A Retrospective with Liberating Structures at a rapidly growing startup

Liberating Structures are 33 easy-to-apply structures for interaction in groups of any size. They enhance relational coordination and trust, foster lively participation and give everyone the opportunity to work at the top of their intelligence. What’s more, you can easily create strings of Liberating Structures to achieve some greater purpose. In this post, we share some of the strings we've used.

A rapidly growing startup

We recently facilitated a Retrospective at a rapidly growing startup that is facing challenges related to that growth. They need to evolve their current way of working and collaboration to allow the number of people working on the product to scale up. In order to make way for a coming period of training and coaching, we asked the team if we could facilitate a 2-hour Retrospective to get a sense of their challenges. Although the team uses Scrum with weekly Sprints, the past few weeks had been quite chaotic. The most recent Sprint Retrospective was several months ago. The team also expressed a desire to ask us questions about our experiences with similar teams.

Designing strings of Liberating Structures

“Learning Liberating Structures is like learning a new language. First, you learn individual words. Then you put them together into a simple sentence and soon you are speaking series of sentences in the new language.” - Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless

Liberating Structures become progressively powerful when you combine them into “strings”, where groups flow naturally from one structure into the next. Designing a string of Liberating Structures increases the desired impact for the challenge at hand. In this series, we’ll share the strings we’ve used and what they made possible. We hope that this inspires you to try designing your own strings.

Purpose of the string

Before designing a string, we clarified the goals we wanted to achieve:

  • Get a sense of the challenges that the team sees, and evidence there is to support this;
  • Identify small improvements that the team can already start making;
  • Build trust between us and the team and between people in the team;
  • Give the opportunity to answer some questions from the team;

Design of the string

We ended up with the following design for a 120-minute Retrospective:

  • Start with Impromptu Networking (15 min) to get a sense of immediate challenges perceived by the team, and to set the tone for the level of interaction for the remainder of the Retrospective. We used the following invitation: “What challenges do you bring to this gathering? What do you hope to get from and give this group?";
  • Use What, So What, Now What (40 min) to reflect on the period since the previous Sprint Retrospective. What did the team observe, factually? What does that mean to them? What actions make sense based on those conclusions? We chose W3 to avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly. We used the following invitations for the three rounds (each with a 1-4-ALL pattern). Round 1: “What have you seen, heard or observed since the previous Retrospective? What stood out for you?”. Round 2: “Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging?” and round 3: “Now what? What actions make sense?”;
  • Follow up with a Celebrity Interview (30 min) where the team generates questions for us (as ‘experts’) to answer, based on the challenges they identified before;
  • Use 15% Solutions to identify individual, small improvements that the team can get started with right away, and create the opportunity for people to give and get help in working on their solutions. We used the following invitation: "What is your personal 15% Solution for the coming period? Something you do not need any additional resources, permission, or authority to do right now?";
  • We kept 1-2-4-ALL in our back pocket as an ‘adjacent possibility’ for when the individual focus of 15% Solutions wouldn’t fit with the challenges identified;

To design the string, we made good use of the Liberating Structures cards from Holisticon. If you are based in the Netherlands and would like to order your own set, feel free to send us a message (as Holisticon does not distribute decks to people outside Germany).

The outcome

The team enjoyed the string we came up, and had some excellent conversations about the purpose of the Retrospective and elements related to team-functioning (such as personal responsibility and team morale). Rather than a couple of people doing the most of the talking, everyone had the opportunity to share observations, insights and ideas.

The team discovered that it was easy to jump to conclusions, without first clarifying what led to those conclusions. This proved very important for abstract concepts like ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘team morale’. Consistently, but gently asking ‘How did you notice [X]?’ helped the team clarify what behaviors and observations supported (or falsified) conclusions.

Defining 15% Solutions helped the team work from their personal responsibility to what they could improve as a team. Rather than ending up with some abstract things to improve ‘as a team’, they ended up with individual improvements instead (not something to do every time, but it felt like a useful variation).

Based on our experiences with this string, we learned:

  • The group struggled with the invitation to Impromptu Networking. Not having any prior experience with LS, the team had some difficulty understanding this ‘specifically ambiguous’ question and relating it to their context. A simpler invitation would’ve worked better;
  • We decided in-the-moment to switch 15% Solutions and the Celebrity Interview. This felt more natural considering the conversation that the team was having about ‘personal responsibility’ at the end of W3;
  • During the structures, we used sticky notes to keep the invitations visible. We also invited people to write down their thoughts on stickies and present them as a group (e.g. as part of 1-4-ALL);

Closing

In this blog post, we’ve shared the string of Liberating Structures used at a Retrospective for a rapidly growing startup. Our intention was to get a sense of the challenges that the team sees, identify small improvements that the team can already start making, build trust between us and the team and between people in the team and give the opportunity to answer some questions from the team. The selected Liberating Structures helped us achieve this purpose.

If you’d like to experience Liberating Structures first-hand, make sure to join our Dutch user group or check the ones in your area. Read our earlier posts about 1-2-4-ALL, 25/10 Crowdsourcing, Appreciative Interviews, Impromptu Networking, Min Specs, Nine Whys, Shift & Share, TRIZ and Troika Consulting.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, trainer, facilitator and co-founder of The Liberators