Career Guide


Trust your hands to expand your mind

How the elements of creativity enhance engagement and productivity

Most meetings destroy collaboration.

The reason why most meetings are more of a hindrance than a help is because they are of the 20/80 type where 20% of the participants take 80% of the time – creating a state of disengagement and exclusivity in the control and flow of the discussion.

What makes it worse is that certain people organise meetings to confirm their already decided thinking and prejudices. Often, the obstacle to innovation is not the lack of creativity, rather it is the lack of collaborative thinking. Imagine, the way the meeting is conducted can become an obstacle to the objective of the meeting!

What can be done to transform the 20/80 meeting type to 100/100 where 100% of participants are contributing their full potential – 100% of what they have to offer? They are several challenges when moving from 20/80 to 100/100:

-The challenge of facilitating active engagement;

-The challenge of unlocking hidden knowledge; and

-The challenge of synthesising a shared response.

Paradoxically, the solution is not found in the solution, rather it is discovered when a series of probing questions are posed.

Although the intent of any learning session is a needful starting point, the success of a meeting lies in its ability to generate and captivate the interest of all participants in such a way that stories and insights are shared enthusiastically in a safe environment. It takes a combination of both seriousness and playfulness.

In situations where you need to think through complex issues in a collaborative manner, the “playing with a purpose” approach may be just the approach you need to break through unproductive mindsets and unlock new ways of thinking that leads to innovation. There are three key characteristics which define what serious play is all about (Per Kristiansen & Robert Rasmussen):

1. It is an intentional gathering to apply the imagination

2. It is exploring and preparing, not implementing

3. It follows a specific set of rules or language


Applying the imgaination

Imagination precedes innovation. The “templatised” approach to creativity will work in situations where predictability and compliance takes centre stage. However, how do participants form a mental image of something that does not yet exist – in order to see things that have not happened yet?

Dr Stuart Brown, the founder and head of the National Institute for Play, Carmel Valley, California, makes this point well – “Play is our natural way of adapting and developing new skills. It is what prepares us for emergence, and keeps us open to serendipity, to new opportunities. It prepares us for ambiguity”.

In the LEGO Serious Play® method, participants answer a series of questions that delve a bit deeper with each step. Each person builds his or her own three-dimensional LEGO model in response to these questions by using specially selected LEGO bricks.

These models then serve as the basis for group discussion, knowledge sharing, problem solving and decision making. The bricks themselves do not generate the ideas, rather they act as the medium through which new patterns of thoughts can be discovered – sometimes, the model itself may surprise the builder!

Consider this – the quintessential LEGO brick is the 4 x 2 red stud brick. Eight of these bricks can be combined in 915,103,765 ways! Hence, this moves beyond any fixed structure or limiting templates and provides an environment where the sky is the limit when it comes to the application of imagination.


Exploring and preparing

The focus in LEGO Serious Play® is not on the bricks; it is on the story they create. The bricks and the models become metaphors, and the landscapes of the models become stories.

It is within the storyboarding environment that participants are free to explore different paths, zigzag, and find what does and does not work. This in essence is what play is about – the freedom to experiment and express different options before settling down on what the solution could look like.

In fact, many of the things that are proposed will remain merely ideas; others will be carried into action. But action isn’t the point of the process, exploring is.

In one of my facilitation sessions, we used the LEGO bricks to explore different scenarios and reasons why the team was not functioning in a cohesive way as it should.

The benefit of utilising the bricks was that a potentially sensitive and emotional issue could be discussed with a high degree of objectivity because the focus was on the models built rather than on any one person’s words or tone of voice.

Furthermore, the LEGO Serious Play® process also mandates the application of a reflection phase where every person takes time to crystallise their thinking in relation to the built model. As for the team that went through this process, we concluded the session with a set of five team operating principles which was created entirely by the team after many rounds of exploration and preparation.

Unlike a typical training programme where the outcome is usually dictated by the trainer, the end result of a LEGO Serious Play® session comes from the contribution of the participants, not the facilitator. This ensures accountability and ownership.


Specific set of rules or language

When imagining, participants must follow a specific set of rules or language. This helps break the pattern of normal thinking and encourages participants to use their imagination freely.

LEGO Serious Play® provides a set of language which creates the space in which it is safe to imagine and challenge. Most of us are conditioned to believe that we must make decisions as quickly and as early in the process as possible.

Therefore, it takes a rather robust language system to break this, and help or even force the continued exploration and imagination phase.

Instinctively, some may consider rules to be prohibiting because it constricts. However, think about it – how can you truly enjoy a game of football if there are no rules to follow? It many end up looking more like a fight rather than a game!

Due to the fun nature of LEGO Serious Play®, despite the presence of many outspoken individuals in one of my workshops, we were able to process the contribution from the relatively quieter participants and ensure 100% engagement in the overall shared solution.

Hence, while there are rules to follow, the very look and feel of the LEGO bricks itself act as an effective ice-breaker.


Conclusion: It is about participatory leadership

The participatory leadership paradigm is based on respect and engagement. It is a smart way to lead clever people in complex times of unprecedented and accelerating change.

This means that no single leader or manager alone is able to resolve all the issues that their organisations face. They need to engage their teams and involve people and partners, inside and outside the organisations.

The LEGO Serious Play® approach provides a means by which we can facilitate the participation of teams of bright people towards higher engagement and ownership of their own solutions. Isn’t this at the heart of what innovation is all about?


Joseph Tan is CEO of Leaderonomics Good Monday and also a certified facilitator of the LEGO Serious Play® methodology. His passion is to work with performance-focused leaders to capture the hearts and minds of their employees through a strengths-based and accountability-driven approach. Much of what is shared in the article above comes from his experience in working with clients to transform their organisations’ culture. If you would like to enhance the culture of your company, e-mail joseph.tan@leaderonomics.com for more details.

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