September 17th is the 20th anniversary of the launch of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.
Sadly due to the pandemic, there’s unlikely to be a large party with a cake shaped like a piece of LEGO or a nationwide strategic planning session in which we are prompted to build a model of how we can make our country more resilient. One thing you can expect is numerous blogs posted by various LSP facilitators around the world and even an international LinkedIn flash mob.
If you haven’t experienced LEGO SERIOUS PLAY in person it’s worth investigating. If you’re looking for a useful tool to tease new and unexpected insights out of your team or your client then it’s a must.
The development of LSP began in the late ’90s. LEGO teamed up with the International Institute for Management Development, a business education school located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Together with Robert Rasmussen, head of R&D for LEGO Education, they started to investigate if the world’s most popular toy could work in a business context.
Leaning Back, Leaning Forward
Rasmussen made a key insight by observing body language during meetings. He noted that in traditional meetings the audience tends to “lean backwards” as they listen to one expert at the front of the room. When the presentation concludes and the presenter opens the meeting up to questions, the audience continues to lean back. They might be leaning back because they’re disengaged and blankly accepting what they’ve heard. Or they could be leaning back in because they’re dubious, lobbing skeptical comments into the room from a safe distance.
You may have experienced “leaning back” behaviour in your work. You may even have observed “Leaning back” in your brainstorming sessions despite your best efforts.
It’s not unusual for teams to hold back, allowing the most dominant voice or the person with the highest status to speak early on. What usually happens is that others fall in line and offer similar ideas, all of which reinforce what you’re already doing.
It’s not unusual for teams to hold back, allowing the most dominant voice or the person with the highest status to speak early on.
This stunning lack of originality is because ideas are usually tethered to recently activated knowledge or common examples that come easily to mind. Novel thinking is hard. So hard that our brains usually seek the path of least resistance.
Contrast this with meetings where LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is introduced. The audience becomes participants. They tend to “lean forward”, to contribute and take ownership. It’s more likely that all of the voices, even those of the introverts, will be heard.
LEGO SERIOUS PLAY In Action
In a typical LSP session, each participant will be given their own collection of bricks and together we will move through four steps:
Posing The Challenge. This usually comes in the form of an open-ended question. Usually, these questions are posed in such a way as to open up reflection and dialogue rather than seek a “correct” response.
- Building The Models. Everyone is given a limited time to build a three-dimensional model that illustrates their thoughts. It’s amazing how often people have no idea of what to build but once their hands start moving an idea begins to take shape on its own. This is the subconscious in action, circumventing the conscious mind. It’s proof that the participants already know the answer and just need to remove the usual social barriers.
- Sharing The Result. Each participant is given equal an opportunity to share their model with the group. Usually, everyone gets equal airtime, regardless of rank, which provides a level playing field that’s absent in most brainstorming activities. It’s important that only the model-builder can offer interpretations. What I think your model means doesn’t matter as much as what you think it means.
- Reflecting on what’s been shared. Everyone has the opportunity to ask questions, but a good facilitator will keep the focus on the model and not the participants. The discussion “remains on the table”. This further divorces ideas from the usual status games that accompany most meetings. It’s also good practice to insist that other participants can only ask questions, such as “what’s this part mean?” or “what did you mean by this?”
Skill is not a requirement. In fact, when I become certified I hadn’t touched LEGO in four decades and couldn’t figure out how many of the modern Lego bits worked. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the story we each told about our models. And that’s all it took for me to be able to keep up.
Play is the fertilizer for brain growth.
Many companies understand this and are sure to send visual cues to their employees that a playful state of creativity is welcome.
Pixar installs some of its animators in decorated wooden huts or caves. Even the regional Google headquarters in Switzerland, a nation famed for its sober approach to business, has an in-office slide and fireman’s pole. Design firm IDEO has converted a microbus into a meeting room and installed it in the middle of their workspace.
“We use play in a pretty pragmatic way, to be honest,” says Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO says a very playful lecture at the 2008 Serious Play Conference entitled “Tales of Creativity and Play” which can be found on Ted.com. “We think playfulness helps us get to better creative solutions. Helps us do our jobs better and helps us feel better when we do them.” IDEO’s leaders are so convinced that playfulness enhances design team creativity that they actively encourage pranks, games, competitions, group field trips, and other playful interactions.
We think playfulness helps us get to better creative solutions. Helps us do our jobs better and helps us feel better when we do them
You may be thinking that’s all well and good for those “creatives”. But I work in the serious business of business. You wouldn’t be alone. Most people view play as the very opposite of work, as something frivolous, as an activity to fill the leisure time when we are not attending to our more serious concerns.
Not so fast. Studies show that encouraging play, zest, and delight in our work results in increased performance. It strengthens social and emotional connections, increases psychological safety and improves intrinsic motivation by making work more pleasurable. So humour, practical jokes, office parties, awards and playful competitions are all good tools to foster employee engagement. It’s even a decent business case for the occasional staff bowling night or afternoon at the indoor go-kart track.
Play is even more effective in business when it’s integrated into the work itself.
If LEGO SERIOUS PLAY was only about loosening up our creativity that would be fine. But what’s fascinating is how much it allows us to learn about the problem at hand. I describe creative exercises such as LSP or card-based facilitation to a trojan horse. Participants think that they’re just here to have fun, and so it loosens their inhibitions. The stakes are so low that they start to think about problems in a different way because if they’re wrong it doesn’t matter. And since everyone is having a good laugh, they are more inclined to offer off-the-wall suggestions that they’d normally keep to themselves for fear of being laughed at.
The result is that the conversation deepens with each round of model-building. Participants get increasingly vulnerable, but without any of the angst usually associated with taking more risks in a corporate workplace. By the end of the workshop, the group has often hit upon surprising insights that would never have come up otherwise.
They arrive thinking that we were just here to have fun, but they leave having discovered that they had some serious play.