Building Your Dreams at Agile India 2014

I had a great time presenting a User Requirements with LEGO Serious Play workshop at Agile India 2014.  Sharing LSP with a new crowd is always fun, and the 100+ people who participated were enthusiastic and ready to play!

One lovely surprise from my session was the amazing graphic summary Lynne Cazaly created:

I think Lynne’s graphic is a better summary than my slides, but here they are anyhow:

If you’re curious to learn more about how LEGO Serious Play can help your team get work done or move forward in resolving a serious issue, check out my previous post on Why Serious Play Works or leave me a note in the comments so that we can chat.


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!


So you want to know more about LEGO Serious Play?

Despite the slushtacular weather yesterday evening, quite a number of people made it out to the workshop I gave at capCHI last night on User Requirements with LEGO. We had a great time doing an intro to LEGO Serious Play and modelling users for an Ottawa Snow Portal. I’m always amazed by how much work can be done in a short period time using this approach.

In 60 minutes, it’s hard to do more than present an overview of the LSP process if you’re going to have time to do any building (and building is way more fun). If you’re interested in learning more about the history and methodology of LEGO Serious Play, here are a few sources of information that you can start with:

seriousplay.com – the official site for LEGO Serious Play

The Strategic Playroom – a hangout for the global network of facilitators interested in using creative, playful approaches (incl. LSP) to improve organizational performance. The site is hosted by strategicplay.ca, where you can go for information about facilitator training

User Requirements with LEGO – the guide for applying the LSP approach to collaborative gathering of user requirements for online projects.

Agilitrix.ca – Michael Sahota, an Agile coaching colleague and fellow facilitator, has published some great videos and posts relating his adventures in using these techniques in Agile contexts.

I’ll post additional materials down the road.  Some of last night’s participants asked some very thought-provoking questions about the approach and I have some research to do to find answers.  Stay tuned!


43 sleeps until Play4Agile 2012!

I’m very much looking forward to participating in Play4Agile 2012 in Germany next month.  Last year’s inaugural event was such an amazing experience that registration for this year’s unconference sold out in less than 12 hours.   I registered for p4a11 one year ago today, thinking that I would take a bit of a busman’s holiday – fly to Germany for a weekend (!?!), meet some interesting people over some good beer, and hopefully learn a new game or two to use with the teams I work with.

At last year’s event, I definitely learned a few new games.  I also helped create 2 new games with people from 4 different countries, taking challenging ideas from concept to a first play test in less than 5 hours, and learned some great stuff about game design along the way.  I experienced the magic of LEGO Serious Play for the first time. And I met wonderful people: there were many gifted coaches there who shared their wisdom and experience through Open Space sessions, during shared meals, and over beers into the wee hours of the morning.   The energy and spirit of the event was astonishing – despite having slept very little because of the time difference, I returned home revitalized, refreshed and raring to go.

So what will this year’s event bring?  The theme for this year’s event is “High PLAYformance for Agile teams”. I believe that play is a critical component for successful teams, and I’m hoping to get some ideas for how to bring more playfulness into day-to-day work.  I’m really looking forward to meeting up with the Europe-based StrategicPlay gang again and doing more cool things with LEGO.  I’m especially looking forward to the evenings in the bar at the SeminarZentrum Rückersbach, where the days will be discussed over Werewolf or Smallworld or Bausack.  I know it will be a great unconference – the only challenge will be figuring out how to get enough sleep to make the most of it.


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.