Liberating Structures while Remote

2020-04-06

This article assume some familiarity with the Liberating Structures discussed. Links have been included to all mentioned structures for your convienence.

Working 100% remote really changes the way we work. People no longer just poke their heads over your cubicle to chat, and there isn't a water-cooler to speak of. There is no commute either! Sitting in remote meetings, mostly on Teams, got me thinking about how my facilitation tools might be impacts. After all, not every tool is suited for every job. You don't use a sledgehammer to drive a nail for a picture frame. Nor would you use a rubber mallet when trying to sink a post. So this week I turned my sights on some of my favorite meeting tools. I wanted to see how they could work in a remote setting.

Liberating Structures are a set of meeting tool and formats designed to improve the effectiveness of meeting. They tend to distribute participation in novel ways. The distribution improves the engagement of your participants. But just as no tool is perfect, neither are they. But they are the most potent collection of facilitation tools I've yet come across. And in the remote setting they continue to prove their flexibility.

Naturally some changes have to be made. Its due to the limitations, but not of the Structures. It's our medium and tooling to support meetings in the remote setting. Take 1-2-4-All for example.

It is one of the easiest tools to grasp and to apply. But the common implementation assuming that several groups can discuss simultaneously. I have yet to see a remote meeting tool which might support 8 people having 4 conversations on the same meeting, without it being pure pandemonium. When you're physically present, we can easily do this by spreading to the four corners of the meeting room. It might be a little loud for a minute, but it's manageable. Attempting to do so in Teams would be untenable. Teams provides a single audio and video focus stream. It's designed to support a single speaker at a time, not 4 at the same time to different portions of the group.

That might've spelled the end for 124All remotely. But the Structure has another form, which can fit into the limitations of tools such as Teams. The 2 and 4 parts of the structure are excellent for boosting and spreading ideas. But we can't support them on a system designed for a single synchronous speaker.

You can, however, keep 1 and All. The core value in the 124All is in allowing individuals to think before everyone starts sharing ideas. And then in protecting the opportunity for the individual to speak their idea to the group. Teams easily supports the moment of silence while the participants think on their own. And it can easily support the sharing through a simple round-robin.

Many structures such as 15% Solutions or Troika Consulting can be used virtually unchanged. In this stressful time, Troika Consulting may prove to unlock even greater values in small independent groups. The Structure calls for a guided discussion, focused on a consultative approach to problem-solving.

In a reasonable group, about 5 or 6, this structure can be used without alteration. Meetings of more than 6 are ill-suited for problem-solving or idea-generation. If you wanted to apply a structure like Troika Consulting such a group, I'd suggest splitting the meeting. Get groups of a reasonable size, and assign each a facilitator.

Therein lies one weakness of the structures in a Remote setting. Most remote meeting tools are designed to support a single synchronous speaker. A single facilitator cannot effectively facilitate multiple remote groups.

If we were meeting physically this is trivial. The facilitator would circulate among a handful of groups in a large room. Using his ears and watching for nonverbal queue, he'd know when to step in. If you want more remote conversations to run a Structure well, the best option would be to train additional facilitators.

Now, there is a third class of Structures which need special adaptation to work in a Remote capacity. Drawing Together, for example, expects the group to have a shareable drawing medium, usually a whiteboard or large poster. While pondering this, I found out that Teams interconnects with Microsoft Whiteboard! The two in combination can support the use of Drawing Together for a regular team. Each participant can claim a section of the virtual whiteboard, and everyone can truly draw together. I had a friend help me capture a brief video to demonstrate how you can do this. Take a look!

Being remote certainly impacts how you might use Liberating Structures. But they are still useful! With a little elbow grease and some forethought, every structure I've looked at or used before can be adapted. Some like Troika Consulting were already ready! I hope you'll considering using these wonderful tools to help you and your team remain engaged in this period of remote work!