Designing Effective Group Meetings

Using Concepts and Techniques of Liberating Structures

April 30, 2013

Lisa Kimball is a thought leader and master on changing the structure of conversations in order to help people deal with complex issues. Here we present some of her concepts as well as some easy-to-follow facilitation techniques that you can try out in your next meetings to promote continuing conversations based on Lisa Kimball’s framework of Liberating Structures. See if they work in your organization.


In our article published March 29, 2013, Patty Seybold interviewed Lisa Kimball, a thought leader and teacher on collaborative learning, surfacing core competencies that distinguish super-performing executives from average executives, and changing the structure of conversations as the best way to change organizations.

One of Lisa’s contributions is her free, online handbook: Engaging Everyone with Liberating Structures, which briefly documents her concepts as well offering exercises for putting these concepts into practice in your organization. Here, we offer just a few of those concepts and exercises, focusing on structures for designing effective group meetings—not just for off-site retreats, but for embedding these structures in how we do work when we’re in our offices interacting with people on a day-to-day basis.


Liberating structures are frameworks that make it possible for people and organizations to create, to do new things, to be innovative. These 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 the kind of engagement we need and want 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 organization that don’t ordinarily talk to each other. Many are self-organized where order arises out of local interaction. The dialogue feels generative. Yet, at the same time, designs that work have just enough structure to channel the energy and keep things moving and productive. These structures are liberating rather than confining.

Jazz is a good example. Through its underlying structure, people are able to play together. In fact, people who have never seen each other, never before met, can sit down and jam. They can create something that is wonderful. The guidelines of jazz are a collection of principles that give enough structure so that people can create together. These same principles make possible infinite degrees of freedom. Different saxophone players playing the same piece can come up with totally unique expressions, each time they play it! Yet, you recognize it as this piece rather than that piece. There’s something about it that gives it a persistent identity and there is plenty of room for individual creativity.

 Group Jazz

© 2010-2013 Engaging Everyone with Liberating Structures Handbook by Group Jazz

Ownership versus Buy-In

Ownership is when you own or share the ownership of an idea, a decision, an action plan, a choice. It means that you have participated in its development; that it is your choice freely made.

Buy-in is the exact opposite. Someone else, or some group of people, has done the development, the thinking and the deciding, and now they have to convince you to come along and buy-in to their idea—so that you can implement their idea without your involvement in the initial conversations or resulting decisions. Aiming for buy-in creates lukewarm, pallid implementation and mediocre results.

Liberating Structures help you create true ownership and avoid the pitfalls of buy-in. When it comes to solving intractable socio-technical behavioral problems in systems the notion of buy-in is just not useful—people in the system need to own the new behaviors.

Anytime you or someone around you thinks or talks about buy-in, beware! It is a danger signal telling you that your development and implementation process is missing the essential ingredient of involving all who should be involved.
Liberating Structures are all about creating ownership…


Over the next few months, we will be trying out and offering you more of these techniques. As fans of Lisa and GroupJazz, we are confident that by changing the conversations in your organization, you can change the success that your organization achieves and learn how to more effectively communicate not only with colleagues, but with your customers, to reach even greater goals.


How to Contact Lisa Kimball:
C: 202.344.5930
F: 202.237.1547


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