I took the photograph below during a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® (LSP) workshop I ran for a technology innovation team from a FTSE 100 company in October 2021. We were looking at a real time strategy for their team. In this blog, I’m going to use the photograph to describe eights things that make LSP work. But before that, take a moment to look at the photograph and notice what is happening in terms of:
- Dynamics between the people
- Where their focus is
- Body language
What are the eight things that you think are making this workshop work?
The things you can see here that make LSP work are:
- Only one person is talking
- Everyone else is listening
- Nobody is using a mobile phone or laptop
- Participants are physically leaning in
- Everyone is looking at one model
- The builder is touching their model
- Another person is asking a question
- Everybody is standing up
In the rest of this article, I will elaborate on each of these points.
Only one person is talking. Play has rules and boundaries and so does LSP including: everybody builds; everybody shares their answer; and everybody listens. These are part of the ground rules that are explained at the beginning of every workshop, and which make the methodology work. Another part of the methodology is that a challenge is set in the form of a question. Once a challenge is set for the participants, they all have the same chance to use the bricks to think and to explain their answer, and the ground rules mean that nobody interrupts the speaker so only one person speaks at a time. This gives equal chance to everyone, regardless of their personality or seniority. Robert Rasmussen is one of the architects of LSP and he talks about LSP reaching ‘the lonely guy’ or the person in the group who, for whatever reason, never gets a chance to be heard. In LSP, the lonely guy has the same time as everyone else to think and to speak, and often surprises the group with their insights.
Everyone else is listening. The establishment of ground rules gives everyone the opportunity to listen. Most other workshops and meetings don’t explicitly and actively encourage listening so it can take participants a little time to get used to this way of operating, and a good facilitator will step in early to help participants with this. But once this new way of communicating has been understood, the participants follow the ground rules with minimal reminders because they begin to see the positive outcomes.
Nobody is using a mobile phone or laptop. The request for everyone to leave their phones and laptops alone is made clear in advance as well as at the beginning of a workshop. This can be a jolt for some but they can accept it once they are reassured that there will be breaks when they can catch up if they want to. However, once they get their hands on the bricks, participants are immediately engrossed like a child at play, so much so that they usually work in silence and barely even notice anyone else is building until the time is up. And the engagement continues as they listen to each others’ answers. This attention is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘being in flow’ (see his TED Talk). In summary, when you are in flow you have a challenge that is matched by the skills you have to do it, and consequently you are engrossed in your task and time just seems to fly. However, when the challenge is bigger than your skills set you may find yourself in a state of anxiety, or if your skills set is bigger than the challenge you find yourself in a state of boredom. An LSP workshop progressively increases the skills and the challenge to keep participants in flow, engaged, and well away from their phones and laptops.
Participants are physically leaning in. Body language tells us a lot about what is going in a meeting. If you think of a typical meeting, most people lean out, which often suggests that they are not engaged so their minds wander. However, people typically ‘lean in’ during LSP workshops because people really want to hear and see what others are saying. The creators of LSP refer to achieving ‘100/100’, meaning that you get 100% attention from 100% of the people in the room. Far better than the usual 80/20 in meetings and workshops when 80% of the talking is done by 20% of the people, and is usually a consequence of personality or seniority.
Everyone is looking at one model. The core process of LSP is:
A relevant challenge or question is posed to the participants; they build their answer; they share their answer by explaining their answer; and everyone reflects on what has been said. It is crucial that their model is their answer. They use the model to explain their own thinking and others can ask questions about the model. This externalisation of their thinking brings psychological safety. And this is why a facilitator must always ensure what is in the models are the boundaries of the discussion. It can be very tempting for participants to discuss issues that are connected and which seem relevant and important but which are not represented in the model. This kind of discussion must not happen because the psychological safety of LSP is being compromised. This can be frustrating for some participants, seeming to be inflexible and limiting, but seeing the discussion go into new territory can deter another participant from confidently and openly explaining their model, which negatively impacts the process. Also, if one participant is allowed to discuss things beyond the model, then so should everyone, and before long the workshop is off-course in terms of time and topic, which is an all too familiar trend in meetings and workshops.
The builder is touching their model. Better communication is achieved during LSP because people can listen with their eyes as well as with their ears. As well as understanding better, the audience better remember what was said because their visual memory prompts their understanding of the meaning. However, the model builder must lead their audience through their answer in the model by touching and pointing to the various aspects. This also draws the attention of the listeners to the model and away from the speaker’s face, again maintaining psychological safety. LSP helps the builder to think and communicate their answer to a challenge but an answer explained without pointing to the relevant bricks loses much of the power of LSP.
Another person is asking a question. It is important that others are allowed to ask questions about a model once it has been explained. They may ask for something to be repeated if they missed it or ask about some bricks that weren’t explained but most often a question is asked to help the listener learn more about the answer in the model. However, one of the ground rules of LSP is that nobody can add meaning to anyone else’s model so the questions must be ‘clean’. This takes some practice for participants and can be demonstrated by the facilitator who must also step in if a question from a participant is not clean and does add meaning. Per Kristiansen is co-founder of the LSP Association of Master Trainers and he recommends that you should be able to point to your question in the model; if you can’t then the question is probably outside the model and therefore outside the limits of LSP. Again, this can seem frustrating but if overlooked the power of this facilitation methodology begins to be lost. For example, one might say:
- “is there any significance to the red brick on the top?”
- “does the red brick represent your boss?”
The first question does not impose new meaning whereas the second question does. But also, the first question does not assume any meaning, which is important for two reasons. Firstly, it is fine for a brick to have no meaning and be just there for decoration, and secondly, the builder for one reason or another may have a meaning for that brick, which they are not willing to explain. Asking is there significance rather what is the significance gives the builder the discretion to hold back their meaning if they want to. Per Kristiansen also recommends four topics for good questions:
- Colour – significance of particular brick colours
- Proportion – significance of some aspects being bigger than others
- Position – significance of the positions of various aspects
- Movement – significance of some bricks incorporating movement
Everybody is standing up. From my own experience of getting groups to work together on any creative tasks, groups are more engaged and creative when they stand up. This is usually because of the practicalities of working space. When people stay in their chairs they often don’t hear what people a few places away are saying, they can’t see what another is noting down, and can become detached and bored. And although the solution is remarkably simple, people are usually very reluctant to get out of their chairs and move closer. But once standing, it is easier to move position and look from a new perspective, which is critical in LSP. There are often lots of details on a model that you just don’t see from one direction on the other side of the room so you need to get up and walk around. But don’t worry, much of a workshop is done sitting down but there is definitely a time when a facilitator will judge that it might be time to push the chairs to one side for a while and invite the participants to stand.