Not just a pile of bricks

“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you can from a lifetime of conversation” – Plato

Endless possibilities...

I don’t know about you, but for me there’s something innately comforting about Lego. That it fits so neatly together, its pleasing iconic design, the way it transports you back to a time when both play and possibilities were endless…

I’m currently enjoying the ‘Lego Experience’ a second time around through my son John. I don’t know how many ‘Rebel Alliance bases’ I’ve built so far for his Star Wars Lego figures but we’re definitely into double figures. The current base is white and very Empire Strikes Back (Hoth-esque if you’re a devotee).  A few weeks ago, for reasons I won’t go into here (but I do here) my wife and I happened to be entertaining the actress Caroline Blakiston, who played Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi, and it amused me hugely that one of ‘her bases’ was in the same room. I half expected her to criticise the accuracy of the build! John has a lot more Lego than I did as a kid, mainly because I still remember how much I craved and coveted friend’s larger Lego collections (Simon Brown – your Space Lego circa 1983 was truly a wonder to behold) and this time around I’d kind of like other kids to crave and covet his. The huge vat of Lego we bought off ebay has certainly helped with that!

Gavin Wedell and helper (copyright Gavin Wedell)

Anyway you get the point – I think Lego rocks. But why am I blogging about it? Well, I recently heard about a Lego training session being run for business school faculty by one of our MBA students who has worked as a corporate trainer, with clients including Diageo and Vodafone, one Gavin Wedell. Gavin was one of those lovely MBAs who nodded in all the right places during the induction sessions, completely gets what we’re about and is a great advert for what is a largely misunderstood breed of student. I should make it clear that Gavin isn’t just randomly dumping Lego in front of people in these sessions and hoping something creative or good happens, he’s actually – now let me get this right – an officially certified facilitator of the innovative LEGO® Serious Play™ methodology, having been trained at LEGO’s U.S. headquarters (I love that they have a U.S. headquarters, with Lego figures on guard presumably). What is LEGO® Serious Play™ I wondered? So I took at look at their site and read their their promotional blurb:

‘An innovative, experiential process designed to enhance innovation and business performance. Based on research that shows that this kind of hands-on, minds-on learning produces a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the world and its possibilities. [It] deepens the reflection process and supports an effective dialogue – for everyone in the organization.’

One of my models in which a mystified cat looks on as I contemplate bridge-building

This description taken together with the fact that I knew Gavin was ‘one of the good guys’ and that my team needed a fun summer training session (and of course the fact that – Hey! We’re talking about Lego here) motivated me to email Gavin and ask if he could run a session for us. Gavin was fantastically accommodating. Not only was he keen to tailor the session to our specific needs, but he was very flexible about a date and, best of all, he refused payment. I knew we were on to a winner by the team’s gleeful reaction to news of the workshop: smiles all round which suggested many happy childhood hours with The Lovely Bricks.

My expectations were already high at the start of the workshop. but I could not have anticipated just how much fun and, more importantly, insight and productive team-building would arise from the session. First up we were tasked to build a tower, a tower which, on receipt of new phoned-in instructions from Sir Paul Judge (via Gavin), suddenly had to be rebuilt at 90 degrees (to reflect how priorities and directives can suddenly change). More model-building followed as we used the bricks and figures to reflect challenges in our current job, before we all switched seats and had to describe each others challenges on the basis of each other’s Lego models alone.

Sarah's model (as the outcome of our wider model)

What surprised me was:
1) just how good everyone was at building with Lego (special mention must go to Natasha who had never used it before, but immediately employed it in such an eloquent and creative way that it almost left me speechless with admiration);
2) how the models we built spoke volumes about our challenges – it seems a lego model also paints a thousand words
and; 3) how much we already understood about each other and were willing to understand and empathise more.

The final half an hour saw us bring together our individual models as one over-arching strategy for the team going forward. By this point our models had been named by each of us with attributes that were means of overcoming the challenges we currently face. So, for instance, Sarah brought ‘open communications’, Natasha brought ‘hope’ (or the ‘Helicopter of Hope™’ as I prefer to call it!) and Ange brought ‘blending talents’ to the table. Surprising again was that the end result was strategically viable as a way forward for Information & Library Services within our institution.

Team (with Natasha holding the 'Helicopter of Hope' TM)

Post-session emails of thanks, individual comments and tweets from team members suggested that our LEGO® Serious Play™ workshop had been a great success. The only caveat I would add is that we’re currently very lucky to be in a team which really IS a team – respectful, appreciative of our differing talents, empathic – our challenges are more from without than within and several times during the session I thought ‘Ooh!” at this or that element which could well have been awkward, if not downright uncomfortable, in other teams I’ve worked in or led. Having said that, I do think the methodology seems robust enough to deal with that, especially if you have a facilitator as good as Gavin.

So where does this leave me and Lego? Well, I am of course now looking at it in a whole new light. Why do I build rebel bases for John in a particular way? Why do I adopt a rigid colour scheme? Why do I always build in an arms store? Why do I only ever have one door? What does all this say about my personality?  Sometimes a rebel base is just a rebel base – isn’t it? Now I’m not so sure.

Gavin Wedell can be contacted as follows:
Email: gavinwedell AT | LinkedIn | Twitter


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