The power of play - how to leverage Lego Serious Play™ for professional growth and business success
Updated: Jul 20
Lego Serious Play™ (LSP) can help to generate a creative, productive flow in which individuals and groups produce novel thoughts and ideas.
When you type “power of play” into a search engine, the majority of entries refer to children’s development. Yet, the concept of “play” in a professional context or business sense is not at all silly or absurd. It seems easy and intuitive to judge “play” as the very opposite of work, as an entertainment activity, or as idle time when there is nothing serious to do.
Potentially, that’s also the initial rationale of customers who consider playing with Lego a waste of time. Some propose, they would rather like to “get things done”. Others say, they would not know how to play. And some even admit their fear of building a Lego model. Once, I have been asked to focus on the real stuff and save the playing around for when we take breaks. I get it. I get you. I was the same.
Lego Serious Play™ is a methodology invented to enable and challenge managers
Lego Serious Play™ is a facilitated thinking, communication and problem-solving technique. Originally, it was developed at the Lego Group. That was about 30 years ago: Johan Roos and Bart Victor created the "Serious Play" concept and process in the mid-1990s as a way to enable managers to describe, create and challenge their views on their business (see Wikipedia). Since 2010 it is available in form of an open-source community-based model. Its’ goal is to improve creative thinking and communication. With the help of Lego bricks, individuals create 3-dimensional visual representations of their thoughts and ideas and they tell stories about their models - as an answer to a specific task or question.
The conceptual foundation of Serious Play combines ideas from constructivism (Piaget 1951), constructionism (Harel and Papert 1991), complex adaptive system theory (Holland 1995) and autopoietic corporate epistemology (von Krogh and Roos 1994; 1995) applied to the context of management and organizations.
LSP can be utilized with organizations, teams and individuals. The method taps into the human ability to imagine, to describe and to make sense of a given situation, to initiate change and improvement, and even to create something radically new. LSP draws on wide-ranging research from the fields of business, organization development, psychology and learning.
Lego Serious Play™ is based on the concept of “hand knowledge”
What does that even mean? Research confirms that our hands are connected to 70-80% of our brain cells. As we know, our brain is limited as to how much information it can consciously handle at one time (working memory). The neural connections between hand and brain equip us to “know” more than we think we know at any given moment. If we involve our hands while learning, a complex process takes place resulting in a powerful emotional charge. As a consequence, thoughts and ideas are expressed with greater detail and they are understood and remembered more easily.
If Lego Serious Play™ is suitable depends on the intention of the gathering
Essentially, LSP works well for tasks and questions related to strategy, communication and organization as well as innovation and product development. Its’ suitability also depends on the intention of the gathering in which it is used.
#1 What is the objective of the meeting?
LSP works well when everyone is expected to contribute knowledge and opinions on a level playing field and when honest dialogue and collaborative communication shall be fostered.
#2 What are the participants like?
LSP works well when no participant should dominate the group at the expense of others (i.e. by pursuing a personal agenda), or when participants are diverse in age, professional background or organizational status.
#3 How complex is the topic of the meeting?
LSP works well when a subject is multidimensional and multifaceted with no obvious and clear answers, or when there is a need to comprehend the bigger picture, identify connections and explore various options and potential solutions.
#4 What type of interaction should be promoted?
LSP helps to create a common understanding and frame of reference among participants, it provides room to voice opinions and take decisions of collective commitment.
Benefits range from social bonding to constructive competition
To many, the name "serious play" implies an oxymoron. How can play be serious? Hang on - adult’s and children’s play are not the same! When adults play, they play with their established sense of identity. Which makes play often competitive. Adult play is mostly conducted with a specific goal in mind, whereas the purpose of play is less conscious for children (see Rasmussen Consulting, 2014). Adult play can imply different and distinct purposes: social bonding, emotional expression, cognitive development or constructive competition.
Social bonding is a significant benefit of play. Social bonding is vital in human interaction as it conveys a sense of partnership, cohesion, security, cooperation and cultural expression.
In long-standing literature, the motivational basis for play is described as predominantly emotional (Fein 1984, Vygotsky 1978). The representations used in play are considered as representations of the player's own affective state. Emotions such as love, anger, or fear motivate and influence the different forms of play, as well as the symbolic expressions the player produces. Since play involves the capacity to pretend, and to shift attention and roles, it provides a natural setting in which a voluntary or unconscious therapeutic or cathartic experience may take place.
During play, each object can take on meaning and can embody abstract concepts, therefore detailing and specifying formal relationships that can otherwise be difficult to comprehend. This type of comprehension and revelation fosters cognitive development.
Constructive competition refers to the sort of competition that allows to measure our own skills against those of our opponents. Not merely for the purpose of "winning" but for striving to perform at our best. Huizinga believed that the major form of human play is contests, and that contests have educating potential, developing social interest around which society constructs its values (Huizinga, 1955). Play in general is uniquely suited to enhance our competitive intelligence.
Through storytelling each Lego brick transforms into something meaningful
Storytelling is an essential element of Lego Serious Play™ – as each participant implicitly uses this technique to describe and explain his model to others. The story gives meaning and explanation to each brick and each assembled part of the model. Remember how ordinary objects are transformed into flowers, animals, trucks and cars, tools or anything else when children play, and how very naturally narratives of all sorts evolve during that play.
Storytelling has been an integral part of our day-to-day throughout the entire human experience. Through myths, sagas, fairy tales, and family legends, people have used stories as a mean to express ideals and values. In stories, we deal with issues of culture, religion, social and personal identity, group membership, good and evil. We design characters to express hopes, deal with fears, and resolve conflict. Stories are so effective because our brain likes them. We remember stories better than facts or data. And we remember them with greater accuracy and detail.
In organizations, stories contribute to the production, reproduction, transformation, and deconstruction of organizational values and beliefs. Boje (1991) defines the storytelling organization as “...a collective storytelling system in which the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense making and a mean to allow them to supplement individual memories with institutional memory.”
Most employees are used to impactful narratives following or preceding specific corporate events. Most of us have attended well-crafted townhall presentations and have received fine-tuned information emails. Every corporation has its’ own tone and twist in that sense. And all share the fact that thought through storytelling and intentional narratives are at the core of corporate communication or change management. Putnam (1995) states that in organizational contexts, narratives serve a number of purposes: the socialization of new members, the legitimization of bonding and organizational identification, cultural control, and they serve as a lens through which organizational action may be understood and interpreted.
Lego Serious Play™ provides a platform for delight, learning and ultimately “flow”
When did we stop playing? Since when do efficiency and productivity overrule playful goofing around? Many of us simply unlearned to play. Therefore, experiencing the LSP method for the first time may feel like a roller coaster ride with varying comfort levels for some participants. The process was deliberately designed that way to increase the probability of real changes and long-term learning, along with a deep feeling of accomplishment. The “Flow Model” best describes the roller coaster experience (modified from Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1991)). Flow can be described as “the natural balance between challenges and skills” (Knoop 1997 after Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). The model illustrates how we arrive at the condition of “flow” – when our competence and the challenge we face are in balance with each other. According to the model, a lack of challenge leads to boredom, and challenges that are too big create anxiety. The model further depicts how our personalities become more complex (competent) as a result of experiencing flow.
Delight and learning are two sides of the same coin. Studies show how adults appear to be happiest when they are learning most effectively, and one can go so far as to conclude that “effective learning is experienced as playful” – where play is considered broadly as the preferred mode of human being. Effective learning is what takes place when we are genuinely engaged in something, when we are doing something, we really desire to do.”
Lego Serious Play™ is good for a surprise
My work with Lego Serious Play™ has taught me one thing: expect the unexpected. And that is a good thing. Last time the unexpected was someone I call Steve. In my biased view, he seemed like a stereotypical German corporate male employee: white, middle-aged, data-scientist, unpretentious, practical dress-code, no kids, very critical thoughts about many things. My first assumption was: he is not going to like the Lego part of our agenda. And was I wrong!
He built his Lego model with focus, vigour, creativity and eagerness. I could literally see his flow establishing. The story of his model was engaging, thoughtful, authentic and original. Steve couldn’t wait to share his own and hear his team mates’ stories. He wanted to understand what others had created and intended. He was curious and interested in everyone’s point of view regarding the question at hand. And he then made sure, the team stories all connected and culminated in a common storyline. From what I observed, it was evident that he was in engaged in the task to learn and evolve.
Lego Serious Play™ facilitates life-long learning
Lego Serious Play™ is for everyone. Especially those who least expect it. It brings out the best in us: It provides an outlet for ideas and thoughts which we didn’t know we had. And it allows us to share these thoughts with those that we maybe never thought we share them with. Lego facilitates life-long learning. While this seems like a dusty, aged buzz word, Steve embraced it as a strategy to stand out. Needless to say, life-long learning needs to remain a priority for individuals and corporations equally.
Sources and further reading
Lego Serious Play https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego_Serious_Play
Kristiansen, Per and Rasmussen, Robert. Building a Better Business Using the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Method, Wiley, New Jersey, USA: Wiley, 2014.
Rasmussen Consulting, 2014, https://www.rasmussenconsulting.dk
Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow—The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York City: HarperPerennial, 1991
Lissack, Michael and Johan Roos: The Next Commons Sense, Mastering Corporate Complexity through Coherence”, Nicholas Brealing, 1999
Oliver, D. and Roos, J. (2003) Constructing Organizational Identity, Imagination Lab Working Paper 2003- 10, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Roos Johan and Bart Victor: ”Towards a New Model of Strategy-Making as Serious Play”, European Management Journal (August 1999), 348-255
Roos, J., Victor, B., and Statler, M. (2003) Playing Seriously With Strategy, Imagination Lab Working Paper 2003-2a, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Said, R., Roos, J., and Statler, M. (2002) Lego Speaks, Imagination Lab Working Paper 2002- 7, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Weick Karl E and KH Roberts: “Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedfull Interrelating on Flight Decks”, Administrative Sciences Quaterly (September 1993), 357-381