Liberating structures are frameworks, practices and methods that make it possible for people and organizations to work together to create, innovate and do new things. The idea was first introduced by William Torbert whose interest in leadership and action inquiry led him to explore the notion as a form of organization structure that gave guidance to people, but in such a way that they developed skills to guide themselves. He developed a theory of power that generates productivity, justice and inquiry and a theory of ‘liberating structure’ through which organizations can generate continual quality improvement.
Liberating structures are processes or rules that can be put in place to encourage people to be free, creative, and get results, rather than find themselves oppressed, constrained, confined, or powerless. For things to really change, structural elements need to change, too. Otherwise change is short-lived. Liberating structures are the forms that make it easy for people to be generative together and make a significant impact with their creativity.
The designs that seem to best support participative engagement and collaboration share a number of key qualities: they are messy and they are complex. The conversations they produce cross boundaries between departments, between roles, between parts of the organisation that don’t ordinarily talk to each other and between organisations. Many are self-organized where order arises out of local interaction. The dialogue feels generative. Yet, at the same time, the designs that work have just enough structure to channel the energy and keep things moving and productive.
More recently, the idea of liberating structures has been applied to develop a pattern language for a wide range of designs for interaction at meetings, off-sites, community gatherings, and other events where it is important to invite everyone to participate fully.