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Serious Play

A few weeks ago, we really got down to business, and spent a morning playing with Lego.

I saw the eye-roll. This is serious stuff.

Complexity and nuance makes up a lot of the world of coaches, facilitators and change professionals - it’s what makes the work interesting, challenging and rewarding. So much of our work is about surfacing what’s below the surface so that individuals and others can work with it, on it and through it. Yesterday we used the Lego Serious Play approach to turn the focus on ourselves as a group of partners with the expert help of our friend Charles Woolnough, a thoughtful, dextrous guest facilitator. It helped us make more sense of h³’s system and its complexities and paradoxes, in a uniquely tangible, physical and down-to-earth way.


As we approached the end of the year, we decided to do what lots of teams and organisations do - reflect on who we are and what h³ might be next year. Ahead of the session we did some personal reflection using a structured thinking canvas, and then Charles took us through a series of increasingly freeform exercises that used physical modelling and play as an aid to our thinking; we started independent and low-risk, getting increasingly collaborative, specific and focused. At the end of the morning, on the table before us sat our single model that represented the best of what we are now, with an agreed set of ideas to take things forwards as a collective next year.

So where did we get to? If you look at our model, you’ll see skeletons, jungles, ladders, gateways, strong border walls, gateways, hidden treasure, beacons, an assortment of fancy headgear, an engine, and many, many people beyond the four of us. Every brick has been chosen deliberately and placed and moved with care.

It won’t make sense to anyone without an explanation; but all four of us (and Charlie) can explain it in a similar way. It’s beautiful, strange, meaningful, esoteric; importantly, it’s ours and it’s shared.


In a world of busyness, time-poverty, just-in-time shipping and agile sprints, justifying a morning playing with Lego isn’t straightforward - for some organisations, post-its and sketching can feel culturally stretching, and at least one of our own spouses raised their eyebrows at the concept. But the use of physical ‘toys’ shifted things for us in a few ways and opened up a different way of thinking that felt absorbing, enjoyable, deep and connective. Some reflections on why that might be:

  • ‘Play’ and creativity are really important activities that are increasingly acknowledged by neuroscientists and psychologists as being vital for mental health.

  • Taking ‘time in’ to really focus on building (and Lego building is a really easy, natural and restorative activity - the dormant Lego reflexes returned to us all after decades) lets us step into flow for a while - simultaneously stretching and within our capability.

  • The process let us build, amend, add and discard to come up with something shared in a very tangible, visible and collaborative way - we could see exactly what people were talking about, and that allowed us to discuss and connect to it.

  • By making abstract things tangible and physical, it brought them to life, and made them feel concrete in a way that we could connect to. We talk sometimes about the idea of our ‘craft’, but working with our hands and actually building and connecting was very refreshing and rewarding.

  • We could get curious about the specifics of what we had built - the gaps between minifigs, the structures, colours, what was and wasn’t included - and explore things that were subconscious together. The process let us on a few occasions explore and clarify assumptions that had sat unsurfaced for a while.

  • Physical objects are easy to connect to - as others start to touch, move, deconstruct things we have built, the reaction we feel tells us something useful. ‘Can I put this here?’ ‘Actually I’d rather you didn’t, because…’ ‘That makes sense - how about here instead?’

  • There’s more room for interpretation, tension, paradox and complexity in ‘things’ than in ‘words’. A tiger is both beautiful and fierce, both graceful and strong; and it is far more than just a big stripy black and orange jungle cat.

  • High-performing teams are unified around a commitment to a clear and common purpose. - By building one single model that is physical and conscious, there is limited room for people to break away; to start writing on another whiteboard or scribbling in their own notebooks. It’s OUR model; one Lego diorama to rule them all.


Finally, it’s always a treat as a group of facilitators to be facilitated by someone so skilled as Charles. Charles has been a friend to members of H³ for years, and he kindly agreed to take time out from his day job leading organisational change at Playstation to help us. He was a perfect companion and guide, and he worked without judgement, giving gentle taps at just the right moment to keep us from straying too far from the question. His deftness - a light touch, humour, warmth and appreciation of the faint whiff of ridiculousness of four grownups playing earnestly with lego - helped us get to a point where we were really finding new common ground, understanding what’s at stake for our colleagues and learning new things about ourselves as individuals, a team of partners, and as a wider system. We’re really grateful to him for bringing his perspective, experience, skills and bricks and helping us.


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