Remote Agile (Part 2): Virtual Liberating Structures

TL; DR: Remote Agile (Part 2): Virtual Liberating Structures

Last week, we addressed basic practices and tools of remote agile with distributed teams. Based on that article, I also ran a live virtual class, the recording of which will be made available soon on the Age-of-Product’s Youtube channel. This follow-up post now delves into virtual Liberating Structures, answering the question of how we can make use of the powerful toolbox of inclusive and collaborative practices in a remote setting.

Remote Agile (Part 2): Virtual Liberating Structures —

Update 2020-04-16: I added the replay of the Remote Agile: Practices and Tools live virtual class, see below.

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Read last week’s article: Remote Agile (Part 1): Practices & Tools for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Product Owners.

Liberating Structures

Created by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, Liberating Structures cover a set of easy to learn, yet powerful ways to collaborate as a team—even as a (very) large team by Scrum standards—, overcoming traditional communications approaches like presentations, managed discussions, or another disorganized brainstorming at which the loudest participants tend to prevail.

Generally, Liberating Structures are well suited to improve the level of engagement among participants of Scrum events, thus stimulating the kind of outcomes that are necessary to create learning organizations. Liberating Structures also provide an excellent toolbox to handle Product Backlog refinements or improving the Definition of Done of an engineering organization.

Moreover, Liberating Structures are a great tool when peers come together to jointly figure out how to improve as an individual as well as a professional.

LS for Scrum

More than a year ago, my Berlin Hands-on Agile meetup started exploring the possibilities to use Liberating Structures specifically in the context of Scrum. As a result, we have explored 15-plus Liberating Structures so far and started tailoring Liberating Structures strings to specific situations, such as Scrum events, or the scenario, our struggling startup. (Read all articles of the Liberating Structures for Scrum series.)

In this article, I revisit most of those microstructures and provide initial thoughts on how to use them as virtual Liberating Structures.

Design Elements of Virtual Liberating Structures

Virtual Liberating Structures share a set of common design principles:

  • Breakout rooms are used to divide the whole group of participants into smaller workgroups, starting with pairing up two participants. (I am using Zoom for that purpose.)
  • Muting/unmuting is used — beyond the purpose of reducing noise — to mark different states of participants. For example, in the Conversation Café exercise during rounds 1, 2, and 4, everyone is muted except the individual that is sharing his or her thoughts.
  • Video on/off is used to distinguish between roles, for example, between the inner circle and the outer circle of the User Experience fishbowl. Here, the outer circle members turn their video off as well as mute themselves.
  • A shared workspace is needed to aggregate findings, for example, as the result of a 1-2-4-All session. This can be a simple Google slide or a board.
  • Workbooks are useful to provide participants with instructions when working in breakout rooms; for example, a detailed description of how an individual Liberating Structures works.
  • A chat channel is used to facilitate communication within the whole group.

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How to Practice Individual virtual Liberating Structures

Let‘s explore the microstructures for their potential to become virtual Liberating Structures. The ordering is based on the LS Menu of the Liberating Structures website:

  1. 1-2-4-All: To cover 1-2-4-All, we need breakout rooms and a place to aggregate the findings. We start with everyone in the whole group for a minute in silence; then, we split the whole group into pairs using Zoom’s breakroom feature for 2 minutes. After that round, we merge two pairs into a group of four for five minutes—this has to be done manually by the host–and the group aggregates its findings, for example, on a Google sheet prepared for each group in advance. We can introduce each group’s findings to the whole group by screen sharing in a Shift & Share.
  2. Impromptu Networking: This is a simple application of breakout rooms; just make sure that after each round, the pairs are created a new. Provide the invitation and the three questions in the workbook in advance.
  3. Appreciative Interviews (AI): AI is another application of breakout rooms, workbooks, and a shared workspace. Introduce the steps in the whole group, break into pairs for the individual interviews, merge two pairs into one breakout room, then gather insights within the group workspace to share later with the whole group. AI works well with 1-2-4-All and Shift & Share. Make sure that you provide a description of AI in the workbook, and also consider time-keeping via the breakout room broadcasting function for the admin. (Participants tend to get lost otherwise.)
  4. TRIZ: Again, TRIZ is a combination of basic elements of virtual Liberating Structures: breakout rooms, embedded 1-2-4-All, joined workspaces, Shift & Share when several groups are working on the problem. Consider time-keeping via the breakout room broadcasting function, as participants are likely to be highly engaged and may lose track of time.
  5. 15% Solutions: We use a similar procedure as with TRIZ. Consider aggregating all suggestions in the whole group’s shared workspace for clustering and ranking by voting. (I like to use a board for that purpose: it is simple and does not need much explaining.)
  6. Troika Consulting: We start by creating breakout rooms for groups of three. Consultants and the consultee have the initial conversation; then, the consultee turns around on his or her chair for the consulting phase. Alternatively, both consultants stop broadcasting their video, so the consultee is just listening to what they have to say. Again, the facilitators consider time-keeping on behalf of the groups.
  7. What, So What, Now What?: Also, W3 is a sequence of individual work and group work based on breakout rooms, aggregating findings in shared workspaces to be shared with the whole group in the end.
  8. Shift & Share: That is a simple one: each workgroup presents its findings to the whole group by screen sharing. Alternatively, if the shared workspace has been created in advance, for example, Google Slides with a slide per workgroup, the moderator can share his or her screen while someone from the team is explaining the findings to the whole group. This reduces the stress of switching screen sharing on and off among several groups.
  9. 25/10 Crowd Sourcing: This one LS that I haven’t yet tried in the virtual realm. I am still thinking about how to make this happen. (I would probably miss the dancing while swapping the suggestions… )
  10. Min Specs: Like What, So What, Now What?, Min Specs is a sequence of individual work and group work based on breakout rooms, aggregating findings in shared workspaces to be shared with the whole group in the end.
  11. Conversation Café: Create groups with the breakout room function, and identify a host for time-keeping. During rounds 1, 2, and 4, where one participant is talking while the others are listening, use mute for the listeners. Once the timebox has expired, the previously talking participant “hands over” the microphone by calling out the next one in line and then muting him- or herself. As the facilitator, also consider providing a matrix — rounds by speakers with checkboxes — to the hosts to ensure that everyone has a fair share of airtime.)
  12. User Experience Fishbowl: Working in the whole group, use mute and video off to distinguish between the inner circle and the outer circle of the User Experience fishbowl. Here, the outer circle members turn their video off as well as mute themselves. Gather additional questions through the chat channel from the out circle members. A facilitator should pass on these new questions in due time. (While discussing the topic at hand, the inner circle members should try not to read these new chat messages at the same time.) Use W3 to debrief the whole group.
  13. Heard, Seen, Respected (HSR): A classic application of Zoom’s breakout room function. Again, as a facilitator, consider becoming the external time-keeper.)
  14. Lean Coffee: Lean Coffee is an excellent example of a workaround for virtual Liberating Structures. Gather all the input in the usual way, for example, engaging in 1-2-4-All, and gather those on a board while voting is turned off. (Use several columns if the whole group is large to speed up the gathering process.) Then ask the whole group to cluster similar topics, then turn on the voting and order the remaining entries by votes. For here, you continue with a whole group discussion, or you engage smaller groups with breakout rooms.
  15. Ecocycle Planning: Principally, we apply the techniques as before, from breakout rooms to shared workspaces. Speaking of which, given the large number of “stickies” that you usually create during Ecocycle planning, you may want to consider a specialized online board application such as Miro or Mural. (Please note that both tools are not self-explanatory and require a prep session with participants to avoid frustrating them.)

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Conclusion — Virtual Liberating Structures

While there will always be a bit of the magic missing that in-person Liberating Structures sessions have, I do believe that there is plenty of opportunities to create a sound experience with virtual Liberating Structures.

Of course, they are different — which can be attributed mostly both to the lack of nearness among the participants as well as the limited technical support of virtual Liberating Structures. However, given the alternatives, virtual Liberating Structures again prove to be far superior to other competing virtual practices.

What experience have you made with applying virtual Liberating Structures? Please share it with us in the comments.

📺 Remote Agile: Practices and Tools [Replay of a Live Virtual Class]

At the end of March, we ran a Remote Agile Practices & Tools live virtual class with about 30 participants from all over Europe, the Eastern Seaboard, and Canada. The participants agreed on recording it and make it available to the agile community. We edited the recording slightly; for example, we removed the waiting time during the exercise timeboxes. Otherwise, the video accurately reflects how one way of collaborating with a distributed team using Zoom breakout rooms may work.

Except for three teaching blocks of about 20 minutes in total, the whole Remote Agile Practices & Tools class of 2:45 hours comprised of interactive work:

If you have any questions regarding the class, please let me know via the comments, or contact me in the Hands-on Agile Slack community.

If the video snippet does not play, please watch the video on Youtube: Remote Agile (1) Replay: Practices and Tools for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Product Owners.

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Liberating Structures are developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

📖 Virtual Liberating Structures — Related Posts

Remote Agile (Part 1): Practices & Tools for Scrum Masters & Agile Coaches.

Remote Agile (Part 3): Mastering Zoom.

Remote Agile (Part 4): Anti-Patterns — Pitfalls Successful Distributed Teams Avoid.

All blog posts on Liberating Structures for Scrum.

Download the Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide: 160-plus ways to improve your way of Scrum.

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