Doing Trumps Reading: Training from the Back of the Room Workshop June 5-6 2014

What’s the best training experience you’ve been in?  Take a moment to put yourself through the retrospectoscope and consider what made it memorable for you.

Maybe it was a Scrum training.  Or a ski lesson.  Or perhaps a first aid class.  I’m willing to bet that whatever type of training it was, you’re not fondly recalling sitting in a beige room being talked at or PowerPointed to death.  What I remember vividly from a long-ago Scrum training is not the words of wisdom falling from the instructor’s lips, but rather the games, exercises, and conversations with other participants that illustrated and reinforced the ideas being presented.

In Training from the Back of the Room, Sharon Bowman has distilled and shared a powerful framework for designing and delivering training experiences to adults that will help make learning stick.  The Training from the Back of the Room approach is grounded in 6 simple principles (Sharon calls them the Six Trumps) derived from what we know about how the brain actually works to receive and retain information:

  1. Writing trumps reading
  2. Talking trumps listening
  3. Different trumps same
  4. Moving trumps sitting
  5. Images trump words
  6. Shorter trumps longer

None of these principles are revolutionary – yet we often fail to apply them when designing training experiences because they don’t align to what we’ve experienced in the past as a model of “how adult learning is done”.

I’d read Training from the Back of the Room a while back and had attempted to apply the principles in the workshops that I deliver to my clients, but it didn’t really all come together for me until I took Sharon’s class last December.  For me, the workshop was a transformative experience: while I didn’t burn all my slide decks after taking the course (because there’s useful content in there that I can repurpose to be presented in different ways) I will never again deliver training the way I used to.  A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a 3 day Agile team workshop making heavy use of TBR principles and I received excellent feedback from the participants about the interactive nature of the class and the very limited use of slides.  Afterwards, a couple of people in the class told me how apprehensive they’d been about having to sit through a 3day training session, and how delighted they were by how little sitting they actually did and how much fun they had while doing some serious learning and planning.

If you’re interested in learning how to make Training from the Back of the Room work for you, I’ll be offering a 2 day Training from the Back of the Room workshop with Glenn Waters in Guelph ON on June 5-6 just before Agile Coach Camp Canada 2014.  It’ll be a ton of fun, and you’ll walk away from the experience knowing how to apply the Six Trumps and 4Cs (next post!)  to delivering your training content, two of Sharon’s excellent books, and a toolkit of activities and ideas that you can use right away to revitalize the training you deliver whatever the subject matter.

The Team Responsibility Game

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I love games for learning – playing about serious matters allows people to drop some of the filters and barriers that may unconsciously affect how group discussions unfold and really explore ideas.  And the laughter and drama of playing a game that involves body, mind and emotions in order to learn about something helps ensure that the learnings stick.

At Play4Agile 2013, Markus Wittwer led an amazing and very popular game about team responsibility that explores the importance of shared intentions and playfully illustrates some of the effects of dysfunctional team behaviour.  I ran the same game during the Friday night playdate at Agile Coach Camp Canada 2013, where the participants had a lot of fun and made several excellent suggestions for how to extend and improve it.   Since then, I’ve been asked to share the exercise so that others can run it with their teams – here you go:

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Time required: 15-20 min

Number of players: teams of 7, the more teams the better


  • big loops of rope – I bought 20M hanks of lightweight cord at a dollar store and cut it into ~6.5M long pieces.  For bigger groups, you may want longer loops.
  • beach balls – or other light balls (balloons, playground balls) roughly the size of a soccer ball.

The game:

  • Participants arrange themselves into teams of 7 and each person grabs onto the loop with two hands.  The team members should count off so that they know who is team member #1, team member #2,…through to team member #7
  • Each team make a net with the loop by passing the rope to each other until a net is formed.
  • Place a ball in the middle of each team’s net.  The team’s work is to keep the ball in play on the net – don’t let it fall!
  • The facilitator then guides the team through a number of actions/scenarios.  In each scenario, the team follows the instruction and attempts to move gently around the room while keeping the ball in play.  The facilitator may ask the team to return to a neutral state between scenarios (or not!):
    • the team moves around, learning to keep the ball in play
    • team member 1 takes 130% of the responsibility by pulling harder on the cord.
    • team member 2 gives up some responsibility by loosening their grip on the cord.
    • team members 3 & 6 have a conflict and try to pull apart while maintaining their grip on the net.
    • team member 4 leaves their home team and joins another team
    • team members  5 & 7 swap places
    • multi-tasking!: have one team member join onto another team while remaining part of their home team
    • remote team member: have one team member close their eyes
    • have the team members move around silently
    • have one team member remain immobile while the rest of the team moves around.

The debrief:

This is a really powerful game for dramatizing what happens when teams are not aligned in intent or are in a position where team members are distracted from the shared team goal by external factors.  I think it works best if you debrief as you go: run one or two scenarios, then pause and encourage participants to reflect on how they are feeling right then, and how the current situation reflects circumstances that are present on their teams.

Why LEGO Serious Play works

“The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” – Dr. Stuart Brown, in a magnificent TED talk on the importance of play (posted here in case you haven’t already seen it):

I know that I overuse the word “magic” to describe what happens during LEGO Serious Play (LSP), but I can’t stop myself. When a group of people sit around a table, each outfitted with a little box of fairly unremarkable plastic bricks, and start building as a way of exploring a topic of common interest, what happens really is magic: the stories, the laughter, the incredible richness of thought and feeling that can be expressed through just a few minutes of assembling LEGO models and sharing a brief story is dazzling, every single time. Magical, really.

Except it’s not ‘magic’ – no illusions, no trickery, no magic wands. LEGO Serious Play is a deliberate application of basic learning theory and structured facilitation in order to foster creativity and engagement in a business setting. The methodology was initially developed in the mid-1990s by Johan Roos and Bart Victor, then professors at the prestigious IMD business college in Switzerland. They experimented with running strategic visioning exercises with leadership teams in a diverse range of enterprises (the LEGO company being one of them), and after initial successful experiments they approached LEGO for sponsorship for a commercial application of their practices. Thus began LEGO Serious Play, originally a proprietary methodology but now an open-source technology shared under a Creative Commons license.

On the surface, Strategic Play using the LEGO Serious Play approach seems ridiculously simple: a facilitator leads a group of people through a quick-paced series of building challenges in response to a few carefully-chosen questions focused on a topic of common interest, perhaps a team problem, or a recent project, or ideas for pursuing a new opportunity. Everyone builds for just a few minutes, then everyone tells a quick story about their model. Participants can ask clarifying questions only about each other’s models. Not exactly rocket science (although my favourite LSP case study is how NASA made use of LSP to bring a engineering safety team together in the wake of the Columbia disaster ).

LSP is, however, grounded strongly in learning theory and epistemology. It draws heavily on the learning theories of constructivism & constructionism, an understanding of play as an important adult behaviour for social bonding, creativity and storymaking, and three different kinds of imagination (descriptive, creative and challenging. There is an excellent paper on the The Science of LEGO Serious Play that describes how the LSP concept was developed based on these principles. Current research into play, such as Dr. Stuart Brown’s intriguing book Play, further supports the premises that creativity and exploration are critical for problem solving, and that play is a necessary adaptive behaviour for all humans to develop social relationships and find creative ways of adapting to complex and changing environments.

LSP works because it engages participants. Everyone builds, everyone talks – people are eager to make and share stories. It works because “thinking with your hands” inspires creativity, and encourages focusing on the most important thoughts and feelings on the topic at hand when building metaphorical representations of complex ideas. It works because the quick pace keeps the conversation moving and forthright – you don’t have time to “have a meeting with yourself” to over-rotate on how to shape and spin your story.

And, perhaps most importantly, LSP is fun!  Building and story-telling is fun – there’s a lot of laughter, and I’ve seen some pretty silly things represented in LEGO in order to illustrate a point of view. Emotions can run strong: at a memorable team-building session for a corporate client, one group of participants were on the verge of tears while telling their stories, because they were sharing some important truths with each other.  A  participant at a conference workshop told me that “I can’t wait to go home and try this with my wife!” (ulp!  I really need to put a ‘professional driver on a closed course – do not try this at home’ message in my presentation). Some people are initially put off by the playfulness of the activity – I’ve run several sessions where people have told me afterwards that initially they were skeptical of the whole idea, but after taking part in a modelling session, they get it.

Powerful, generative, creative and fun.  Magic!

Think with your hands!

Is your team is interested in new approaches to encouraging meaningful discussion about big opportunities or challenging problems? Playing with Lego can help! Serious fun can result in serious work getting done in not a lot of time, with a lot of laughter along the way.

Lego Serious Play is a playful approach to tackling challenging conversations about individual professional development, team dynamics and organizational strategy and planning. Through playful work, you can engage the creativity and enthusiasm of employees who may not be contributing everything they have to offer. Strategic Play with Lego Serious Play always includes 4 phases:

1) Building a model
2) Giving meaning to the model
3) Making a story to share the metaphor and meaning with others
4) Reflecting upon the knowledge that emerges and considering how to proceed.

Everybody builds. Everybody talks. The result is the emergence of a truly shared understanding that incorporates every participant’s point of view. It’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun, which helps people stay in the flow zone where they are the most engaged in the work at hand and creating the most valuable insights.

Working with Michael Sahota, I’ll be co-facilitating some Strategic Play with Lego Serious Play this weekend at Agile Coach Camp US in Columbus OH. I’ll tell you more about how it goes in my next post.