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Tools of Engagement

July/August 2018

By Catherine Lilly

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Tapping the diverse perspectives and rich input of every employee requires group processes that invite real participation.

“Good morning everyone. Let’s get started. I want to hear your thoughts about the campus climate issues, which the president raised yesterday, and then we will have our usual roundtable discussion. At 9:30, we are scheduled to hear from the director of benefits, followed by a discussion of the proposed change to the benefits election schedule. Finally, we’ll brainstorm agenda topics for the spring leadership retreat.” 

Ninety minutes later, the 12 attendees emerge and proceed to their next meeting, and so it goes throughout the day. 

In my 20-plus years as a senior leader in higher education, I’ve easily spent the majority of many workdays interacting with others. My colleagues and I have assembled to plan for the implementation of Lean practices, quality improvement, and enterprise systems. We’ve strategized about change management, customer service, employee engagement, diversity, and inclusion. These conversations have taken place in informal small groups in my office; in department meetings in conference rooms; in town halls at large venues; and at off-site board, leadership, and project team retreats. Sound familiar? 

Foundational to all these situations is group dynamics, group process, and group interaction.

I wholeheartedly believe the research proving the enhanced power and effectiveness of diverse perspectives working together to solve complex problems. As a practitioner, I am always optimistic about the potential that can be achieved each time individuals congregate. And yet, when I honestly assess how much of the time spent in groups is personally energizing, visibly creative, and truly engaging, I must admit that few efforts reach that potential. And, rarely have we consistently unleashed the best of all hearts and minds that have a stake in the matter. Instead, on some days, time spent in meetings simply feels like walking at slow speed on a treadmill.

In many instances, it isn’t the particular challenge under discussion or the people involved in the meeting who are to blame. Most often, the tired approaches to group discussion and collaboration are what get in the way of vibrant, creative participation from everyone involved. Like bad habits, by unconsciously exercising only a limited number of conventional group processes with “the usual suspects,” we unwittingly privilege the privileged (those with power, voice, or influence); reinforce convergent thinking (the way we’ve always done it); flatten energy and passion; and neglect the quietly innovative viewpoint. 

Worse, we fail to include those with the direct experience most necessary for a workable solution and whose support will  be necessary to move forward with any real or lasting change.

In this article, I introduce a fresh phenomenon called Liberating Structures, which has taken a number of higher education institutions by storm. It differs from other approaches to employee engagement in that it is not a prescriptive program, but, rather, a set of group process techniques that can be adapted and applied in multiple formats to generate the best ideas and full participation of everyone involved.  

Liberating Structures Explained

Liberating Structures is a portfolio of more than 30 easy-to-use group techniques developed by Henri Lipmanowicz, former president of Merck International and co-founder of Plexus Institute; and Keith McCandless, co-founder of Social Invention Group. The structures are detailed in their manual The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation (Liberating Structures Press, 2014), and on their website. 

The techniques have been widely tested in education and business settings for many years and have achieved consistent, positive results.

In contrast to this wide portfolio, most of us have a limited repertoire of ways in which we structure daily group interactions. Lipmanowicz and McCandless describe the five conventional group structures people use most often: presentations, managed discussions, status updates, brainstorming, and open discussions. 

Let’s examine the use of these structures in the opening example: I want to hear your thoughts about the campus climate issues the president raised yesterday (open discussion) and then we will have our usual roundtable discussion (status updates). At 9:30, we are scheduled to hear from the director of benefits (presentation), followed by a discussion of the proposed change to the benefits election schedule (managed discussion). Finally, we’ll brainstorm agenda topics for the spring leadership retreat (brainstorm). 

Lipmanowicz and McCandless go on to explain that, not unlike DNA, underneath these (and all) group processes, are the various design elements that we can utilize to influence the outcomes of group interactions. These design elements include:

Let’s see how these play out. Too often, the leader conducts the “open discussion” with the group assembled around a conference table, in the seats each usually sits in, during which the few regular talkers participate while most others are quiet. What gets shared is largely predictable. Likewise, “status updates” typically allow only one person at a time to share in a one-to-many format, often with little or no discussion and covering information that could have been summarized in an e-mail. Then comes the “presentation”—the most controlled of the conventional structures. In front of the same group, the speaker reviews his or her PowerPoint slides in the 30 minutes allotted, again in a mind-numbing, one-to-many format, and often without comments. Next, “managed discussion” again engages a few in a pros-cons discussion that typically reinforces the conclusion already developed. Few alternatives are considered, if any. Finally, “brainstorming” engages a handful of the most vocal people and produces a limited set of ideas that are rarely novel. 

While this assessment may overstate the ineffectual nature of conventional group processes, what is noteworthy is that these approaches not only are limited, but also engage only a small segment of those affected. As such, most conventional approaches unconsciously and invisibly reinforce hierarchy and the status quo and constrict participation in decision making. They also discourage vulnerability, create unnecessary formality, and focus on probabilities instead of possibilities. Conventional approaches too often stifle the true expression of the diverse, often conflicting, ideas and input needed to create broad buy-in or to arrive at desperately needed unconventional solutions.

The Value of Complex Thinking In Action

Most conventional group dynamics, focused on breaking people and topics into manageable components, were developed during the mid-20th century and are based on conventional sciences. In contrast, Liberating Structures are based on insights emerging from complexity science, which is the study of whole systems and how they interact. They apply principles from physical, biological, and human systems such as perpetual novelty, patterns in network interactions, self-organizing systems, nonlinearity, redundant processing, and simultaneous mutual shaping between us and our environment. These approaches better equip us to deal with our current era, a time characterized as increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA theory). 

Higher education is becoming increasingly complex in terms of both the disciplines and the stakeholders we work with, observes experienced Liberating Structures practitioner Darin Harris, a consultant in the Office of Strategic Consulting, University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It will be automatic for leaders and facilitators to ask for tools that can handle this complexity,” he says. “These methods allow us to really drill down into the nuance of divergent perspectives and then efficiently reformulate those into solutions that are not only innovative but also have broad appeal.”

Behind each structure is the conscious employment of every design element to unleash the most innovative outcomes from everyone involved and to break through the typical bottlenecks to participation that often includes differences in function, role, personality, institutional longevity, and generation. 

By making small tweaks in how meeting participants are invited to engage, and how time, tasks, and responsibility are distributed, group participation and performance can be transformed. Natalie Lindgren, manager of HR training and development, University of Kentucky, Lexington, reminds us that it’s no longer effective to address today’s problems through limited conversations. “In a way, because these methods force everyone to participate, they can make people a little uncomfortable. But then, they get people involved who might think that they don’t have anything to contribute.”


One of the simplest and most commonly applied Liberating Structures used to increase group participation is called 1-2-4-All. (See sidebar, “Unleashing Creative Capacity,” for descriptions of other tools mentioned throughout this article.) The name itself describes the time, the steps, and the group configuration involved in the activity. It goes like this: 

With 1-2-4-All, in the space of only 15 minutes, each member has been called upon to mentally engage with the question, informally share input, and listen to others. At the end of one round, the entire group has been involved in synthesizing a deeper understanding of the issues, problems, or solutions that have emerged and a multitude of perspectives has been shared. 

Efficiently Expediting Input and Action

Revisiting the first item on the agenda for the group meeting (at the beginning of this article), let’s consider how Liberating Structures could be employed instead. The purpose could be: “Let’s understand our team’s perspective on the campus climate concerns mentioned by the president and walk away with a mandate for action.” As step one, in 15 minutes you might use 1-2-4-All to engage everyone present in reflecting on the question and achieve a complex, yet collective, understanding of everyone’s diverse perspectives. 

As a second step, for the next 15 minutes, you could use another structure called What, So What, Now What to engage participants in three questions: 

If you employed 1-2-4-All to do this as well, within less than 30 minutes, a complex and deeper understanding of the question at hand has been achieved by everyone present, and many ideas for next steps relevant to all participants are now on the table. 

If this meeting were to take place in a larger group—for instance, with more than 15 people—you could end with a step three, spending 25 minutes in a structure called 25/10 Crowd Sourcing. In Crowd Sourcing, we invite everyone present to contribute one bold idea for specific actions the group should take to address the issue. In this structure, each person writes on a single index card his or her best idea. Then, everyone stands up and assembles in a group. During the next segment, the energy builds as participants move around and exchange those cards with one another within the group. At random intervals, group members stop, read, and rate the idea in front of them on a one-to-five scale (with five being best). After five rounds, the votes are tallied. The best ideas, which have become completely anonymous at this point, will have received a score totaling 25 and are “owned” by the group. You can then ask participants to read out the ideas receiving scores of 25 on down until you have the top 10 ideas. 

Through using 1-2-4-All; What, So What, Now What; and 25/10 Crowd Sourcing, in the span of 55 minutes you have deeply engaged a group in understanding multiple perspectives on a topic, analyzing the implications, and consensually prioritizing the boldest ideas for moving forward. 

Throughout my tenure in higher education, I have always been on the lookout for novel but proven approaches to developing leader and organization effectiveness. In my former role as senior adviser to the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I was lucky to be charged to use my passion for evidence-based best practices to make work within departments, groups, and teams of faculty and staff more fun, engaging, and ultimately, more productive. 

Liberating the University of Michigan

I immediately understood the promise of Liberating Structures when I participated in a concurrent session presented by co-developer McCandless, while attending the 2014 National Conference of the Network for Change and Continuous Innovation in Higher Education (NCCI). Convinced that we needed to develop these skills on the University of Michigan campus, in the fall of 2015, I successfully influenced a coalition of five senior academic and administrative leaders to fund an introductory two-day workshop teaching a subset of Liberating Structures techniques to more than 55 attendees from across the university. 

In another multiday workshop in 2016, we introduced more than 20 of the structures to 100-plus campus members engaged in the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) strategic planning efforts. Many of the recently tapped DE&I planning leads in our workshop were new to any sort of facilitation or engagement approaches, and this community had been particularly cautioned by our president to avoid creating their individual unit plans using “recycled diversity objectives,” especially if developed through limited participation. 

In this workshop, we taught campus staff and faculty members how to use the Liberating Structures tool set to engage school, college, or campuswide participation in creating their unit plans. Afterward, we heard reports of immediate use with students, faculty, and staff in their schools, colleges, and units in focus groups, town halls, and smaller discussions to identify current challenges, actions, and priorities needed to support the university’s DE&I goals. The 49 unit plans developed that year eventually comprised the bulk of the university’s overarching five-year DE&I strategic plan.

At the request of Kevin Hegarty, the university’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, I also led a multi-day Liberating Structures workshop specifically focused on increasing the ability of administrative supervisors to engage and empower their staff members to participate in everyday work. In this case, the structures that we taught supervisors focused on enhancing ongoing group meetings, performance management conversations, departmental planning sessions, and customer needs assessments. 

Organic Participation 

By my count, at least 50 higher education institutions are actively using Liberating Structures to enhance engagement and input. Here are some examples. 

The University of Kentucky. Always looking for opportunities to ​expand the skill set of his leadership team, Eric N. Monday, UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration, worked with the university’s HR leadership to convene an introductory two-day Liberating Structures workshop in fall 2017. The workshop was seen as a follow-on initiative to a campuswide unconscious bias training that ultimately involved 12,000 faculty, staff, and students. Monday required all his direct reports to attend and to bring two staff members with them, and also issued an open invitation to faculty and staff from across the campus to fill the 75 slots.

Very soon after the training, Monday challenged his senior team to use the structures to engage one another with the challenging topic of key disruptions to higher education. The session with his leadership team was so effective at generating productive discussions that the same session was requested by the president’s cabinet and subsequently was conducted with UK’s board of trustees, together with members of the larger community.

The sessions began with Impromptu Networking to get participants up and talking about two questions: “What disruptions are we facing in higher education?” and “What could happen if we fail to acknowledge and respond to those disruptions?”

Next, the group engaged in a structure called Wicked Questions (which articulates paradoxical challenges that a group must confront to succeed). Using the 1-2-4-All format, ​the group was asked: What opposing-yet-complementary strategies could UK pursue simultaneously in order to be successful in facing the disruptions we identified? As an example: How do we create additional online programs without diminishing the vitality of on-campus programs?

“In these sessions, as part of our ‘Path Forward’ five-year strategic planning, we identified key disruptions to address to enable the university to thrive in a potentially uncertain future,” reports Monday. These disruptions were eventually categorized into four broad themes: competency-based education, student demographics, technology, and affordability. 

Soon after, a 30-person, crosscampus, Risk Management Advisory Committee used Liberating Structures in a two-hour session to more deeply understand these disruptions and plan specific next steps in each of their functional areas. 

“These valuable structures stimulate the conversations and sense of belonging that UK President Eli Capilouto champions as critical to our success,” says Monday. His advice to other CBOs: “If introducing Liberating Structures to your campus, make a personal habit of using the structures yourself. When staff and faculty see them being used by senior leadership, it gives great validity to the tool set.” Likewise, the symbolism of using them throughout the enterprise quickly creates momentum toward the kind of change you want to see as a leader, notes Monday. He furthermore suggests focusing first on the question or the value you want the structures to provide. “For us, it’s about how we can enable our full campus to have a presence in all decisions, and how we can create or better utilize good conversations between and within traditionally separated departments and units to achieve better outcomes.”

Eastfield College. Larry Wilson is executive director of human resources and interim vice president of organization development at Eastfield College, Mesquite, Texas. After being exposed to Troika Consulting (each person asks and receives advice in a specialized trio format), Wilson immediately tried it. He used it, along with the What, So What, Now What structures, to conclude an HR session he presented at a North Texas Community College conference to help process the learnings from the conference. His was one of the most highly rated sessions at the conference. 

Wilson has now incorporated a version of Troika Consulting into a training called “How to Have Better Crucial Conversations With Subordinates,” to help others apply the technique. He also now uses 1-2-4-All at the beginning or end of many department meetings to engage each individual in discussion or action planning on at least one agenda topic, including those requested by his CBO—whether it is to become more sustainable, streamline work processes, or brainstorm creative cost-cutting measures. Between that and his routine use of Troika Consulting, Wilson says individuals now leave meetings with a renewed sense of respect for their peers and excitement about trying new solutions to ongoing challenges. 

 “All institutions have institutional cultures that stymie innovation,” observes Wilson. He suggests that implementation of Liberating Structures be considered like a stealth culture change effort. “There’s been a slow organic spread here at Eastfield. People who become exposed become fans over time as they try the tools themselves.” Of great value is the fact that Liberating Structures techniques empower everyone to be a facilitator. They don’t require a sponsor, a budget, or an ongoing financial investment, notes Wilson. At the very least, they create incremental innovation and foster more equity, empathy, and respect.  

One way to start testing these tools is to create a self-study group and introduce a new structure each quarter, with the aim of integrating the set of tools into everyday approaches, suggests Wilson. “You can also train a ‘stealth’ team from across business affairs as a means to inject new thinking into HR, payroll, and finance functions.” 

University of Wisconsin–Madison. Maury Cotter is the director emeritus of UW-Madison’s Office of Quality Improvement (which was merged with another office to form the current Office of Strategic Consulting). She describes working with a faculty member who asked for help to actively engage faculty across campus in group settings to generate ideas for breakthrough crossdisciplinary research in infectious diseases. Rather than inviting faculty members to participate in a traditional group discussion or focus group, Cotter recommended using Liberating Structures. They put out a call and about 40 faculty members from across campus attended one of two evening sessions. 

Cotter used 1-2-4-All and 25/10 Crowd Sourcing to generate bold ideas, which were then clustered, discussed, and voted on to determine the highest priorities. The top ideas included: broad host and environmental determinants (examining variation in susceptibility to an infectious agents); multiscale modeling (modeling innate to adaptive immune programming for vaccinology); and health and molecular data (developing a predictive infectious disease model integrating health record data and molecular data). A facet of this workshop outcome has now been incorporated into a grant proposal to major funding agencies.  

Cotter has also used the structures to transform traditional approaches to strategic planning, resulting in more innovative and engaged planning outcomes. In one segment of a strategic planning retreat with UW’s University Relations, Cotter led the group through the use of Ecocycle Planning, a unique structure used to collectively assess a current portfolio of services, activities, or relationships in terms of their state within a natural life cycle. 

With regard to each key departmental activity, the group identified whether it was gestating (in discussion), in early development, fully mature, or headed for creative destruction. As a result of employing this unusual form of analysis, the group was able to better identify challenges in crosscampus communication and chart some new directions, which were then incorporated directly into the comprehensive strategic plan. 

One example of a new direction included launching a University Relations Leadership Development Program to create greater synergy of communication between the central campus and schools, colleges, and units, explains Cotter.

University of Arizona. Helena Rodrigues, UA’s assistant vice president for human resources, has employed Liberating Structures to increase effectiveness within departments whose climates have become dysfunctional. 

In one example, she used 1-2-4-All with a faculty group experiencing internal conflict. “They really enjoyed the opportunity to write out their thoughts about this conflict and took several minutes longer than the prescribed one minute. I finally had to move them along to the portion where they shared what they had written in pairs and then in quartets. They were so excited and relieved to be in a nonthreatening conversation with each other that their different points of view easily came to light,” says Rodriques. 

Because it can be particularly challenging in some environments for participants in meetings to question the status quo or raise concerns or suggest improvements to a process, Rodrigues argues that the structures’ techniques are essential tools for business officers and other leaders to help them generate important input from their teams.  

Eastern Michigan University (EMU). Diana Wong likewise has experience in leading faculty members through a contentious discussion. As associate professor of strategy, organization development, and entrepreneurship at EMU, Wong employs Liberating Structures in faculty meetings, in her graduate courses, and in her consulting work. 

In one especially challenging situation, Wong used Conversation Café (structured rounds of group conversation on a difficult topic) and then Crowd Sourcing to help faculty members engage in a difficult conversation about needed changes to their online curriculum. “The use of these two liberating structures allowed us to quickly see where there was consensus and to temper the loud voices,” she says. The faculty group was surprised to walk away within two hours with full agreement about needed changes to the curriculum and the offerings that would best suit the learning needs of their students. 

Wong cautions that especially in a shared governance environment, if you don’t consult with faculty on difficult issues like space and budget, a significant voice and presence can be omitted and then become energized to upend any decisions that are made without their input. “I’ve experienced that using Liberating Structure to engage faculty and staff in decision making around these issues builds skills to interact more collegially, enabling us to work on balancing the budget and managing resources in a more transparent and ethical manner, all the while communicating fairness about the distribution of resources.”

Princeton University. At Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., senior human resources managers Clara Stillwagon and Kay Sylla provide HR services to academic and nonacademic units. Both were interested in using Liberating Structures to gain a better understanding of recent survey results and to identify appropriate action planning and next steps. Both decided to use the structures to debrief survey results with their respective client groups. 

Sylla and a colleague used What, So What, Now What to share survey-related questions in advance with focus group participants, and then used the 1-2-4-All tool in the groups to create a nonthreatening environment to share what was going on and ideas for action. “Because the structure engages everyone in thinking, and then participating in conversations in pairs, it draws out more meaningful data than traditional discussions, especially when there are complex scenarios,” says Sylla. 

Stillwagon, along with a colleague, used Crowd Sourcing to help her departments identify how to immediately respond to the issues raised in the employee engagement survey. “My academic managers loved it,” says Stillwagon. “We were able to get concrete suggestions to help support staff development. One interesting outcome was that one of the managers liked this activity so much, the manager introduced and used Crowd Sourcing within the manager’s own department,” says Stillwagon. “We were very excited that [participants] really saw the value of these tools and are eager to use more tools in the upcoming academic year.”  

In addition, two valuable suggestions resulted from the session: (1) Use Cross Training to create crossfunctional teams to tackle tasks and gain knowledge outside of their existing departments and (2) Make greater use of development plans to identify individual training needs, map out employee goals, and suggest ways to get there.

Culture change is essential for higher education institutions to stay viable and relevant in these challenging times. Institutional leaders should strive to unleash employee energy and engage the hearts, minds, and hands of every person in the institution to do this. The examples and observations from colleagues around the country who are enacting Liberating Structures serve as new signposts for creating inclusive, innovative, and empowering cultures that foster truly breakthrough solutions. Liberating Structures can enable each individual within our colleges and universities—regardless of role—to contribute his or her best to our meaningful missions of advancing new knowledge, changing young lives, and equipping the leaders of our shared future. 

CATHERINE LILLY, former senior adviser to the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is a senior consultant in Sibson Consulting’s Higher Education Practice. Lilly’s previous Business Officer article on employee and climate assessment surveys, “Benchmarking Happiness,” appeared in the June 2008 issue.

Related Topics

Liberating Structures differs from other approaches to employee engagement in that it is not a prescriptive program, but, rather, a set of group process techniques that can be adapted and applied in multiple formats.

In the span of 55 minutes you have deeply engaged a group in understanding multiple perspectives on a topic.

“You can also train a ‘stealth’ team from across business affairs as a means to inject new thinking into HR, payroll, and finance functions.”

—Larry Wilson, Eastfield College

“The use of these two liberating structures allowed us to quickly see where there was consensus and to temper the loud voices.”

—Diana Wong, Eastern Michigan University