Unlocking Collective Intelligence

Building Connection and Empowering Everyone: A Guide to Liberating Structures 1–2–4-All

serhat bilge
5 min readApr 11, 2023
An AI-Generated Image with DALL-E2

Facilitation is a crucial aspect of creating effective, engaging, and productive meetings, workshops, and team sessions. It is the practice of leading a group towards a common goal or objective through active engagement, collaboration, and participation. A good facilitator can make the difference between a boring and unproductive meeting, and an inspiring and productive one.

Liberating Structures are a set of simple and powerful facilitation techniques that enable facilitators to foster more inclusive and collaborative decision-making among participants. Designed to empower everyone to contribute, these structures have become a popular tool for facilitating group work in various industries, including business, design, and strategy.

As a follow-up to my article “Unleashing the Power of Facilitation”, we’ll explore the principles of 1–2–4-All, the first and easiest technique of Liberating Structures, to implement your own agenda by answering the question of how might we encourage people to connect with both their surroundings and each other during a gathering?

The 1–2–4-All technique is easy to use for facilitators of all levels, and can be used while working with a variety of group sizes, but is especially helpful for generating ideas in large groups because of its ability to involve everyone in a quick and inclusive way. I personally love using this method for check-ins or check-outs during the workshops I facilitate. In my experience, it enables people to have a natural consensus before everything starts and creates a shared understanding without excluding anyone in the atmosphere.

The technique starts by providing participants with a designated moment for self-reflection before sharing their ideas, a key element for creating a safe space for expression. Reminding all participants of the virtues of nonjudgemental listening will help expand the diversity of inputs.

Here is a tip to remember: When you need it, the collective intelligence of a group is greater than the sum of its parts. The crucial part of this reminder is not the second part, it’s the first part.

An AI-Generated Image with DALL-E2

The Technique Involves Four Stages

“1” — Individual Reflection: Participants take a few minutes to reflect on a question or topic individually, without any discussion or interaction with others.

“2” — Pairs Share: Participants pair up and share their thoughts with each other. Each person has a chance to speak while the other listens actively.

“4” — Small Group Discussions: The pairs then join another pair to form a group of four, and they share their ideas and thoughts again. The group members then work together to synthesize their ideas and come up with a shared perspective.

“All” — Large Group Discussion: Finally, the entire group comes together to share their collective thoughts and ideas. The facilitator or group leader can ask questions or prompt further discussion to explore different perspectives and deepen the understanding of the topic.

“To facilitate effectively, one must have a holistic understanding of the group, the environment, and the context in which they are working.”

Julie O’Mara

Since I believe a facilitator should always think beyond the instruction they provide, here are some structural elements I’d like you to cover to have a holistic understanding of this method.

Articulating the Key Question

As you might predict a facilitator is always aware of their responsibility to lead the people by asking the right question, so the first step is declaring this question.

Moreover, do not forget to ask yourself: Do you need to include everyone to address this question? Remember the intention of these practices and try to implement them in a purposeful way, not just to get something euphonious into your flow.

Arranging the Environment and Required Resources

Since there will be a lot of conversation when you start it’s important to have enough space not only for sharing but also for self-reflection for the first time.

You might ask the participant to walk around the space first, then you can stop them at a random moment and ask your question. Then, they will be at a random point when they start to share with their pairs. Being with someone spontaneously will also propel them into new experiences.

Also, it’s better to remember, since there will be some noise because of the discussions, having a few items to create uncommon sounds in order to grab the group’s attention will save you time and effort e.g. a Tibetan bell, handbell, etc. would be outstanding.

The last section, All, is about enabling people to share their harvested ideas to make everyone heard. A lot can be learned by the group at this stage, so giving them some paper and pens to take some notes is often appreciated

Facilitating Inclusive Participation

Since the core value of this method is including everyone, it’s important to give everyone equal time to explain themselves.

Time Boxed Example

  • 1 minute for self-reflection
  • Sharing in pairs — 2 minutes per person
  • Sharing the pair discussions in a small group discussion of four — 2 minutes by a spokesperson

It will be more effective if peers speak on behalf of each other, which will encourage them to listen to each other deeply. However, it is useful to remember that when you choose this route, it is helpful to provide this rationale to participants at the start. Lastly, a spokesperson shares the consultation of 4 people with the larger group within a 3-minute window, consolidating everyone’s ideas.

Action speaks louder than words, so here are the use cases

Team Meetings: The 1–2–4-All method can be used in team meetings to generate ideas and solutions for a particular challenge.

Workshops: The 1–2–4-All method is commonly used in workshops to facilitate discussions and brainstorming sessions.

Training Sessions: In training sessions, the 1–2–4-All method can be used to help participants reflect on their learning and share their insights with others. This can help to reinforce learning and encourage participants to think critically about the material.

Problem-Solving Sessions: When trying to solve a particular problem, this method can be used to generate a variety of ideas and solutions.

Project Planning: The method can be used in project planning sessions to generate ideas and solutions for a particular project.

Innovation Sessions: In innovation sessions, the 1–2–4-All method can be used to encourage creativity and generate new ideas.

I hope you found this article informative and thought-provoking. If you have any questions, feedback, or suggestions for improvement, I’d love to hear from you. Hope to see you at the next one!

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serhat bilge

a mindful poet, a visionary multidisciplinary designer and future digital anthropologist with a focus on innovation facilitation.