Organizational Excellence

Engage. Simplify. Enable the Mission

Using Liberating Structures to Engage Groups

Participants laughing and smiling at workshop

In November, approximately 60 members of the UVA community came together to learn ways to facilitate groups for better engagement and results. Workshop participants learned about Liberating Structures, practical tools which result in higher levels of energy, inclusivity, and innovation. Over 50 higher education institutions in the United States and Canada already use Liberating Structures. 

“These practices unleash a group’s collective wisdom to generate ideas, solve problems, and create opportunities,” said Sarah Collie, UVA associate vice president for Organizational Excellence. “Liberating Structures are about changing the way we work together.”

Organizational Excellence and the UVA IDEA Fund sponsored the workshop, led by Catherine Lilly, senior consultant with Sibson Consulting (formerly at University of Michigan). Participants represented diverse units from throughout UVA, including schools, student affairs, research administration, central administrative services, and foundations.Two men talking

“The workshop was a great opportunity to meet colleagues from across Grounds and to recognize that we’re all interested in building trust and inclusion in our workplace,” said Joanne Meier, assistant dean for digital and instructional initiatives for the UVA Darden School of Business. “The structures encouraged lots of participation and conversation right away!”

In our work, conventional meeting structures typically only allow for a few participants and are either too constricting or too free-form. Liberating Structures encourage creativity, spark collaboration, energize participants, and value diverse perspectives. These structures can be used in any group setting: in meetings, in the classroom, with people from similar areas or different areas. 

“I found the techniques helpful in changing the mundane meetings we often attend,” a participant said, responding to an anonymous follow-up survey about the workshop. “Also, several of the techniques seemed to foster the sharing of ideas more than the typical meeting structures.”

The two-and-Catherine Lilly leading spiral journal exercisea-half-hour interactive workshop introduced participants to numerous Liberating Structures. The intended outcome was that they would be able to implement the techniques in their daily work. Participants tried out different approaches and heard which structures work best in specific situations. 

“The workshop was a fantastic way to experience how simple-yet-effective strategies can set the tone for productive group interaction,” said Denise Hubbard, program director for Economic Development at UVA. “I was surprised to see how little time some of the exercises took. The workshop also reminded me that by taking the time to employ these exercises individual needs could be met in a way that standard ‘report out’ style meetings do not.”

Based on feedback, participants left with plans to implement specific structures with their colleagues. For example, several participants said they would use TRIZ, a creative approach to identify and stop counterproductive behaviors. 

“I hope to use the TRIZ [structure] in my future meetings to help my colleagues and I recognize where we may be falling short of our goals in a humorous way in order to ultimately foster transparency and real growth,” said Hunter Finch, career counselor at the UVA Career Center. 

Another survey-respondent said, “The techniques are practical and easy. I left feeling completely empowered to use what I learned.”

The Organizational Excellence team routinely uses these tools and is an ongoing resource for the University community. In December, the team will host a follow-up session for workshop participants to share their experiences using the structures and learn from each other.    

Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz developed Liberating Structures, and William Torbert first introduced the term “Liberating Structures.” Learn more at liberatingstructures.com. OE will sponsor a two-day intensive workshop about Liberating Structures in April 2019.