Exploring the 1-2-4-All Micropattern (An Inquiry into Liberating Structures, part II)

In Part I, we introduced Liberating Structures, a collaboration framework that aims to improve decision-making. In this Part II, we cover one of its core “micro-patterns”, 1-2-4-All.

An AI-generated painting in traditional Japanese style of a blossoming cherry tree.
A blossoming cherry tree. Image generated with AI by DALL-E.

What is 1-2-4-All?

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting where a few people dominate the conversation, effectively drowning out everybody else? Or are you seeing that in your organisation, good ideas somehow never make it?

These are the kind of issues that 1-2-4-All aims to address.

1-2-4-All is a conversation method designed to increase engagement in meetings such as presentations, managed and open discussions, and brain storms.

It promotes taking time to reflect, listening to others, collaboration, and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard.

Practical Uses

Here are some common situations where 1-2-4-All is used, according to the official Liberating Structures website:

What a 1-2-4-All Session Looks Like

The 1-2-4-All method can be applied to a wide variety of meetings and scenarios. The technique is designed particularly to gather responses from a large group of people, ensure all voices are heard, or generate a wide range of ideas.

This is what the process looks like:

  1. The presenter, facilitator or manager brings up a question or issue. This could be anything from how to improve a product to how to better balance work and life.
  2. Participants take a minute of silence to think about the question. This gives everyone a chance to formulate their own ideas before any group influence sets in.
  3. Participants then form pairs to share their thoughts. This encourages active listening, as each individual must both share their ideas and hear their partner’s perspective.
  4. Each pair joins another pair, forming a group of four. They share and further develop their ideas.
  5. Finally, a spokesperson from each group shares a summary of their discussion with everyone. This way, all participants can understand the full range of ideas and insights generated.

The Promise of 1-2-4-All

1-2-4-All isn’t meant to replace traditional meetings like presentations and brain storms, but rather to provide a way of overcoming their common limitations.

1-2-4-All claims several advantages:

Evaluating 1-2-4-All

While I can see how 1-2-4-All does all of the above, it does not tackle the fundamental issue that meetings are just not that great. They are costly, lack depth, and disrupt productivity, so they should be a last resort rather than the standard way of getting things done.

If routine meetings become dull, it’s likely because they lack purpose. The solution isn’t to implement a new method like 1-2-4-All, but to stop having these meetings unless there’s a compelling, unavoidable reason to hold them.

The same logic applies when solving problems or innovating. Problem-solving requires deep thinking, which only happens when working individually or at most in a team of two. This is even more crucial for innovation, which involves solving complex problems. Meetings are just too superficial and slow-moving for those.

I’m also sceptical of the claim that 1-2-4-All balances influence. Let’s examine this further with the following scenario. While slightly overstated to make a point, I believe it does highlight a real issue.

The Fairy Tale of Snow Might and the Seven Dwarfs

Imagine an assertive character, we’ll call her Snow Might, in a meeting with seven shy dwarfs. The facilitator decides to use the 1-2-4-All technique to balance the conversation. They’re discussing a new idea and they split into four pairs:

Despite being shy, the dwarfs manage to create their own ideas. However, Snow Might ignores Dwarf 7’s ideas, resulting in three ideas from the dwarfs and one from Snow Might:

When the pairs combine, the dwarfs merge their ideas into a new one. But Snow Might insists on her idea, dominating the conversation with dwarfs 5 and 6. The outcome is:

Finally, when everyone comes together, Snow Might continues to dominate, overshadowing Idea 4.

Despite four rounds of discussion, the outcome is the same: Snow Might’s idea prevails.

While the scenario is overstated, it highlights the inherent limitations of systematic approaches like 1-2-4-All: they cannot address the underlying problem. Personal skills like assertiveness and negotiation are crucial to successful collaboration, and there is simply no way around learning those.

Missing Rationale

The LS website doesn’t explain the rationale behind the 1-2-4-All format. It is said to be inspired by complexity science, and designed to create surprising outcomes, but exactly how that works remains unclear.

The LS website points to the idea that simple rules can lead to complex group behaviors. This can be seen in nature, where birds and ants coordinate their actions following local rules, without being individually aware. But birds and ants don’t have individual reasoning skills and don’t work in formal organisations.

Without a clear link between natural phenomena and better meeting outcomes, it is hard to have confidence in 1-2-4-All’s ability to generate emerging insights.

Alternatives to 1-2-4-All

There are several alternatives to the 1-2-4-All structure for collaborative decision-making and problem-solving. I mention them just for the sake of completeness:

Final Thoughts

Diving deeper into the 1-2-4-All technique hasn’t alleviated my initial reservations about LS - the lack of documentation remains an issue.

Although 1-2-4-All might be beneficial and increase people’s involvement in decision-making, it’s better to drastically cut back on meetings, communicate primarily in writing, collaborate in smaller teams, or dedicate time for solitary work. Large, synchronous meetings tend to be stupendously unproductive, and deep thinking demands alone time or collaboration in teams of two.

Next Posts

In the next post, we’re covering the Nine Whys micropattern.

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