Liberating Structures: Rooted in Positive Deviance

For the past five years, BCcampus has supported the learning and spread of Liberating Structures in B.C. post-secondary education. We have found Liberating Structures to be useful tools for folks working in all corners of our sector, including those who teach (online and face to face) and those who lead and facilitate teams, projects, processes, and change within and across higher education institutions.

Post by Tracy Roberts, Senior Manager, Learning + Teaching

Photo credit: Red Onion by Gwendolyn Stansbury (CC 2.0)

Liberating Structures are fun and easy to pick up and start using. Anyone can get them (free, online) and start practising without formal facilitator training or certification (as co-founder Keith McCandless says, “there are no coloured belts” in Liberating Structures!), but they are serious fun. Beyond the promise of more lively engagement and participation in group activities, there are deeper layers and a foundation of intentionally chosen, well-articulated principles, theories, and perspectives. One of these is Positive Deviance (PD), and the purpose of this article is to learn a bit about it and its connection to Liberating Structures.

What (is Positive Deviance)?

According to the Positive Deviance Initiative,

Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.

Simply put, a Positive Deviance (PD) approach asks what is working for those for whom it ‘shouldn’t be’ working? We are invited to seek out positive deviants – those experiencing better outcomes than peers without any advantages over them. This appreciative approach resonates with many working in higher education, who are often already familiar with Appreciative Inquiry approaches and perspectives.

Photo credit: David Whelan

Both Positive Deviance (PD) and Liberating Structures (LS) invite disruption to normal power structures, in large part because both place such high importance on community intelligence, activity, and ownership of solutions rather than top-down approaches. A look at the guiding principles of both PD and LS shows a few manifestations of this theme as well as a shared priority on doing and action:

Positive Deviance Guiding Principles

Liberating Structures Principles


  • Collective endeavor: Community or stakeholders’ ownership of the whole process
  • Social proof: their discovery of existing solutions (uncommon behaviors & strategies via a PD Inquiry) among their peers, by people or groups whose behaviours need to change
  • Network-driven: Use of existing and created new social capital (formal and informal networks)
  • Focus on practice: Development of activities and initiatives that encourage a practice of PD inquiry findings
  • Collective involvement in monitoring new activities to promote behaviour change, and evaluation of the overall initiative to have a sustainable impact on the problem
  • Include and Unleash Everyone
  • Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions
  • Build Trust As You Go
  • Learn by Failing Forward
  • Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group
  • Amplify Freedom AND Responsibility
  • Emphasize Possibilities: Believe Before You See
  • Invite Creative Destruction To Enable Innovation
  • Engage In Seriously-Playful Curiosity
  • Never Start Without a Clear Purpose



PD is also a method of inquiry for projects and research, with five steps that invite researchers to 1) define a problem and a successful outcome, 2) find positive deviants, 3) discover their uncommon but successful behaviours, 4) develop activities to help spread the PD solutions, and 5) monitor and evaluate results.

So What? (Why is this important?)

Understanding how Liberating Structures are rooted in Positive Deviance can help us to understand how and why they work to “unleash and include everyone” (Lipmanowicz and McCandless, 2013). It also helps us do a better job of adapting and remixing these activities in our practice, while staying true to their purpose. For example, if you understand the importance of the underlying principles, say, of collective endeavour and involvement, you are less likely to edit out opportunities for your group to participate and share ownership of solutions and next steps when tweaking the design of a Liberating Structure activity.

Knowing about the underlying PD principles makes positive organizational and social change using Liberating Structures seem more possible because that’s what they are designed for. In addition to more fun and lively meetings and classes, using these simple methods can set the stage for overcoming barriers and making progress on our most pressing challenges in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world. We can start by making small changes with local work teams and then progressing outward to other teams, departments, institutions, cities, provinces, and so forth.

Now What? (What actions make sense now?)

For facilitators of Liberating Structures immersion workshops, we can make connections to PD principles more transparent. In higher education, we find folks generally want to know the underlying theories of the practice anyway, and we have (briefly!) included this in our immersion workshops. This is reminiscent of other evidence-based practices in education, such as scholarly teaching and learning and SoTL.

For facilitators/practitioners using Liberating Structures, we can make sure our riffs and variations stay true to the underlying PD principles. We may also be more attuned to inventing new structures and be better prepared to help to test the Liberating Structures in development.

For everyone in higher education (and beyond), we can be inspired by PD as a method of inquiry. We can question and look for positive deviants in our field. Arvind Singhal, university professor, PD researcher, and long-time Liberating Structures practitioner, has stated that “… the positive deviance approach holds important implications for education and learning environments” that “can be applied in addressing some highly intractable and complex [social justice] problems” (2013, p. 156).

In higher education, we might take a PD approach to questions such as:

  • What enables some young and adult learners to take more responsibility for their own learning? (this is a question suggested by Dr. Singhal)
  • How are some instructors able to provide engaging, flexible, active learning experiences for students?
  • How are some instructors able to adopt and adapt open educational resources for their classes? (thereby drastically reducing the cost to students and increasing access to education)
  • How are some instructors able to continuously develop their knowledge and skill in teaching as well as their academic discipline/field of study?
  • How are some students in remote communities in Canada able to successfully access and complete post-secondary education?
  • What enables equity-seeking groups in Canada to complete post-secondary degrees?

As a way of making progress on important challenges related to access and quality in higher education, we can start by looking for positive deviants to find out what they are doing right!


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