Liberating Structures for Service Design

Open Change ran a workshop at the Service Design in Government Conference during March 2020. Here we provide further background information and the outcome of research we did specifically for the event. Since the event we have added a new section on liberating structures for online events, that draws on our recent experience.

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“At times, being a facilitator is a bit like playing with the Lego, really.”

Valentina Salvi, Service Designer, Accenture Interactive, Amsterdam.

As Valentina Salvi explains, with Lego the more bricks, people and objects you have, the more versatile and adaptable your creations become. It’s the same for facilitators who have mastery over a range of diverse tools and methods. 


Liberating Structures represents a recent and very significant addition to the facilitator’s toolkit. They are 33 methods - or microstructures - for facilitating meetings, workshops, conversations and indeed any form of interaction between people. While there are 33 currently described and detailed in the book by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, others are being developed, adapted and borrowed from a wide range of fields by other people. Liberating Structures shares many qualities with open source movements - there is a great deal of sharing and experimenting, and a keen almost evangelical global community of practitioners and developers with regular meet-ups and sharing events. As the Liberating Structures creators explain in a recent post: “Liberating Structures (LS) are simple rules that make it possible to include and engage every voice in shaping the future.”


“Microstructures are the way you organise all your routine interactions. They guide and control how groups work together. They shape your conversations and meetings. Often, the familiar microstructures become frozen in routine and, in the process, become invisible”.


Examples of conventional microstructures are:

  • Presentations

  • Managed discussions

  • Status reports

  • Open discussions

  • Brainstorms


The first three are exclusive in terms of who can be involved and centralise power. The last two can be too loose, and all five favour those who hold power (usually men) and are extrovert and have a tendency towards grandstanding. None are good at dealing with complex problem-solving.


Liberating Structures are designed to be inclusive, to distribute control across the group - not just to select individuals - and liberate participants creativity, innovation and shared sense of purpose.


They enable everyone to think and be heard

At Open Change we put great emphasis on democratic conversations and hearing the quiet voices. Some of the LS methods we have found to be amongst the best ways of including everyone right from the start. While some methods can feel over-structured to begin with, they effectively amplify the quieter voices and turn down the louder ones.

They complement design methods

In her post Design Sprint & Liberating Structures: the story of a mash-up, Valentina Salvi identifies nine methods that work well within a design sprint format. We have used TRIZ, W3 and Impromptu Networking effectively in design workshops along with some others. Each has a different value within the design process. For example, in sprints we have used 1-2-4-All with groups to develop HMW questions.

They are useful in organisational development

Organisations that are committed to collective leadership, self-management, employee-led change, non-hierarchical or horizontal ways of working (and other labels for much the same thing) need microstructures that work for the age in which we now live, work and do business. Liberating Structures offer immediate value to such organisations.

Like Lego, they invite being played with

Think of the book, the website and the very useful app, not as manuals, but as boxes of lego pieces. In some cases methods can be stripped down and reconfigured or adapted to your use. In our work we have made them shorter or longer than specified, and have even left out key stages. Experiment - see what you can build with them.


There’s 33 official ones (and others in development). The ones that are good to begin exploring are below. We will begin with the ones we used at the Service Design in Government Conference workshop.


Impromptu Networking

This energiser is very useful at the start of a session, and can be focused on a question such as why they are there and what they hope to contribute.


1, 2, 4, All

Very, very simple and brilliantly powerful and inclusive. Great at the start or at the end of a session, and the essential foundation for some other methods. Used at the start, it provides an opportunity for every person in the room to reflect on a question, express their thoughts and contribute to a discussion. Very good for letting the quiet voices be heard.



Fun and high energy, but is great at quickly identifying problems and barriers. At the start there’s a lot of laughter as people are asked to make a problem worse. Midway through the half hour process people realise that this ‘fun’ exercise is actually revealing serious issues, but the format delivers way of tackling them. It is good just after lunch to get energy levels back up. 


25/10 Crowdsourcing

A high energy idea generation and filtering technique. Very good at both demonstrating and capturing the collective creative insights of a community. Again, useful just after lunch. 


Other great ones we didn’t have time to use in the SDinGov session are:

Appreciative Interviews

Gets people instantly thinking and talking positively. Finished with a 1-2-4-All exercise, this generates insights from everyone’s personal successes and focuses them on tackling an organisational challenge. Also fosters active listening, captures and spreads tacit knowledge, enables peer-to-peer learning and respect, and exercises democratic convivial conversations.


What, So What, Now What? W³

Good at the end of a gathering to ask: What happened? So what? And now what? Essentially three rounds of 1-2-4-All focused on sense making and setting the next agenda. We have used this at the end of two day training sessions to embed learning and to focus on follow up.


Unconference / Unmeeting

James Arthur Cattell, Delivery Manager at the UK Cabinet Office and David Heath of the Government Digital Service had the challenge of organising an unconference for 500 participants at #OneTeamGovGlobal. Instead of getting people to queue up and pitch what they want to discuss to the whole audience they used a combination of Impromptu Networking and 25/10 Crowdsourcing. This post provides the detail on how they did it. Isabel Ho has shared how the 2019 annual conference for the NHS Radiotherapy Quality Special Interest Group saw ideas and connections being made through the format of an unmeeting which also made use of 25/10.

Service Design in Dundee: A Creative Gathering

This was an event involving 50 people over two hours. Our aims were: How do we make new connections between those in Dundee working or interested in service design? How do we share what we’re doing? And how can we raise our collective ambitions? The emphasis was on highly structured discussions leading to specific outcomes that we could take forward. We used impromptu networking (a seated version), 1-2-4-All and W3. We also scribed the process as we went. A full report is here.

We asked folk on our social media networks how they have used Liberating Structures in their work. Here is what they said:

  • Giulia Merlo - Service Design Lead at Cancer Research UK: "The Service Design and Agile teams at Cancer Research UK came across Liberating Structures about a year ago. As soon as we started experimenting with them, we found that the methodologies worked incredibly well in complementing the more common design thinking and Agile toolkits – and at times they were quite disruptive of our own echo chambers, too! We’ve used Liberating Structures ‘plays’ in a variety of contexts: from our team away days, where they’ve helped us focus and regroup, to charity-wide workshops. Last summer we ran two unconferences, and a number of sessions were delivered via Liberating Structures, including 1-2-4-All and Conversation Cafe: this really helped us open up topics in new ways and making the conversation more democratic by giving everyone a voice, regardless of seniority or job titles. Using Liberating Structures allowed us to reach a level of transparency and trust in the room that would have been very difficult to reach quite as fast using more traditional workshop designs.

  • Tom Youll works at Shelter Scotland, which provides housing advice and support. At a recent workshop he ran with the helpline team, introducing the idea of user stories he used 1-2-4-All as a quick way to get people thinking around a subject. He did this using the LS Design Card Deck

  • Creative Scotland - the public body supporting arts and culture - is currently undergoing a digital transformation process. Karen Clarkson explains how “in a one hour sprint (power hour) we were looking specifically at a community area of a website. What is the current user experience? I used the Liberating Structures App. We did a TRIZ 1-2-4-All to discuss how we could make this worse. We then mapped out on the wall in categories. Then we stepped back - did any of the current situation ressemble this? It did! So we then red dotted to agree priority issues to tackle first.”

  • Roy Fletcher works in organisational development in South Africa - “We use Liberating Structures extensively in our work... We use things like 1,2,4 All to help everyone’s voices be heard and to get an overall view of the conversations in the room (from a group work perspective). Others like Triz and Ritual Decent have also been powerful tools in decision making and giving feedback. The context and reason for choice of LS changes according to the desired outcomes of the sessions and therefore the design. We have had tremendous success from and OD, leadership/management development, team effectiveness and culture transformation projects. The application of LS from a processed facilitation design perspective is a powerful way to drive outcomes. It helps the participants to “stay in process” towards a predetermined goal.”

  • Eleanor Ogilvie, Engagement Manager with Macmillan Cancer Care - “I have used liberating structures really effectively to work with Y team to design our user engagement strategy. Made for a really productive and participative day. Team got really involved and energy remained good throughout.”

  • Angela Prentner-Smith, Managing Director of This Is Milk in Glasgow - “I love wicked questions for sifting through complex organisational conundrums. Playing them back to teams and exec and have them work through it. 1,2,4,All is great for finding a group consensus. Nine whys great for finding purpose.”

  • Maggie Lee, UX Researcher in Ottawa - “Before becoming a UXer, I spent a year teaching. Just realized I have unconsciously used the 1-2-4-all technique in previous workshops thinking I was leveraging a classroom technique called Think-Pair-Share. It's effectively the 101 of collaborative learning strategy aimed at individual reflection, group learning/ collaboration, and then group synthesis.”

  • Antonio Starnino is based in Montreal: “In workshops and OD work 1-2-4-ALL is a constant go-to. TRIZ and Troika are very powerful (and fun!) ways to reframe current situations. Conversation cafe as well as a great dialogic technique to draw upon all the voices in the room. In a future workshop, I plan to use Ecocycle Planning to uncover areas of rigidity within the organization. What I like to do is mash them together, so mixing a celebrity interview and conversation cafe together. I've also mixed "drawing together" with "open space technology" as a way of sparking the conversations at the table. One workshop I was a part of mixed fishbowl / improv roleplay / conversation cafe (where each person represents an employee or manager of a department) with the CEO sat within the conversation cafe as part of the dialogue. The fishbowl then could comment on what they saw as part of the interaction, and if they wanted to also join in on the conversation cafe."


  • Keep introductions minimal - Don’t introduce a method by its name - too many of the names can be off-putting and confusing.

  • Have simple instructions on slides - This helps clarify what you are asking people to do - but do not make it wordy.

  • Make it accessible - Methods like Impromptu Networking and 25/10 involve standing up and milling about. You need to underline people’s right to remain seated and to ensure that others include them. Alternatively look at how furniture can be arranged so that these methods can be used while everyone remains seated. If time allows, use a version of the Scottish Government’s inclusion form sent out in advance so that you know how you can make participation better for all those coming along. 

  • Confidentiality - Some methods involve candid conversations, so be careful what you ask people to share to the whole room, if anything, at the end of it. Methods like Appreciative Interviews involve participants taking interview notes. It is advisable to provide some paper and ask them to use that, rather than their own notebooks or devices. After the exercise, collect in the notes for appropriate disposal.

  • Use visual capturing - We use magic whiteboard to capture the outcomes of each part of the process in a visual way. This provides a clear sense of progress to participants and an open record of what was discussed/agreed.

  • Bells and whistles - Not everyone has a voice loud enough to stop a room full of people talking, so find a suitable bell, whistle or other suitable device. The facilitator of a recent LS workshop in Edinburgh brandished a Tibetan gong to great effect. We have borrowed this idea.

  • They’re just a set of tools to help folk talk - They are not the only such tools, and while they can be used very effectively as part of the design process, they do not represent a set of design tools. Not all the tools suit every facilitator or situation, which is why you should experiment with them, adapt them to your own style, invent your own and share what you discover with them. 


Within days of delivering the workshop, the world went into lockdown, and we were among many people adapting liberating structures for online events. Our advice is as follows:

  • Planning, preparation and rehearsal is essential, especially if facilitating remotely is relatively new.

  • Ideally two or three facilitators are required - one person focuses on facilitation, while another sets up breakout rooms and puts instructions in the chat window, and a third person keeps an eye on the waiting room, mutes folk if necessary and oversees any security issues.

  • Use Zoom. Currently this is the only platform that has the breakout room facility that is needed. You can hack Microsoft Teams but it is very clunky.

  • Make use of the chat window to provide instructions rather than screen sharing - it just works more easily.

  • The following three sources provide invaluable advice.

How to use Troika Consulting Virtually.
A step-by-step guide to using this powerful Liberating Structures to give & get creative help in challenging times - A very useful summary of how to use this technique, including tips.

Remote Agile (Part 2): Virtual Liberating Structures
Explains how 15 liberating structures can be delivered online. 

Remote Agile (Part 6): Sprint Planning with Distributed Teams
As the above, this post describes remote approaches to some methods including 25/10 Crowd Sourcing.


Much like service design, an enthusiastic, open and sharing global community of practitioners has been established around Liberating Structures. There are 60 user groups in 25 countries across the world, most of which organise meet-ups and events. One listing is here. Twitter is useful for finding out about events, using the hashtag: #liberatingstructures.


Stéphanie Krus wrote a detailed piece on a recent Liberating Structures event in Edinburgh, while Sally Kerr responded to this same event with a poem and Jon Gill reported on it with the following video:

Workshop opportunity:

There is a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in London over two days on 30 Apr-1 May. There are discounts for charities and public sector organisations.

Find details here.