Using Liberating Structures in larger groups

03 January 2019

I recently had the chance to implement a string of liberating structures in a larger setting with roughly 400 volunteers at a congress. I ran the string multiple times with changing participants. My mission was to on-board all those helpers and convey a good amount of information about how we structure our work.

Liberating Structures

Five conventional structures guide the way we organize routine interactions and how groups work together: presentations, managed discussions, open discussions, status reports and brainstorm sessions. Liberating Structures add 33 more options to the big five conventional

The big five structures we use today are not always the best choice when we are dealing with large and diverse groups of people.

Our setting

Imagine a 350m² (~3700ft²) conference room with wooden wall panels and roughly 330 seats and matching tables in row arrangement. The setup was full frontal as the venue expected a “classic” presentation.

The volunteers are highly diverse. The age range goes from 15 to 75 years and they are from all over the world, with a focus on western countries. The lingua franca is English. All volunteers in this room are willing to offer help in order to make the conference possible. Without this huge support by our community, the conference wouldn’t have such a low entry-fee.

The conference has grown over the last years, reaching 16.000 participants last year and roughly 4.000 of those are volunteering in one way or another. However due to our growth we have a large influx of newcomers who haven’t been exposed to our working culture and most likely have no in-group reference point.

Spacial preparations

Since the room was setup for a more classical presentation we had to prepare it for our open approach first. In my introduction (using a microphone is highly recommended, due to room size) I thanked all volunteers for attending this meeting and asked them to move all tables to the side and afterwards take a seat again.

This first physical tasks also started some chatter and people mingled more freely in order to accomplish the simple but labor intensive mission. This took only about 3 minutes to finish and also showed how powerful self-organisation is, if a clear task is given in a direct and simple manner.

Mental preparations

After congratulating everyone for accomplishing a task in only 3 minutes which had taken us (me and other organizers) at least 45 minutes, I taught them a method to “quite down the room without making any additional noises” by raising your hand above your head and finish your last sentence, fall silent and let this propagate through the room, replicating the pattern if you see it.

We had 2-3 training exercises were I asked them to strike up a conversation with their direct neighbour about their travel arrangements or the weather on the day they arrived, then raised my hand and waited for the silence to propagate.

After thanking them again for trying this with me I asked them to remember this technique for later.

Our string

Since most of our volunteers have not been exposed to liberating structures and even those who are working in agile work environments are most likely not living certain values of agile culture due to corporate reasons, it is important to ease them into new methods gradually.

I introduced liberating structure as “trying something new” and “some of you might already know this” in order to spark curiosity.

Not all points listed below are liberating structures, since simple information presentation was also a part of the meeting.

  1. Presentation (2 minutes)

    Introducing myself and our agenda (the string).

  2. Presentation (12 minutes | 2 minute per team)

    Introducing our five most volunteer-relevant teams with 1-2 persons each team to the audience. Each team presents their area of expertise and how and when other volunteers will interact with them.

    My learnings here are:

    • Have them prepare a speech and run it by you. Most people will not be able to talk freely to a crowd of 20 let alone 200 people.
    • Provide them with a readable timer and a person in the crowd to anchor too. Have some of the upcoming or former speakers sit in the crowd, so they can relate to those.
    • Save Q&A for later, make this clear to your other speakers.
  3. Impromptu Networking (8 minutes | 2 questions, one side à 1½ minutes per round.)

    Ask our volunteers to split in two groups: Those with volunteer experience on this conference and those without. Make clear it is a self-assessment, no one will test them on this. (Use hand-raising technique to calm the room after separation and for training purpose).

    After the two sub-groups have formed (and any undecided volunteers are helped to a decision), ask the experienced volunteers to raise their hand as long as they don’t have at least one matching person from the opposite group, then ask them to meet in the middle to pair up proper, tell each other their names and fall silent again. Encourage them to meet new people. (Use hand-raising technique again.)

    Ask the following question to the newcomers: “What motivated you to be a volunteer on this event, tell your partner. You have 1½ minutes.”

    After calming the room again, address the experienced volunteers with following question: “How did you help the last time around on the congress, what were your favorite tasks. You have 1½minutes.”

    Thank everybody for participating and ask them to be seated again.

    My learnings:

    • Use a different gesture for matching pairs of people and calming the room. Using the same just leads to confusion and one loses the ability to calm the room very quickly. I recommend not just raising your hand, but holding a token or making a light bulb screwing motion in the air for signaling the lack of a partner.
    • Always use a little more time than announced, as people need it to get used to hard timeboxes.
    • Make your instructions clear at the start, discussing while everyone sorts themselves through the room is very unproductive.
  4. Managed discussion: Q&A (~10 — 15 minutes)

    This is a managed discussion, it’s about asking the core organizers about process changes which might have occurred since the last event or clarify certain rules and expectations.

    Everyone is allowed to raise a hand and ask anyone of the core organizers a question, either generic or about their specific team.

  5. 1-2-4-Into: (7 minutes | 1 minute alone, 2 minutes in pair, 2 minutes in quartet)

    Ask the volunteers to spread out again and explain you’ll ask them a question and they should first think by themselves for an answer first.

    The question is “What are things you really like to do or achieve while helping on the congress and why? You have 1 minute.”

    After 1 minute they should look for a random partner, make themselves acquainted and present their answers to each other for 2 minutes. Then again they look for another group and repeat the process a third time for 2 minutes.

    The volunteers now are in groups of four and have four interesting answers presented to each other. Thank them again for sharing and ask them to remain in the group for the following bit and keep their answers in mind.

  6. 15% Solutions: (6 minutes)

    In their groups of four, ask the volunteers to make a mental list of two things, they could begin doing right now to achieve doing those things they’d like to do on congress. Have one idea for your own topic and one generic for the group. Let them think for 1 minute.

    Let everyone in your four person group share their 15% solutions to each other, hopefully have a take away in advice or encouragement. Everyone has 1 minute.

    Calm the room and ask them to be seated again.

    My learnings:

    • Have a low tone signaling device for switching. Using stop watches in groups adds to much drift. Use a small gong or signing bowl to mark the next cycle or iteration, without disturbing the generic talk process. Otherwise use the hand-raising technique.

    • Encourage them early to open up. Make clear this is a community process and deep-rooted trust is important, but only share with other what you are comfortable with.

  7. Presentation (3 minutes)

    Thank everybody for participating. Start a simple debrief, by encourage them to stay connected after the meeting. Remind them how all went through a similar process as they arrived here and how they all share a common goal, which is to make this conference possible.

We only had the room for one hour and used roughly 50 minutes each session. I wouldn’t recommend any longer sessions with this group size without any form of break. The noise level during the structures was quite high and I imagine it’ll stress out people pretty quickly, having to balance complex problem solving and emotional topics combined with a exhibition hall setting.


Since it was a first for me to use Liberating Structures in such a large group setting I was pretty pleased how well it was accepted and how smoothly I could implement it. It also meshed well with regular meeting techniques, even better than i anticipated.

I wager here, it actually helped to “break” the setting up from time to time to get people to open up. I got feedback from multiple persons (organizers and other volunteers alike) who really liked this approach, but I didn’t explicitly ask for feedback so negative criticism might be lacking due to that.

I strongly recommend trying it yourself, if you got the opportunity.