If I could pick one book out of my collection of hundreds useful for building engaged, inclusive and innovative meetings, it would be The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. The book describes thirty‑three methods to structure creative conversations on issues that matter. The authors use the term “liberating structures” to communicate that these methods liberate meetings to engage all voices and bring creativity.

From Low Participation to Engaging All

Liberating structures are designed to avoid the pitfalls of some of the most common meeting designs: lecture, presentation and brain- storming, to name a few. Such designs are often dominated by a few people, typically leading to boredom and low participation. Liberating structures, on the other hand, engage all participants, generate creativity, and, when used systemically, transform the culture of an organization toward greater inclusion.


One of my favorite liberating structures and perhaps the simplest is called “1-2-4-All.” The facilitator poses a question on an issue of concern to the group. For example, “How might we be the safest workplace in our city in the coming year?” Individuals take one minute to list key ideas on a piece of paper. Then, in pairs, they quickly share their ideas (for two minutes). They notice similarities and patterns and strengthen their combined ideas. Next, pairs combine into groups of four to share, compare and coalesce ideas in four minutes. The final stage is a plenary session, the “All” in 1-2-4-All. Each group of four shares one key idea with the whole group, popcorn style, avoiding duplication. The results are recorded for all to see on large Post-it Notes or a whiteboard.

Illustrate 1-2-4-All

In fifteen to twenty minutes, 1‑2‑4‑All harvests the collective wisdom of a group with everyone’s participation. In a short time, 1-2- 4-All generates energy, excitement and engagement. Unlike groups in which someone drones on and on or a hearing in which people give two-minute speeches, the results from 1-2-4-All are wildly democratic. No one remains silent unless they ask to pass. Groups are set free to create and innovate. It’s cool.

Useful in all Meetings

I have used liberating structures in dozens of settings. From facilitating a staff retreat focused on strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion practices in an international nonprofit, to building a strategic plan for a citizen advocacy group wanting to clean-up nuclear waste, to a group of nonprofit program managers imagining the future of their services in a post-COVID-19 world, participants dis- covered the power of nontraditional, engaging meeting practices.

I encourage you to grab a copy of Liberating Structures and checkout their website at Liberating Structures – Introduction.

For more resources, webinars, coaching, consulting, and facilitation services, visit www.civicreinventions.com. Email me a question, idea for inclusive meetings, a book recommendation, or a personal story at mark.smutny@civicreinventions.com. I will personally respond to your email.