A serious introduction into the LEGO Serious Play method. No, seriously...

The LEGO® Serious Play® method* is a method that facilitates meetings, communication and problem-solving. It can be applied in any situation where it is extremely important that we overcome habitual thinking and where we need the maximum available knowledge, input, and attention of everyone involved in order to reach our goals. Often times these meetings are on a strategic or on a team level. 

This blogpost is an introduction to the method. If you don't feel like reading, be sure to subscribe to our podcast, where you'll find an entire episode dedicated to LEGO Serious Play.

Why I became a facilitator in the LEGO Serious Play method.

In line with my work at The Reference, I decided to become a facilitator in the LEGO Serious Play method. In case you're clueless on the specifics of what this method entails, don't worry, I'll get to that. In case you're wondering why I decided to become a facilitator, hold your horses, I'll get to that as well. In case you're not wondering anything at all and you just want me to get on with it, you're out of luck.

Because before I deep dive into all of the above, I want you to check out this video of Dan Lyons, author of "Lab Rats".

It isn't pretty, is it? Dan wrote the book because he believes we're at the turning point where we need to decide if the future (of work) is tech-centric or human-centric. It's a great read and in light of everything we see coming out of Silicon Valley, very relevant. That said, everything sounds very outrageous, doing away with not only LEGO Serious Play but also commonly used methods like Agile and Lean (we implement aspects of both at The Reference).

“Lego workshops are just one example of the nonsense that is creeping into the workplace. A lot of Agile trainers also do workshops with Play-Doh. In another game, called Six Thinking Hats, people put on different colored hats and role-play. In something called the Ball Point Game, teams compete to find the fastest way to pass tennis balls into a bucket, fire-brigade style. Do a search for “Ball Point Game” on YouTube and you can watch fully sentient adult human beings actually doing this at work.”

Excerpt From: Dan Lyons. “Lab Rats”.

So having watched the video, having read the book,... Why on earth would I still become a facilitator in the LEGO Serious Play method? The answer is quite simple. In my role as a service designer, I am constantly confronted with the need for this type of facilitation of meetings. In the same way, I also see a need (and the benefits) of implementing an Agile and Lean approach for spitting out an MVP (minimum viable product) incrementally. I respect the opinions Mr. Lyons has on these topics though.

Did we struggle to implement these very approaches? Yes! Do our clients struggle with these approaches? Again, yes. But there is nothing more valuable than having the client present in our daily standups (also mocked in the book). It provides transparency, which in turn provides trust between the client and the team that is delivering the best possible solution for the available budget/timescale, with the option to adapt and change direction if needed.

And just like I see the value of Agile and Lean approaches in my day to day work, I see the value of having a meeting, assisted by the LSP (LEGO Serious Play) method.

What on earth is the LEGO Serious Play Method?

So back to where we started. Remember the main goal of LSP? It facilitates meetings where it is extremely important that we overcome habitual thinking and where we need the maximum available knowledge, input, and attention of everyone involved in order to reach our goals.
You'd think we, as adults, are mature enough to have these kinds of meetings all the time. Turns out we're not. Do me a favour and try reading the body language of everyone in the next meeting you're in. Try to define their (or your) input level. Often you'll end up in a 20/80 situation where 20% of the participants are talking for 80% of the time, directing the meeting or pushing their viewpoint whilst pretending (often unconsciously) they value or listen to those of their colleagues. Knowing myself, I'm often in that 20% segment because, well, I'm a loudmouth ;). It's the worst personality trait possible when facilitating workshops, and I need to pay close attention to it. Now transpose this to a meeting or workshop where the outcome is very important (say you're defining the strategic direction for the next 3-5 years) and you only tap into 20% of the knowledge in the room...

This is where LSP can help out by using the same 4 core steps over and over again

The Core steps of LEGO Serious Play:

  • Core step 1: Posing a question
    the facilitator poses a question or challenge.
  • Core step 2: Building a personal model
    Everyone builds their answer to that question using LEGO bricks. The available bricks are designed to inspire the use of metaphors and story making.
  • Core step 3: Sharing the model
    Everyone is invited to share their model with the other participants. This ensures 100% participation and 100% distribution and understanding of the knowledge.
  • Core step 4: Reflecting on the model
    Try to distil some insights, points of attention, clarifications in relation to the model.

You probably recognise these core steps as something that is used in workshops all of the time in the form of post-it notes. When we're thinking about tough challenges, we need to tap into the sum of all of the knowledge in that room, not just the 20%. We deliberately let participants write out their ideas, answers, opinions on post-it notes to avoid people being influenced by the loudest voice in the room, and to make sure we gather as much knowledge on a subject before converging afterward (see double diamond principle).

So far, the involvement of LEGO is no different than those post-its. Everyone gets a chance to think for themselves and voice their own answer. The LEGO bricks add a new dimension to this by breaking your habitual thinking and by making the conversation more "safe". Just like "doodling" helps you to focus and concentrate, physically handling tangible 3D objects stimulates your thinking and it guides you to answers and knowledge you were unaware of. I could start linking out to tonnes of articles deep-diving into "hand knowledge", followed by "constructionism" etc. but you'd just get bored. I know I do. But I've seen and experienced many times that people build something, only to be surprised by themselves when telling the story of the model they just built. The model is also where the "safety" aspect comes into play. You're actually describing a model. As a facilitator, we will also guide every conversation in such a way that it is about the model that is built, and the concept or metaphor behind it, not the person who built it. Since these workshops are often held with mixed teams where management is part of, safety in discussing the models is guaranteed in all directions.

In his book, Dan starts off describing the agitation and stress he experiences when he's asked to build a "duck". This is indeed a known little exercise to get people familiar with LSP. It is indeed a silly exercise, and it is almost never part of a real LSP facilitated workshop. That said, every workshop does tackle the inherent fear a lot of people have when confronted with a bunch of LEGO bricks. People think they need to get "creative" with the bricks. They do not consider themselves as being creative (although creativity is inherently in all of us all of the time). And often they have not played with LEGO in a long time. These fears are quickly taken away in the first hour of any LSP facilitated workshop. Through a predefined set of exercises, people learn that the bricks are indeed just a "metaphor" for whatever it is they want to express. They quickly are habituated to playing with the bricks and before you know, they are building models that convey their (untapped) knowledge and concepts in a way that sticks with the other participants. We're aiming to get the participants into a state of "Flow".

The importance of Flow in the LEGO Serious Play method.

The flow principle is used throughout the industry and in almost all of our digital projects. Take a quick look at the graph below. This maps out the cognitive load whilst going through a multi-step online process. Sometimes there are just too many decisions in one step, or the wording is too difficult, at which point we give up. We could cut up the hard sections into multiple, easier steps (reduce difficulty) but introduce 100 "yes/no" questions and the user will get bored and leave.

Cognitive load - funnels - wizards - forms - Lego Serious Play
It is the responsibility of the facilitator to "design" the course of the workshop in such a way that the participants experience the feeling of "flow". Make it too difficult and people fall out of the flow. Make it too easy and people get bored. Maintain a balance between the challenges they are facing and the confidence in their skills to overcome the challenge and they can step up their game continuously. Every LEGO Serious Play workshop adheres to this flow principle.
Concept of Flow - Lego Serious Play

The practical application of the LEGO Serious Play method

Still with me? Nice. By now you're probably wondering what the practical applications are of this facilitation technique. When and why would you think about having a meeting assisted by the technique? Let me answer this question by clarifying the seven application techniques of the LEGO Serious Play method. All of these are built upon the 4 core steps described earlier. Depending on the challenge at hand, these application techniques can be combined into a workshop where diverse issues are tackled.

Let me quickly go over the 7 application techniques (AT's):

  • AT 1: building individual models
  • AT 2: building shared models
  • AT 3: creating a landscape
  • AT 4: making connections
  • AT 5: building a system
  • AT 6: playing emergence and decisions
  • AT 7: extracting simple guiding principles

The issues at hand can be very diverse: from personal or team development all the way to enterprise development. It can handle issues with challenging constraints or situations where you need to define a real-time strategy that works in a complex system where the impacts on the system change continuously. Situations where multiple stakeholders need to align themselves in their decision making and strategy in order to pay head to the everchanging environment, resulting in a stronger leadership.

After Skills Building participants quickly start with application technique 1. This is where everyone constructs an individual model that represents their answer to a relevant and specific question posed by the facilitator. A classic example would be to build your representation of your current team, including yourself. Often the facilitator will ask you to mark the most important "aspect" of the team with a red brick.

AT2 Shared Model - LEGO Serious Play

The workshop then progresses to application technique 2. This is a technique where participants combine their individual model into one shared model that encompasses the core elements of each individual model (marked with the red brick). This exercise alone often results in unexpected and valuable insights. The shared model will encompass the aspects that are important to each individual participant.

Application technique 3, 4 and 5 will progress from the shared model and get participants to build out an entire landscape, followed by connections of the concepts in the landscape all the way to a complex system.

Strategy Roadmap through facilitation with Lego Serious Play method

Once you have the connected system in place you can start application technique 6, "playing emergence and decisions". This is where stuff really starts moving. Here you can start throwing assumptions around on what might impact the current system, and play out the scenario's on how the system "might" react to this. You can start defining how the system "should" react to this. This brings us to application technique 7 where we extract simple guiding principles on how to react based on events that (could) happen. This allows any of the participants to individually react and make decisions in real time, for any event that presents itself. All whilst still remaining in line with the core principles that the team has defined. This works on so many levels and places in the organization. From a development team that will start on a project all the way to a management team defining the company strategy for the next 5 years.

Can you get to this result in different ways? Sure, but the level of participation, insights, ideas, and ownership of the end results are very hard to attain.

The real challenge?

As with any workshop, the real challenge lies in finding the right questions that need answering. You'll also need the courage of whoever initiates the idea to solve a challenge through a LEGO Serious Play facilitated workshop. That is why every workshop is preceded with a thorough conversation on what the actual challenge is that needs to be tackled. Often it is a problem statement that needs to be reformulated to get to the root challenge at hand.

LEGO Serious Play at The Reference: a case

Do we apply this within The Reference? Yes, we do. As with any company, in the run-up to a new year, we evaluate our accomplishments (and failures, let's be fair) and we define new goals and aspirations for the year ahead. We do not always succeed in the goals we set out to do, or the concepts and goals are not always understood in the same way by everyone.

So I designed a LEGO Serious Play workshop with one goal in mind: 
What is our shared vision on the 2019 strategy program roadmap.
The workshop was designed in 4 sections:

  1. Construct a clear and shared understanding of the current state of our strategy department, including the challenges we face.
  2. Construct a clear and shared understanding of the aspirational state of our strategy department
  3. Define possible strategy led initiatives to get us from the current state to the aspirational state
  4. Define a prioritized plan of action and roadmap for these initiatives.

The final Strategy Roadmap through facilitation with Lego Serious Play method

The picture above illustrates our strategic roadmap for 2019. On the right you'll find our current state representation with all of the challenges/friction we're facing. On on the left you'll find our aspirational state at the end of 2019 where we've mitigated the challenges. Everything in between are the initiatives we'll be taking over the course of 2019.

I can freely share this picture. To you, none of the models in the picture will make any sense. But take any of those models in the landscape and show them to any of my participating colleagues, and they will all be able to tell you which of these initiatives we'll tackle (prioritisation) and what the strategic initiative consists of. They will be able to do this even for those models they did not create themselves, and long after the workshop took place. That's one of the real benefits of facilitating a meeting or workshop with LEGO Serious Play. It's not the end all be all of workshop methodologies, but when applied correctly, it's a very powerful service. That's why we added it to our long list of services in order to support not just your digital endeavours, but also your business.

Care to learn more, or just interested in how a LEGO Serious Play facilitated workshop can be of service to you?


* “LEGO, SERIOUS PLAY, the Minifigure and the Brick and Knob configurations are trademarks of the LEGO Group, which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this blog post”.
LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® methodology © [2019] The LEGO Group

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