and advancement can only occur when for example all employees within a certain department have the chance to equally participate in the process and do not feel estranged and dominated. “Liberating Structures” have become a world-wide-community, with user groups and networks spreading all over the planet ( For me, this toolkit enhances trust and quickly fosters lively group participation on the path to corporate change.

While preparing my session for the counselling network in Canada, several situations from my own workshops came across my mind. I learned that often and especially when processes of corporate change shall be kicked off, employees have a huge desire to talk first. This may include articulating all the frustration and deception which had previously been accumulated, sometimes in years. I feel the participants need this space and so, I let them take it – to a certain degree. "Letting-it-all-out“ has cleaning and clearing effects.

Yet, almost inevitably, these „let-it-all-out“-discussions are reaching a kind of tipping point after a while, a point where everything that can be said has been said already, where all arguments have been shared and maybe also contested. Still there are some who keep on talking, repeating their position over and over or bringing in little variations of their theme. In the case of corporate transformations, in my view, these people have often worked in a company for a long time and/or are opinion-leaders who think they know very well what is working in their work structures and also - and pretty much more determined - what is not.

Let me be clear: I appreciate those perspectives, they are very helpful for designing and implementing sustainable change in organizations but sometimes they tend to block exactly this change! And while the discussion is turning more and more into a monologue and resembles a dead-end road on the route to change, others in the room are drifting off, stop listening, remain passive. Except for the opinion-leader(s), everyone in the room, including myself, feels that something has to happen now, things have to move forward. And this is the "Liberating Structures“ moment!

Take for example the method called „25/10“, one of 33 methods that McCandless and Lipmanowicz have developed up to now. Basically, „25/10“ works like this: The moderator raises a question suitable to trigger the participants‘ imagination, for example: „If you’d be ten times as courageous as you think you actually are, what would you change in your department and which would be the first steps into this direction?“

After that everybody notes his or her answer on a card, swaps cards with another person and evaluates the different ideas, with 5 points being the maximum. This is repeated five times so that the best idea would gain 25 points. In general, the ten ideas with the best evaluation can be further discussed afterwards in the workshop. In my experience, the atmosphere changes significantly, participants are now capable of seeing corporate change as something highly productive – and as something that lies in their own hands (not only in their bosses‘ heads)! It’s also a good opportunity to crank up the music!

All in all, „Liberating Structures“ mobilize the collective intelligence of a group. And it is easy to do, as everybody can apply and understand them at once. Last but not least these methods are a good way to combine serious questions with a playful mode of developing new perspectives and ideas.

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