Beyond Design Thinking: Liberating Structures

I recently encountered a website that piqued my interest. The homepage, Introduction to Liberating Structures (LS), inspired me to think about what I always think about – meaningful organizational and team change – from a novel integrated lens.

The founders, Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, do not mention biomimicry explicitly on their site, and their backgrounds are in human services management and complexity science, and industrial and chemical engineering respectively. However, in my humble opinion, Liberating Structures is an innovative application of biomimicry to the design of human interactions. One of my colleagues and fellow change management specialist Astrid DesLandes, who has practiced some of the exercises, confirms that LS uses some of biomimicry godmother Janine Benyus’ work. Other evidence I’ve noticed of the similarities between LS and biomimicry are some of the LS principles, including being locally-focused, which is essentially the same as being locally attuned – one of Life’s Principles, as well as the use of simple rules, which nature practices liberally, as I learned in the flocking exercise on the beach during the Biomimicry for Social Innovation Workshop this April.

A Liberating Structure is defined as “simple rules that make it easy to include and unleash everyone in shaping the future.” A mission no different from that of Alchemus Prime. Sign me up!

Liberating Structures offers a 33-item menu of practices or exercises that help teams engage with each other and solve problems differently. Some of the exercises are similar to those we encounter in design thinking. For example, the 5 whys is a typical tool in design thinking (at least as I co-taught it in the Research as Design program at Stanford), and Liberating Structures expands it into the 9 Whys and applies it to the purpose of the team’s collaboration.

In general, these exercises are more in-depth than the ones you would find in design thinking (although design thinking offers a fair punch in terms of transformative power in much less time). For example, the Critical Uncertainties is like prototyping on steroids: a 100-minute exercise specifically applied to the business environment, including assessing past failures, evaluating past and current strategies, and increasing adaptivity.

The individual practices can be combined depending on what a team really needs, and this system of microstructures offers a powerful set of tools for transformation – I will be considering them for the workshops and retreats we offer. The website is chock-full of resources, which have apparently been applied around the world. Get engaged, and liberate yourself for optimal productivity! A fun integration of biomimicry and design thinking for teams wanting to feel good as they do good. Highly recommended.

Of course, if you want to add more behavioral sciences and some mindfulness and meditation to the mix, let’s talk!

Thanks to my dear friend and colleague Theresa Southam for bringing the Liberating Structures site to my attention.

Liberating Structures offers a set of useful practices for team engagement and productivity.

Liberating Structures offers a set of useful practices for team engagement and productivity.


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