Corporate liberation is a term coined by Brian Carney and Isaac Getz to describe a movement by companies to reexamine the value of control — of costs, prices and people — as a management tool. These organizations are realizing that traditional control structures have taken a toll on the workforce, as demonstrated by low levels of employee engagement. As a result, they are now giving employees the freedom and responsibility to take the actions that they, not their managers, decide will help their company achieve its vision.

A key feature of these liberated companies is that they have successfully transformed the role of the manager to the role of a coach: a partner engaging his or her team members in thought-provoking processes that give them the freedom to unleash their creativity and maximize their potential.

Corporate liberation works because it satisfies the universal human needs for safety, equal treatment, autonomy and personal growth. Consequently, freedom-based companies have higher levels of engagement than their counterparts, improved productivity, increased initiative and enhanced corporate performance.

Create Your Own Liberated Workplace

Methodologies such as lean and design thinking liberate employees by tapping into their creativity and expertise to yield efficiencies and innovation. Another powerful and highly effective, but lesser known, approach to freeing the workplace is liberating structures. Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless compiled a set of 33 microstructures that produce small shifts in the way people meet, plan, make decisions and relate to each other. Organizations globally are successfully using these protocols to resolve problems ranging from systemic social issues to business turnarounds, because they include and engage the people who do the work.

Traditionally, businesses have used microstructures such as physical workspaces, agendas, discussions, brainstorming, presentations and progress reports. Unfortunately, these microstructures have become routine, are largely invisible and seldom questioned. According to Lipmanowicz, McCandless, and scholars Arvind Singhal and Hua Wang, these traditional structures “foster passive acceptance by restricting and controlling participation, and make exclusion a routine fixture … As a result, group work is deeply frustrating, marginalizing, and oppressive.”

For instance, in typical presentations, one person has control of the content, and inclusion and engagement are limited. Status reports are similar, in that they are a series of presentations. Facilitated discussions give one person the control to engage others, while brainstorming engages just a few people but not the majority. Generally, in non-liberated environments, control lies in the hands of a few who have power and expertise.

On the other hand, liberating structures have few rules; are simple and adaptable; surface insights; and, most importantly, initiate action. They drastically change the way large and small groups meet, have discussions and solve problems. An added benefit is that they don’t require specific expertise or training.

Liberating Structures in Action

Imagine that you’ve just sat through a presentation, and instead of jumping into discussion, your team initiates the “1-2-4-All” liberating structure: For one minute, each person reflects on what you all heard and records his or her thoughts. For the next two minutes, pairs of team members compare and improve on their ideas and thoughts. Groups of four do the same for another two minutes. Finally, everyone returns to the large group and has three minutes to share one important point that arose from their discussion. If one group brings up a point that another group was going to share, that group selects a different one to present. In minutes, you’ve heard all voices, avoided domination by one or two people, and prevented a seemingly endless discussion.

Here are a few other microstructures:

  • 15% Solutions helps teams focus on addressing the parts of a problem that are within their control, even if the issue is largely out of their hands.
  • Shift and Share moves small groups through stations where innovators suggest ideas that others may find useful.
  • TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) uses three steps to identify counterproductive activities that, if stopped, would create space for innovation and progress.
  • Wicked Questions brings attention to polarities in business by asking, “What opposing yet complementary strategies do we need to pursue simultaneously in order to be successful?”

The Power of Liberation

Liberating structures challenge two fundamental assumptions: that bottom-up problem-solving doesn’t have as much value as top-down problem-solving and that people will implement a solution they had no part in designing. At first, liberating structures may seem to impose the very control they seek to eliminate. However, control lies only in the microstructure’s prescribed steps, and there is little to no control over the resulting conversations. Through dialogue, organizations grant their people the freedom they desire, increase internal creative capacity and tap into the wisdom of the collective.

As leaders and facilitators, we can be confident that solutions generated internally, by the majority rather than a few, will be more successful than the solutions arising out of conventional approaches. Create your own liberated team today by incorporating just one or two microstructures, and watch safety, engagement and empowerment that grow.