Research Paper By Rachel Bloom
(Performance Development Coach, AUSTRALIA)
This paper seeks to explore LEGO® Serious Play®(LSP) and its one-on-one coaching application.
As Jacqueline Smith and Denise Meyerson state in their book Strategic Play, “Let’s face it, people love to play and have fun and everyone wants to be happy”. Humans are encouraged to play as babies and as small children and it is regularly encouraged through the education years. Then life gets more serious as an adult and a worker and play do not seem to be a major focus for the majority of people. People may then play again when and if they retire but there is often this big gap where play is forgotten and not integrated into adult life.
Research suggests that we learn best when we play. We can play and learn and play and reflector both. There is also plenty of research that talks about the fact that play is directly linked to decreasing stress levels and when people play they are likely to allow themselves to take more risks. When you play, your mind is more open to change, hence the interest in using LSP in one on one adult coaching.
LSP is a process where you use Lego blocks to facilitate dialogue. It is essentially playing with Lego while thinking, feeling, learning, reflecting, and even possibly imagining. The trademarked process is about using the famous Lego bricks to construct, give meaning and make a story.
Like with the ICA taught coaching process guided by the ICF competencies, the power of the LSP process is in the sequence. Research has shown that using the hands, initiates ideas that will not come by thinking alone. While one plays with Lego they are using their hands which are connecting messages to their brain. Without this hand touch, your brain may not create the same or as detailed and creative information.
Purpose of the paper
Let’s be honest, there wouldn’t be many people who couldn’t see that there might be a fun approach using Lego to work on something that seems to be getting in your way at the moment. It’s different, it’s creative and could be more memorable!
In art and play therapy, Meyerson, and Smith outline that there are essential process steps that are used for design thinking and agile application. If a person is asked to make, build or create something their story must be also heard. They need to give and add meaning and have the opportunity to reflect on and consider insights and ideas and answer questions posed by the facilitator. These steps have a strong link to the generic overall coaching process.
Fundamentally the LSP facilitator course is taught with a lens on working with groups/teams of people and not targeted to individuals. Therefore, the majority of the research available on this topic and its application and overall effectiveness are more suited to group coaching.
The elements and process steps of one-on-one coaching and the parallels to LSP have been explored in this paper rather than its overall success to date. It explores how one-on-one LSP coaching could support people to gain confidence and connection with self and others, “identify the ideas, thoughts or beliefs that keep them from getting what they want” (Franklin 2020, p12). Stimulate learning, greater self-awareness, encouraging exploration of changing perspectives, “capitalize on their strengths to achieve fulfillment and their full potential’ (Franklin, 2020, p12), and moving towards their desired outcomes.
What is LEGO® Serious Play®?
MCI, one of the Australian providers of the LSP courses describes LEGO® Serious Play® to be all about communication and problem-solving. In short, the bricks are used to create metaphors for real issues. It is essentially a fast track and unique way to play, share, learn and grow to solve problems and get to the real issues for individuals, teams, and organizations.
It’s a methodology 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. The theory draws on constructivism (using previous knowledge as a foundation and building on it with new things as one learns), Constructionism (building knowledge by building things), and Instructive (an instructor being in control of what is to be learned and how it is to be learned). It also draws on extensive research from the fields of business, organizational development, learning, and psychology and is based on the concept of “hand knowledge”.
The MCI Facilitator training manual (2019) explains that LSP is a unique process where people “think through their fingers” by selecting random Lego pieces of their choice unleashing insight, imagination, and inspiration. Some of which is described in coaching as an “aha” moment.
The complexity of hand knowledge is best described and summarised in the White paper on LSP; a state of the art on its application in Europe, 2013).“The essence of LSP is building on the complex interplay between the hands and the brain” (Kristiansen, Hansen & Nielsen, 2009, p. 3). The idea behind LSP is that using the hands to build 3D-models of pieces of knowledge, ideas and feelings “opens up a new path for free, creative and expressive thinking” (Gauntlett, 2007, p. 130). More than 50 years ago, neuroscientists found that a surprisingly large part of the human brain is dedicated to controlling the hands (Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950). This profound interconnection between the brain and the hands means “that the hands are not simply a valuable place to get information from, or to manipulate objects ‘with’, but also that thinking with the hands can have meaning in itself” (Gauntlett, 2007, p. 130).
LSP works on the basis that everybody has the same language tools – the bricks. The idea behind this is to simplify the way people communicate without leaving important details out of the conversation. John Roos, one of the founders of LSP discusses how the bricks allow individuals and teams to connect, construct and deconstruct problems, solutions, and a way forward.
Like a lot of training courses, there’s a strong focus on problem-solving in LSP. However, before moving to problem-solving, the problems need to be defined and understood. There is also a trust aspect to carrying out action plans. Cohesive teams who trust each other are more likely to fully commit to an action plan because everybody understands the goal. LSP helps teams to communicate, share information, identify problems and formulate clear action plans to follow through with.
The group LSP sessions have 7 core processes, namely:
1) Build an individual model
2) Build a shared model
3) Create a landscape
4) Make connections
5) Build a system
6) Play emergence and test scenarios
7) Extract guiding principals
However, it is the 4 key steps to each Lego build that have more parallels to coaching in general.
1) Facilitator poses a question
2) Individuals build a model
3) Individuals Tell their story
4) Questions and reflections.
These steps elicit the “wisdom” in the room and the process helps to get to the core sticking point or as a curious coach asks, What’s getting in the way?
The builder is encouraged to search out the Lego pieces and just start building. They are encouraged to not overthink it or have a meeting with themselves on what to build. The builder needs to trust their hands as they know more about what you know than your conscious mind.
The process is the outcome and the dialogue.
An inspiring Lego play session will get people’s creativity cranking, and it’s a state of mind that can be carried over into their everyday lives and the work environment. After an LSP session, people can clearly see how thinking outside the box and sharing left-field ideas can actually help a team’s goal rather than hinder it. Sometimes, complex problems demand creative solutions, and this can’t be achieved if everybody plays it safe. So, the dynamic thinking that is encouraged by LSP has ongoing benefits to businesses in their everyday dealings.
LSP Application and parallels to one-on-one Coaching
It is said in coaching that everybody has a story tell. The brain is a box of stories. Everybody has something to say, and words are not always the easiest option. You also can not just tell people to change. They are living their own story and therefore not easily or necessarily seeing the facts. An alternative to words is creativity. For those who are verbal and creative and/or for those that do not find talking easy, you can succeed through creativity.
In the book Better, Best Brilliant, Dr. Denise Meyerson discusses how the Lego Play methodology for this reason is particularly helpful in a group setting. It can get everyone to contribute their true feelings and insights without feeling intimidated and have people say what they mean instead of not speaking at all.
For the one-on-one coach, this means a fast track into understanding the client and a more rich range of ways to explore and move the conversation.
Using the 7 ICF Core competencies you could apply the Steps of Coaching into the application of the Lego Play process.
1) The Coaching Agreement – Upfront you can be clear with the client about using Lego as a way of exploring problems. More specifically to the coaching session the Lego Play, “Skills Build” is a way of building trust and confidence. A coach could even encourage the potential client to do a “skills build” during the first discovery session to give them a taste of this coaching tool. Whilst the coach needs to be clear about using the SLP tool, they still must remain open to working on what the client brings to the session at that moment in time.
2) Coaching Presence – the ability to be fully conscious and create a spontaneous relationship with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible, and confident. (ICF core competency) With Lego Play, you must be fully present with the client as you are always watching and encouraging creativity with the blocks. You truly are “dancing at the moment” and staying curious as you watch and observe the creativity in action.
3) Active Listening – it is the ability to focus on what the client is saying when debriefing the Lego build but even more so, on what they might not be saying. Also observing the creativity in the Lego build and choices in the blocks. This could also be via their tone of voice, body language in the build, and the briefing of the build. The coach needs to avoid getting into the story.
4) Powerful Questioning – Like with all coaching, the SLP skill is in the “ability to ask questions that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the coaching relationship and client”. Time is limited in Lego Play one on one coaching so the questions are key and need to be powerful. They need to be clear and direct, open-ended and through the build process, have the ability to move the client forward. The questions won’t be right or wrong but rather need to be the best use of the time and relevant to what the client brings to the session. LSP could be used to really explore feelings, thoughts, or actions depending on what a client has already shared. A lego build could also focus on “What else?” and explore what is possible? A new perspective, belief or mindset, future actions, and accountability.
5) Creating Awareness – In Lego play this would come through engaging in the explanation and exploration of the build “for discovery, perspective, learning and growth with the client”.
6) Actions, Goals, and Accountability – In coaching, this is the step in which the coach is encouraging and works in a loose partnership with the client to develop actions from their awareness and learnings to work towards the desired goal/s. In Lego play, this can be built using the Lego and further explored by asking powerful and/or thought-provoking questions. Accountability and the exploration of this can also be built using Lego. If time did not allow for this, it can be discussed in conversation rather than in yet another build.
7) Direct Communication – The coach needs to challenge in a supportive way throughout the Lego Play session and outline any observations. It is providing feedback that is relevant to the client using supportive language and respect to the client. It is important to try and use and draw on their language, metaphors from what they have built or explained to maximum learning and insight. This ICF core competency outlines the ability of the coach to “draw on the client’s language/interests for metaphor and analogy for learning”. All LSP building is metaphors. The methodology of SLP deepens the reflection process and supports an effective dialogue.
By building physical models that can be examined, shared, and discussed, it becomes easier and less intimidating to talk about emotionally charged issues. Building the model is only half the process. When you tell the story your mind will make even more connections and you will experience unconsciously, including more knowledge and ideas than you were consciously aware of. You will experience how the bricks work as a catalyst for your mind.
The SLP process is very much like the coaching process in that it is subtle. The participant would not know there is a process being applied yet there is one that you learn and follow as a Lego Play Facilitator. SLP upholds some similar coaching principles too. For example, the route is not obvious but goes via insight, confidence, and working towards commitment and accountability.
Lastly, an MCI trained SLP facilitator is taught expressions to use via the facilitation that also support the foundations of the coaching process. Expressions such as: “Everyone has a unique perspective and that’s why we use this process “or, “The Wisdom is in the room” and “the process will help to get to the core of the sticking point”. The value is in the dialogue. Asking open-ended questions and then challenging perspectives using powerful questioning. If a facilitator asks about something to do with a lego build and the participant answers with, “I don’t know”, the LSP facilitator is encouraged to ask, “What if you did know?”.
Being an LSP facilitator trained and having access to the Lego bricks and LSP tools is an important factor in being able to potentially conduct one-on-one coaching sessions. Time is also going to be another important factor in determining how far the discussion can and will get to in an individual coaching session. The discussion will be the most important part of the coaching session so it requires the coach to skilfully allow the activity to trigger the playful, fun, and engaging way to look at the problem and then move forward.
The ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. LSP is an extension of the word “creative” in that it is also a physical creative process on top of coaching and the power of coaching being a creative tool to explore problem-solving and mindsets.
Like coaching, LSP is a facilitated thinking (using powerful questions), communication, and problem-solving technique. It is about creating knowledge to solve problems. Itis about surfacing and clarifying insights.
There are lots of parallels between coaching and SLP sitting side by side and there is also a practical application of Lego Play as an actual coaching tool or technique in team coaching as well as one-on-one coaching.
Whilst there is not currently a lot of research around the use of LSP and one-on-one coaching there are clearly lots of parallels and benefits as well as potential success factors that can be considered when reviewing the LSP principals, outcomes, and process alongside the overall coaching ones.
Meyerson Dr, Denise (2013); Better Best Brilliant
Smith, Jacqueline A, Meyerson, D (2015) Strategic Play
MCI (2019) Facilitator Training Manuals developed to Apply the Materials and Methodology of Lego Serious Play
Franklin, Marion; (2020) The Heart of Laser-Focused Coaching
International Journal of Management and Applied Research; How It All Began: The Origins Of LEGO® Serious Play®Issues (2018) > Vol.5 No. 4> Roos
White paper on LSP; A state of the art on its application in Europe, 2013, August 2013, V.2.0.1, UniversitàdellaSvizzeraitaliana, Lugano, Switzerland; Elisabetta Frick, Stefano Tardini, Lorenzo Cantoni
Three reasons why you should use LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in 1-1 coaching November 2019, Mads Bab