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Change Organizational Systems with the Liberating Structure ‘Panarchy’

January 20, 2020

Liberating Structures are a collection of interaction patterns that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how to use them in your work.

How do you change a complex system? This is the quintessential question facing the people eager to change systems — like politicians, Scrum Masters, thought leaders, and other change agents.

In this post, we explore how the Liberating Structure ‘Panarchy’ offers a powerful perspective and allows you to put systems thinking into practice. And even though it is perhaps the most complicated of them all, Panarchy brings together all the promises of Liberating Structures: engage everyone and unleash change on every level.

“Even though it is perhaps the most complicated of them all, Panarchy brings together all the promises of Liberating Structures: engage everyone and unleash change on every level.”

Why complex systems resist change

In a complex system, the many elements that make up that system organize and interact in unexpected and unpredictable ways, shaping and guiding our actions. In our work, we often work with others as part of a team. Those teams are part of departments, which are part of business units, which are part of organizations. Those organizations are part of countries of economic unions. In turn, those systems exist in certain cultural and historical systems.

It is no surprise that the field of Systems Thinking has been highly influential in the past decades. Drawing from a wide variety of disciplines, from psychology to biology and from history to engineering, it has made us aware of how resistant complex systems are against change. For example, even if you somehow manage to change from one day to the next how work is done in an organization (‘work faster!’), implicit norms learned in the past may run counter to that (‘here, we take it slow so everyone can keep up’). But then what?

“Thankfully, Systems Thinking also offers us a perspective on how we can systems: find leverage points.”

Thankfully, Systems Thinking also offers us a perspective on how we can systems: find leverage points. One of the characteristics of a complex system is that even a small push in the right area can start shifting the entire system. Consider how spreading ‘fake news’ through social networks is currently reshaping our view on the world, and how that is in turn affecting politics and our society at large. Or a more positive example is how a small tax benefit in European countries resulted in a huge growth in the number of installed solar panels. So finding “leverage points” is one way to change systems, and that is what ‘Panarchy’ is all about.

The purpose of Panarchy

The Liberating Structure ‘Panarchy’ exists to help groups explore and analyze entire systems, their parts, layers, and subsystems and how they interact. Not only does ‘Panarchy’ helps groups build at least some understanding of how their system works, but it also helps find leverage points. And rather than doing this alone or with a small group, the complexity is exactly why you want to include as many perspectives and pairs of eyes as possible.

Ecocycle Planning

The concept of Ecocycle Planning

Panarchy strongly relies on the concept of the Ecocycle, and a related structure called Ecocycle Planning. The key point is that ideas and activities move through a continuous cycle from conception to birth, birth to maturity and maturity to creative destruction and re-invention. Healthy systems have things going on all over the Ecocycle, which indicates that there is innovation (gestation & birth), stability (maturity) and a clear sense of what has stopped being useful (creative destruction). But more often than not, activities get stuck in a poverty trap (‘Good idea, but no time’) or the rigidity trap (‘No time to figure out how to do this in a better way’).

In Panarchy, the analysis shifts from one level to many different levels. This is just one example — you can add many more or add entirely different levels (e.g. culture, products).


In Panarchy, what is going on on each level in the complex systems is projected onto an Ecocycle. This shows not only what is happening in each level, but also how the levels are connected. For example, Panarchy may reveal that developers keep getting stuck in technical issues because they have no experienced peers to help out on the level of the team. In turn, this may be caused by a focus on hiring cheap but inexperienced developers on the organizational level.

This structure was created by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, inspired by work by Brenda Zimmerman and David Hurst. The concept of Panarchy is based on earlier work by the ecologist C.S. Hollins.

How to facilitate Panarchy

There are many ways to facilitate Panarchy. You could run all the steps with 1–2–4-ALL or just with small groups. But we’ve had success with a short string of other Liberating Structures.

A Panarchy in progress. The three levels are on the floor (individual, team, and organization).
A Panarchy in progress. The three levels are on the floor (individual, team, and organization).


Panarchy is one of the more complicated Liberating Structures. So some preparations are helpful:

  • Bring as 4–7 sets of stickies in different colors with you, as many as you have levels;
  • Bring huge posters with Ecocycles to gather what is happening on every level. Even better, create Ecocycles on the floor so that people can walk around it. Although you can put everything in a single Ecocycle — the levels will be color-coded — we’ve often found that its easier for participants if you create an Ecocycle for each level;

Step 1: Identify the levels for analysis (1–2–4-ALL)

The first step is to identify which levels are most relevant for analysis. Complex systems exist on many different levels. For example, you have hierarchical levels (individual, team, department, business unit, organization), temporal levels (past, current, future), sociological levels (cell, individual, family, neighborhood, state, country), different domains (political, societal, environmental). With Panarchy, we’re aiming for 4–7 levels. They can be different levels of magnification (tiny, small, large, huge) or adjacent — whatever makes the most sense.

  1. Introduce the concept of Panarchy. Many challenges are complex in that many different levels are involved — individuals, groups, organizations, societal, historical, political, etc. Panarchy is about exploring what happens on these levels, how they interact and what can be changed (5 min);
  2. Individually, ask people to make a list of factors that influence the chance of their/our success — on any level (2 min);
  3. In pairs, people share their levels and work together to write down (on labels) the 4–7 levels at play (4 min);
  4. In groups of four, share and refine the levels (4–7 is fine) (10 min);
  5. Together, collect the levels and put them somewhere visible and color-coded (4–7 at most) (10 min);

When people are not used to systems thinking yet, it can be hard for them ‘get it’ and come up that are relevant and useful. The quality of Panarchy is highly dependant on the quality of the levels, so in some instances, we generated the levels upfront.

Step 2: Analyze what is happening at the levels (Shift & Share)

The second step of ‘Panarchy’ is to explore the identified levels in more detail. Considering that the second round relies on Ecocycle Planning, it is helpful if people have already practiced with that elsewhere. Otherwise, you can make sure that the station hosts have experience with it or explain and practice the concept on one level before moving to the entire system.

To facilitate this round, you have many options. But we’ve found it helpful to use Shift & Share to let people both work from the levels they have experience with as well as letting people build on the ideas from others in consecutive rounds:

  1. Create 4–7 stations around the room, each for one of the levels. Make sure each has its own Label and color code;
  2. Ask for as many people willing to volunteer as ‘station hosts’ as there are stations. The station hosts will remain with their station throughout Shift & Share. Make sure that any items written down for this station are coded with the right color (3 min);
  3. Invite the group to distribute as equally as possible across the stations while making sure that they end up with a level they have experience with and knowledge of (2 min);
  4. At each station, use 1–2-ALL to identify and plot on the Ecocycle what is going on at this level right now and what actions are being taken for the challenge. (15 min)
  5. Invite the groups to move clockwise to the next station, leaving their station host behind for the next group. The station hosts work with their new groups to build and expand on ideas generated during previous rounds (3x15 min)
  6. After several rounds of Shift & Share — we usually stick to no more than four — invite everyone to work with the others at their station to place the items from their Ecocycle onto a larger, collective, Ecocycle on the floor or wall;

Step 3: Identify how the levels interact

Now that there is transparency around what is happening on the system on the various levels you choose to analyze, you can start analyzing the patterns.

  1. Individually, invite people to silently walk around and explore the entire system of Ecocycles. What patterns do they nice? What opportunities do they see? (10 min);
  2. Use 1–2–4-ALL to invite groups to brainstorm opportunities and obstacles they see for change across the levels. What new ideas are flowing down from higher levels? Where can disruptive ideas flow upwards?”. Encourage people to go wild and have fun and collect the idea on a big flip (15 min);

You may want to take more time for this part, or digest it further, with other Liberating Structures. Depending on how much appears on your Panarchy, it can take time for people to take it in and digest it. As an option, and if you have the time, you can also add 25/10 Crowd Sourcing to generate ideas for changing some of the patterns you identified.

Step 4: Identify what people can do, individually

Finally, the focus shifts to what individuals can contribute to changing the system.

  1. Individually, identify first-action steps you can take for one or more of the items on the list. “What actions can you take immediately to influence levels below and above you?” (5 min);
  2. In three rounds of 4 minutes, people pair up and share and refine their first-action steps;
15 Percent Solutions
Some of the 15% Solutions that emerged from a Panarchy we did with 50 people on how to reduce our ecological footprints. In the face of this hugely complex system, it can be tempting to just give up. But here, people discovered how much they actually can do.

Examples of Panarchy

  • We’ve successfully used Panarchy to help large groups of Scrum Masters explore how they can promote empiricism on all levels in an organization (individual, team, organization). One of the patterns people noticed in one instance, was how the lack of collaboration between individual Scrum Masters in an organization was impeding their ability to drive change on higher levels;
  • We’ve used Panarchy with a group of 50 participants to discover how to reduce our ecological footprint as a society. One discovery here is that one small lever is to contact people in positions of power (that some of us knew personally). We also discovered that if each of us would convince two other people to eat less meat (and so on), this would quickly snowball;
  • You can use Panarchy to identify what is important for the product or products you are developing as an organization. Use the product portfolio as one level, and add other levels for things like technology, changes in the market and competitors;

Combinations With Other Liberating Structures

  1. Use Nine Whys to first clarify the purpose of the system or the change you have in mind. This gives focus to Panarchy, and the things you can start shifting;
  2. Use Open Space Technology to explore particular opportunities for what to shift or what can be done with them in far more detail;
  3. Precede with Appreciative Interviews to ask people to share a story of a time when a small change in their environment, either by them or others, had a surprising larger effect. This can help people see that small changes can start to shift entire systems;
  4. Use as part of Strategy Knotworking to develop strategies with a large group of people, and to continuously refine those strategies together;
Scrum Master Learning Journey
Recently, we used Troika Consulting to help people come up with things they could do to work on one of the levers identified.

“Panarchy brings together many of the driving principles and concepts of Liberating Structures; work with large groups to drive change across all levels of a system.”


In this post, we shared what is perhaps the most complicated of all Liberating Structures. But in more ways than one, it is also the most fulfilling one. Panarchy brings together many of the driving principles and concepts of Liberating Structures; work with large groups to drive change across all levels of a system.


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