In September 2017 I qualified as a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator, and since then loads of people have been interested to know what it's all about, so I thought I would make it the topic of my first blog.
Groups use LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® to tackle complex problems because it allows them to express and generate thoughts and ideas with complete understanding and contribution from everyone. And once the group has complete understanding and contribution, their possibilities are limitless.
If you take six 8-stud LEGO® bricks of the same colour, how many different combinations do you think there are for putting them together?
The answer is 102,981,500. This is staggering, and gives you a sense of the possibilities of what you can build with LEGO® bricks. But what is also staggering is the number of different ways that people in groups can interpret the same thing, behave in the company of others, and find solutions to problems
Letting individuals in a group meeting build with LEGO® bricks through the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method ensures that everybody in a group contributes equally and completely understand each other. Once you have that, the group can achieve great things. So how does this work? How can a children’s toy achieve something so profound?
When groups tackle complex problems
First we have to think about what happens when groups get together to solve complex problems. These problems could be as fundamental as: how to work more effectively as team; what are their future career possibilities; or how to improve customer relations. What normally happens follows the principle that 20% of the people in the group do 80% of the talking. And when that happens, lots of people in the group disengage or fail to get the opportunity to speak so they don’t think deeply about the complex problem, don’t contribute to the outcome, and the individuals and organisation fail to solve the problem and meet their potential.
So if a group discussion could give everybody an equal chance to think and speak, and then clarify their understanding, the potential for success is increased. Furthermore, if you could also find a way to access the thoughts and knowledge that we keep deep inside our minds that we’ve forgotten about, as well as means of expressing the intangible, you could increase the potential for success even further. And that is what is achieved using the using the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method, it helps you access what is already in the room, what is inside each person but which just does not come out during standard group discussions and meetings.
The LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® process
Playing with LEGO® bricks is not enough to solve complex problems, it has to be combined with a stepwise facilitated process, and that is what LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is. A very quick summary is that:
1. A complex problem is identified and a relevant open question is defined to help address the problem
2. That question (or a relevant pre-question) is then posed to the group who are given a short amount of time to each build a model with LEGO® bricks that helps them explain their answer to that question
3. Each member explains their answer to the question using their model to represent their answer, and everybody listens without interruption
4. The facilitator and other group members can then get further clarification and details by asking questions about the model to the person who made it, and this process is repeated for every group member
5. There are then many ways to reinforce what was expressed, including asking every group member to repeat what every other group member said, followed by a chance for people to correct what was said about their model
6. From here, the thoughts and ideas expressed can be recorded in writing, pictures, or however you want
7. It could end here if the session is short, or this then may lead on to further questions and development of the models as the group addresses the main question
Following the facilitation process is important. There are guidelines and some unbreakable rules to make sure the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® works, and that is why it is important to use a qualified facilitator. For instance, all sessions have to start with some warm up exercises with LEGO® bricks to make sure that everybody has confidence to build by building a couple of models from an instruction booklet, and then adapting those models to explain something about themselves so they are comfortable with building without instructions and using the model as a vehicle for communication.
The Power Behind Play
As you can see, LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® isn’t just about the LEGO® bricks, it is a facilitated process. But one that deliberately encourages play. Play is relaxing because it doesn’t feel like work. Play is about the process but work is about results. Play feels safe but work does not feel safe. So play is an inherent part of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® to let people relax, focus on the process, and feel safe, and it is when they are in that headspace that they make leaps in insight and communication. The LEGO® models that people make become the vehicle for what is inside people’s heads to come out in a way that other people can understand and remember.
Why LEGO® Bricks?
Building with the hands seems to be able to bypass some of our conscious processing and tap into the deeper thoughts and ideas we have inside us, and three dimensional construction allows us to see many more possibilities than if we just talk, write, or draw.
But this could be done with many other modelling and crafting tools. LEGO® bricks are the tool of choice here because (i) anyone can build and short periods will stop those with artistic skills getting carried away with unnecessary intricacy, (ii) it is relatively clean and tidy and can be used again and again, and (iii) everybody is familiar with it from their childhood so it is fun and disarming. But the biggest reason has to be that there are thousands of difference pieces, many of which can immediately lend themselves to metaphors to help people explain things. A clear brick could represent transparency, a window could be opportunity, and a tree could be growth. And when you remember that there are over 100 million ways of combining just six 8-stud bricks, you can start to imagine the unlimited means of person expression through a simple LEGO® model.
What kind of issues can be tackled?
LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is not a means of training people or delivering information, instead it is a means of bringing out and clarifying the knowledge, ideas and creativity that is within the people who are already in the room. Once you understand that, the topics that can be tackled are not limited. But what is essential to address the complex problem for which the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Sessions has been commissioned is careful development of the main question and sub-questions to stimulate thinking and building. They must be open questions which are 'suitably unclear' so the individual can interpret it as they see it. This must be done before the session, and in consultation with members of the group.
Length and numbers of people
The ideal LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® session is for 6-12 people to tackle a complex problem, and whilst the length does depend on the complexity of the issue being addressed, a minimum of two hours would be required. Half a day would be good, and a whole day even better. However, it is possible to run a session on conference style scale to tackle simpler issues, break the ice, or just inspire a bit of creativity. But this does still need identical LEGO® brick kits for everyone, and ideally groups discussion on a table and a facilitator for each group.
Can you just use any LEGO®?
You could use any LEGO® bricks, but to help the process be as effective as possible, LEGO® have put together sets of different sizes for different purposes, and the good thing about these is that everybody gets the same pieces and they are deliberately full of pieces that stimulate thinking in metaphors and story telling, such as arches, wheels, propellers and ladders. Interestingly, they include very few of the classic LEGO® mini-figures, to encourage more building and less reliance of representation of people. Anyone can buy these kits but a facilitator will probably get these before the session.
Is this just play? What are the tangible benefits?
The biggest benefit of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is the efficiency in organisational thinking. There are other ways of getting to the creativity, communication, and understanding that it stimulates, but they usually take much longer. For example, think of the rounds and rounds of conventional meetings it would take to get everybody’s ideas out in the open, critique them objectively and then decide on what might be the right path to take. This could be achieved in just one day with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, and with far less pain and maybe some pleasure.
And if we dig down in to how that is tangibly achieved, it gives equal personal time and space for thinking, and then focus on the model and not the person so is not judgmental. This levels the playing field between those who are confident and articulate and those who are hesitant and struggle to describe what they are thinking. Those people’s contributions are rarely tapped into but could be transformational.
It also stimulates emotional engagement and impact, which has been proved to lead to behaviour changes; the holy grail of the ‘team building event’.
The bottom line is that LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® stimulates thinking, communication and, problem solving in a group which then creates an environment with insight, confidence and commitment. Once you have that, the possibilities are limitless.
If you want to know more
Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to discuss how LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® could help you.
Dr Geraint Wyn Story
I'd like to acknowledge that much of the information here was gleaned from the inspirational Robert Rasmussen of Rasmussen Consulting who is one the architects of the LEGO® Serious Play® method.