December 14, 2021

How Scrum Teams Can Benefit From The Principles Of Liberating Structures

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In the past years, Liberating Structures quickly gained popularity within the Scrum community. Chances are you’ve heard about it as well. You might know that there are 33 official Liberating Structures, and its co-developers are Henri Lipmanowicz & Keith McCandless. Maybe you’re even part of the global community that helps to refine existing & develop new structures! And maybe, you can even explain its purpose: include and unleash everyone in shaping the next steps and the future!

However, did you also know that Liberating Structures has 10 underlying principles?

As with every methodology, framework, or concept, it’s the principles that make the practices work. When a team uses Scrum without understanding and actively using its principles & values, they lack a solid foundation to make Scrum work in their context. It’s the same with Liberating Structures. As Ray Dalio puts it in his book “Principles”: “Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you what you want out of life. They can be applied again and again in similar situations to help you achieve your goals.”

“Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you what you want out of life. They can be applied again and again in similar situations to help you achieve your goals.” — Ray Dalio

Once you truly understand the principles of Liberating Structures, you can also more easily decide what structures you need, to achieve the purpose you have in mind. For example, to resolve a persistent impediment, improve stakeholder collaboration, or address the tension within your team.

In this blog post, I introduce the 10 principles of Liberating Structures. I will share my own understanding of them and give you tangible recommendations for how to use them in your Scrum team. These are suggestions and not set in stone. There are tons of other combinations possible as well. It’s my intention to help you understand how the structures & principles connect, so you can explore new connections yourself. Ideally, it allows you to gain a deeper knowledge of Liberating Structures and triggers you to use them more effectively with your team and organization.

The 10 Principles Of Liberating Structures

The Liberating Structures principles playfully illustrated by Tracy Roberts, graphic facilitator and serious doodler.

The website of Liberating Structures offers a detailed description of the 10 principles. For each principle, the must-dos and must-not-dos are shared. The must-dos emphasize the desired action and behavior. The must-not-dos explain how they can stifle inclusion, trust, and innovation when used in the wrong way. Overall, the principles highlight what becomes possible when Liberating Structures are used to structure everyday interactions. Check the website of Liberating Structures to learn how Keith & Henri — the developers of Liberating Structures — describe them in detail.

1. Include and Unleash Everyone

The first principle is to “include and unleash everyone”. I consider this the primary principle that is covered with all the structures. It touches on the essence of Liberating Structures: to include everyone in shaping the next steps, to make all voices heard, opinions respected, and contributions acknowledged. Due to the nature of the structures, the people within your Scrum team who don’t have a loud voice or strong opinions also feel encouraged to share their ideas. As such, you can find surprising solutions to tough problems, that otherwise would have remained hidden.

If you want to strengthen this principle with your Scrum team, try:

  • Impromptu Networking during the Daily Scrum in which the standard, optional questions are asked: “What did I do yesterday that helped us meet the Sprint Goal?”, “What will I do today to help us meet the Sprint Goal?” “Do I see any impediment that prevents us from meeting the Sprint Goal?”.
  • 1–2–4-ALL during the Sprint Retrospective. Try using it multiple times to identify problems & improvements. Everyone can facilitate this retrospective. Its simplicity is its strength.
  • 25/10 Crowd Sourcing is another option to include and unleash everyone. With this structure, you involve everyone in rapidly generating ideas. For example, during the Sprint Review. Invite the team and stakeholders to share ideas for features the Scrum team should focus on in the upcoming Sprint.

2. Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions

Scrum Teams are self-managing. They manage the work on the Product- and Sprint Backlog and organize themselves in such a way they can collaborate effectively and achieve the Sprint Goal. By doing so, they will face problems and challenges for which they need to find a solution. In our experience, the best solutions are the ones created by the teams themselves. Tailor-made, local solutions that fit the unique context of the team. Crafted by the people doing the work who face the problem on a daily basis, and are committed to using their collective experience and knowledge to solve the complex challenges.

Liberating Structures that support this principle are:

  • Troika Consulting. Give and get practical and help from colleagues. In rapid rounds of “consultations”, individuals ask for help and get advice immediately from two others. Give this a try during the Sprint Retrospective.
  • Wise Crowds. Tap into the wisdom of an entire group and overcome shared challenges. Organize a workshop and invite multiple teams, stakeholders, and management. Work together to solve persistent problems. One at a time.
  • Helping Heuristics. Use this structure to practice with progressive methods of giving and getting help. The flow of this structure allows a Scrum team to practice coaching & mentoring: carefully listen → ask clarifying questions → ask confrontational questions → offer advice

A variety of Liberating Structures is being used in the Scrum.org PSM II class that encourages Scrum Master to reflect on their role.

3. Build Trust As You Go

Trust and psychological safety are key ingredients for a Scrum team. Without them, a Scrum team can’t use the Scrum framework effectively. If there’s no trust between the Scrum team and its stakeholders, they probably won’t share all the problems they’re facing. This makes inspection of the product and adaptation of the Product Backlog & roadmap way more complicated during the Sprint Review. With low psychological safety, the team members might only discuss the easy improvements during the Sprint Retrospective, ignoring the elephant in the room. In short, trust and psychological safety are crucial factors for a Scrum team. Luckily, there are many Liberating Structures that will help you build trust as you go:

  • Appreciative Interviews. Liberate spontaneous momentum and insights for positive change as “hidden” success stories are uncovered. It will spark true peer-to-peer learning, generate constructive energy, and offers the participants valuable insights. Try it during the Sprint Retrospective, ask “Share a success story you’ve experienced with this team”, and identify success criteria to focus on in the upcoming Sprints.
  • Conversation Cafe. Use this structure to share personal stories, experiences, and challenges. In small groups, everyone has the opportunity to listen, share, and learn. Give this a try during the Sprint Review, ask “What is the good, bad, and surprising of the product we build so far?”.
  • Heard, Seen, Respected. Build empathy and compassion, two elements that spark trust and psychological safety. Invite your Scrum team to share a story of a team when they felt not heard, seen, or respected. Actively listen to each other, without the need of asking smart questions. Just listen. You’ll see it does wonders to what’s being shared!

4. Learn by Failing Forward

You can easily get stuck when face with a complex challenge for which a simple solution doesn’t seem to be available. A Scrum team might even fall into analysis paralysis. Often, the best way to move forward is just to try stuff. Run small experiments. Validate your ideas and assumptions. See what works and what doesn’t. Learn by failing forward. This principle works best in an environment of high trust, so work on the principle ‘build trust as you go’ as well.

Liberating Structures to consider are:

  • 15% Solutions. “Even a 100-mile journey starts with a single step”. This quote summarizes the power of 15% Solutions, a Liberating Structure intended to trigger big change by starting small. Overcome analysis paralysis by identifying small steps in the right direction. I would even recommend finishing each Scrum event with a 15% Solution. It encourages Scrum Teams to make each event actionable.
  • Shift & Share. This structure helps Scrum Teams to showcase their ideas or products and gather meaningful feedback in short cycles. In one hour or less, it’s possible to include everyone in a large group and make every voice heard in a structured, constructive way. Ideal for backlog refinement with multiple teams or during a large-scale Sprint Review.
  • UX Fishbowl. Use the UX Fishbowl to create an environment where people can learn together, rather than get solutions imposed on them. Encourage the inner circle of the UX Fishbowl to discuss a problem, and share experiences. The outer circle listens, takes notes, and asks questions in a structured manner. As a Scrum team, use this together with your stakeholders and the wider organization to build shared understanding and support.

A UX Fishbowl in full-swing

5. Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group

Effective Scrum Teams have learned how to discover solutions on their own. They work together to make problems, questions and even conflict transparent. They use all their skills, knowledge, and experience to spur creativity and generate ideas. They can do so without having dependencies on external resources and have the mandate the make decisions and to act immediately on new insights and discoveries.

Liberating Structures that help to practice self-discovery are:

  • Wicked Questions. Its purpose is not to find a single answer to a Wicked Question, but to create transparency about seemingly paradoxical realities that exist side-by-side. By accepting both realities, you can engage the Scrum team in deeper strategic thinking and explore new possibilities.
  • Discovery & Action Dialogue. Help the Scrum team invent local solutions to the problems they face. Rather than giving up or immediately reaching to “best practices” that worked elsewhere, it helps the team carefully analyze the problem, potential solution, and how everyone can contribute to both. Give this structure a try during backlog refinement or the Sprint Planning. When stuck, it can help the team find solutions on how to implement a Product Backlog item.
  • Critical Uncertainties. Develop strategies for dealing with a range of plausible yet unpredictable futures. It enables the Scrum team to quickly test the viability of current strategies and build their capacity to respond quickly to future challenges. By using this structure, more resilience is created: the capacity to actively shape the system and be prepared to respond to change. A structure every Scrum team should master.

6. Amplify Freedom AND Responsibility

The Scrum framework offers three commitments: the Product Goal, Sprint Goal, and the Definition of Done. The Product Goal describes the long-term goal to focus on. It gives direction and acts as a compass for the Scrum team. The Sprint Goal offers short-term clarity and guidance. It allows the team to make trade-offs on what to work on during the Sprint. Lastly, the Definition of Done describes the expected quality of the work. The Scrum team has the responsibility to pursue living up to these commitments. However, they have the freedom to determine how they want to achieve it.

Liberating Structures that will help them do so are:

  • Min Specs. First, brainstorm all possible options, and then narrow them down to what is absolutely necessary for achieving a purpose. A Scrum team can use Min Specs to determine the absolutely necessary work for a Sprint, in order to achieve the Sprint Goal. Or the essential rules that must be included in the Definition of Done.
  • WINFY. “What I Need From You” (WINFY) helps groups to clearly express their needs and for others to clearly respond to those requests. For example, bring together the Scrum team(s), stakeholders, and management, and let them discuss what they from each other to be successful.
  • Integrated~Autonomy. Integrated~Autonomy exists to help groups move from either/or- to both/and thinking. Most of the challenges we face in the real world don’t have an easy answer. Different solutions can be true or happen at the same time. No matter how challenging a situation might seem, Integrated~Autonomy helps the Scrum team see what’s possible. It makes the freedom to act visible and specific.

7. Emphasize Possibilities: Believe Before You See

“Shoot for the stars, aim for the moon” This is a nice saying, but when you’re part of a Scrum team and fully stuck in the organizational mud, you probably consider it pretty useless. When a Scrum team faces many dependencies and impediments it might lead to demotivation, unhappiness, and frustration. In times like these, it’s smart to focus on what’s actually possible. Focus on the positive and give motivation a boost.

Liberating Structures to consider are:

  • What, So What, Now What. This foundational Liberating Structure invites the Scrum team by asking them to step back and consider what is going on. It structures our thinking by breaking our experience down into three steps: “What do we notice?”, “So, what does this mean?” and “Now, where do go from here?”. Use this structure to help a Scrum team see & understand what’s really going on. What are the real impediments in our team? What are the possibilities to resolve them?
  • Social Network Webbing. As its description on LiberatingStructures.com so nicely states, exists to “quickly illuminates for a whole group what resources are hidden within their existing network of relationships and what steps to take for tapping those resources”. Use it during the kickoff or reboot of a Scrum team. It makes visible from whom the team can get support when they’re stuck, or what stakeholders to include during the Sprint Review.

An example of a Social Network Webbing created for a Scrum team.

8. Invite Creative Destruction To Enable Innovation

Innovation often requires creative destruction. In order to try something new, you first need to let go of something else. Or you need to completely rethink your old habits and behavior. The same goes for Scrum Teams. If a Scrum Team wants to be successful, it requires creative destruction of existing behaviors, processes, and way-of-working. That’s not easy. Change is tough. Teams will face resistance within themselves and with their environment. But for true innovation to flourish, creative destruction is necessary.

Luckily the following Liberating Structures will set you on the right path:

  • TRIZ. The Liberating Structure ‘TRIZ’ invites creative destruction of activities that limit innovation and productivity. It does so in a cathartic way that is fun, engages and involves everyone, and is bound to create some laughs along the way. Regardless of all the laughing, it also shows a painful reality of things a Scrum team really should STOP doing!
  • Ecocycle Planning. Explore what it is that you’re keeping in the air (but shouldn’t), and what it is that you aren’t (but should). You can do this individually or with a group of people. Use this with your Scrum team to map your Product Backlog items, or visualize all the activities of your team, or make the people & departments transparent that impact your team. In short: create transparency and inspect & adapt.
  • Panarchy. This structure 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. Try this with your Scrum team and see how all the different levels in your organization influence the team.

Snapshot from a Panarchy we created with 3 levels. From individual teams (level 1) to the product(s) they work on (level 2) and the supporting organization (level 3).

9. Engage In Seriously-Playful Curiosity

If a Scrum team is building an important product for which the stakes are high, it’s easy to take everything seriously. You can’t have fun AND do serious work simultaneously, right? Wrong! The following Liberating Structures are actually not even about having fun. They’re more focused on provoking playful curiosity or using completely different parts of your brain by visualizing challenges or building shared understanding with a lightweight, yet serious interview.

The Liberating Structures I’m talking about are:

  • Improv Prototyping. Re-enact a challenging scenario and work together to devise different behavioral strategies and interventions by acting it out. The twist that this structure brings is that the person who introduced the scenario becomes the ‘director’, while the others become the ‘actors’. This allows the director to playfully experiment with strategies, behaviors, and interventions.
  • Drawing Together. Reveal insights and paths forward through nonverbal expression. Instead of using verbal language as its medium for interaction, it makes use of constrained visual language with five purposefully abstract symbols. It’s a lot of fun, and allows your Scrum team to learn more about each other in a completely different way!
  • Celebrity Interviews. Help experts and leaders share their experiences and insights with a group in a profoundly more engaging and interactive way than regular presentations. Instead of having to wait with questions until the end of a presentation — if there’s even time left — Celebrity Interview uses the burning questions on everyone’s mind to structure the conversation. So, why don’t you invite your Product Owner, manager, or stakeholder to join the next Celebrity Interview?

Reveal insights and paths forward through nonverbal expression with Drawing Together.

10. Never Start Without Clear Purpose

For a Scrum team, it’s essential to have a clear purpose. A clear purpose clarifies the existence of the team, it gives meaning to their collaboration, offers inspiration and a solid foundation. Especially in difficult moments, a compelling purpose can help the team gel together and move forward. There are a couple of powerful Liberating Structures that will help a Scrum team define a clear purpose. For example:

  • Nine Whys. A Scrum team can use Nine Whys to clarify the purpose of their work. We’ve used it for a wide variety of applications. For example: for Scrum Teams as part of a team liftoff to identify the deepest reason for working together. For product kick-offs to clarify and communicate why the product should exist. Or, as part of the strategy and road mapping initiatives to first clarify purpose and then actual goals.
  • Design Storyboards. This structure exists to purposefully think about how a group wants to spend time together to most effectively achieve their purpose. Why don’t you try Design Storyboards to create a new format for your Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Retrospective, or Sprint Review? Chances are, they’ll become way more effective!
  • Purpose-to-practice. The Liberating Structure ‘Purpose-to-Practice’ (P2P) is a great start for every initiative. For example a team kickoff, a new project, or the start of a new user group. Each of these initiatives will increase their chance of success by having a shared purpose. The first step of P2P is to define this purpose together. From there, P2P covers other essential elements — principles, participants, structure, and practices — that are designed to help achieve that purpose. Because everyone is involved in defining these essential elements, you ensure a shared understanding and encourage self-organization.

Closing

In this blog post, I introduced the 10 principles of Liberating Structures. A Scrum team can use Liberating Structures for more effective collaboration, problem-solving, strategy-making, and much more. In order to get the most out of Liberating Structures, it’s important to understand its principles. Because it’s the principles that make the practices work. In this blog post, I gave you some examples of what structures strengthen certain principles. These are suggestions, mostly intended to help you understand how the principles & structures are related. My hope is that it inspires you to try them out, and use Liberating Structures to unleash and involve everyone in and around your Scrum team!

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular.