Liberating Structures, Ongoing engagement

Critical Uncertainties

Engage everyone in making sense of profound challenges. Use to address difficult or confusing topics.

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Critical Uncertainties
Educator prep: None
Student prep: None
Video conferencing, Breakout rooms, Shared online space
Duration: 30+ mins

Activity purpose

Develop strategies for operating in a range of plausible yet unpredictable futures (as described in

Please note that the video above was developed for a summer 2020 professional development activity called DigPINS - it was not created for this particular resource, so there is mention of a synchronous session and things to sign up for - this was part of the summer 2020 course.

Useful for

According to, "you can help a diverse group quickly test the viability of current strategies and build its capacity to respond quickly to future challenges. This Liberating Structure prepares a group for strategy making. It does not produce a plan to be implemented as designed but rather builds resilience: the capacity to actively shape the system and be prepared to respond to surprise. This means being better able to see different futures unfolding, better prepared to act in a distributed fashion, and more ready to absorb disruptions resiliently."


Spaces for participants to list uncertainties and create axis to explore quadrants.


The below is text adapted for virtual use, taking text mostly from the original description here:

  1. Whole group: Invite participants to individually make a list of uncertainties they face by asking, “In your/our operating environment, what factors are impossible to predict or control their direction?” 5 minutes.
  2. Prioritize the most critical factors by asking, “Which factors threaten your/our ability to operate successfully?” 10 minutes.
  3. Based on the group’s history and experience, select the two most critical and most uncertain (X and Y). 5 minutes. This step can occur as a whole group with voting, or can be done in smaller groups of 4-5 with each group voting for what interests them.
  4. Create a grid (e.g. on Google slides) with two axes—X & Y—with a “more of <—  —> less of” continuum for the factor to be represented on each axis. For example, for the X axis, if the number of new products is a critically uncertain factor, one end of the X axis is a large number of new products and the other is no new products. Repeat for the Y factor and axis. For instance, if patent protection is a critical factor, one end of the Y axis is strong patent protection and the other is no patent protection. Four quadrants are created. See example below. 5 minutes.
  5. Groups can be split in different ways. Groups may be split up that they work on different quadrants while the whole group are working on the same topic; or different groups can be responsible for all four quadrants with any combination of axes. While working on quadrants, participants are encouraged to creatively name and write a thumbnail scenario for the quadrants. 10 minutes.
  6. The four groups share their scenarios briefly. 2 minutes each.
  7. Each group brainstorms three strategies that would help the group operate successfully in the scenario that it has described (this might mean groups choose the strategies that would work in different quadrants, given uncertainties, and prioritize this strategy for its versatility across critical uncertainties). 10 minutes.
  8. The four groups share their strategies briefly. 2 minutes each.
  9. The whole group sifts results to identify which strategies are robust (strategies that can succeed in multiple quadrants) and which are hedging (strategies that can succeed in only one scenario but protect you from a plausible calamity). The balance of strategies can succeed only in one scenario. 10 minutes.
  10. Each small group debriefs with What, So What, Now What? 10 minutes.
  11. The four groups share their debriefs and the whole group makes first-steps decisions about their Now What. 10 minutes.


Synchronously, this could take up to two hours. With asynchronous components, you could take more time to reflect asynchronously, and the synchronous session can be 45 minutes, or so, in breakout rooms, before regrouping.

Adaptations and examples

It is meant to be fully synchronous, but in the video above, it is divided up into synchronous and asynchronous components. You can pair up some steps with other Liberating Structures such as “wicked questions” for the axes of uncertainty.

You can choose to have all groups use the same two axes, or you can allow (as we did) different groups to focus on different axes that they choose together.

Technical requirements

Some space for discussing different uncertainties that we care about (like a Google Doc) and some way for people to vote for ones.

Some space for collaborative visualization like Google Slides.

Breakout rooms to work in small groups.

Useful resources

Critical Uncertainties as described on the Liberating Structures website:

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