Jamming with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY: the 5 variables of Workshop Design

LSP @ GovJam

LSP @ GovJam

What if I apply LEGO SERIOUS PLAY to a Jam?

I should not ask myself such questions, because when I ask myself this, I want to find out the answer. So, my latest experiment was applying LSP to a GovJam. For those who are unfamiliar with the Jam concept, a Gov or Service Jam is a global event, taking place simultaneously all around the world for 48 hours, where participants, called jammers, are called to design a service or a product on a common secret theme, which is revealed just at the beginning of the Jam. The name Jam is taken by music: in a jam session musicians improvise on a common theme and make music together. The idea in a Jam of ideas, is the same: let people improvise and jam with their ideas to make new ideas together.
In a GovJam, the goal is to design a service aimed at the local public administration. Knowing how LSP can be flexible and how helpful it is when it comes to define a common topic and for team building, I thought it could be an exciting challenge to imagine and design a LEGO SERIOUS PLAY workshop to enhance creativity and let people to jam ideas with bricks.

This turned out to be an exciting designing exercise which has been demanding but rewarding as well. Designing an LSP workshop for a Jam, revealed a number of key differences with the design of a ‘traditional’ workshops and this challenge lead to a dynamic, exciting and challenging workshop management. Thanks to the experience, I have had kind of a guerilla training in managing the unexpected and I have learnt a number of useful issues which will be useful for future workshop design.
So, I have identified 5 variables that should be taken into consideration when designing a workshop in any other situation where nothing is given and everything is improvised and based on the play-do-play-do mantra.

Variable #1: The goal

When you design a Lego Serious Play workshop, as a facilitator you need to have clear in mind the goal of the workshop, which is defined by the needs expressed by those who ask for the intervention. Knowing that you are working on a specific goal, whether it’s team building, strategy, identity or concept definition, allows to plan the tasks and the wording of your questions carefully.

In a Jam all you know is that at the end of the 48 hours the team should produce a service – so as an overall approach you know how to design the workshop in order to let needs, ideas and concepts emerge from the participants and take them to the goal.

But when you don’t know the topic, everything suddenly changes: you have the tools to reach your goal, you know shortcuts and tricks, but you need to rely on your sole improvisation skills and adaptability. So, what I did was to check the past topics and design the workshop around them, imagining how to take the group to the destination, even if I didn’t know the destination: but, I said myself, if you can drive a car, driving on the highway or on a country road, it’s just a matter of adaptation and fine tuning. So, I did the design of my 6 hours’ long workshop, putting an X in my wording, keeping my questions open to adjustments according to the theme and in few days of work, design and reflection, everything seemed to make sense. I have good creative skills and a great flexibility and adaptability, I was confident and was aware of the risks and potential obstacles. The surprise came when I had the secret theme the night before the workshop, which was about 6 hours before the workshop:  the theme was…‘Hc Sunt Dracones’.

In 6 hours all my design effort underwent a huge reflection and reconsideration. How the hell could I take people to define a shared concept on a topic which is a metaphor and means everything and nothing at the same time? How could I guide participants to design a service starting from such a theme?

Well, at the end, it worked out, but being prepared for the unexpected was not enough and during the workshop I was constantly involved in the plan-do-plan-do process, where my script was constantly challenged and adjusted by what participants were doing and by their reactions. Therefore, to face the Variable #1 the facilitators’ mantra plan-do-plan-do is the key: either you are ready to face the unimaginable unexpected, without panicking, or avoid any experimentation like this. To succeed, you need to enjoy constant changes and sudden challenges, be ready to make up plans in no time and react to events in a positive, constructive and active way.

Variable #2: Participants

When you design a workshop, you know who participants are – at least you have an overall idea of the people involved, their roles, their number etc… Which is not the case of a Jam. You have a rough idea of the people showing up, their composition is the widest and most unexpected and they do not know anything about each other. So one of the tacit needs is to turn strangers into teams, like taking vapour and turning it into ice cubes: not impossible, but surely something that needs consideration.
I was aware of this and this aspect was properly considered during the design phase, which included playful activities and capitalised on their situated identities, leaving formal roles and statuses out of the door.
I aimed at creating a magic circle, create that trust, which is the essential condition to make people at ease and to induce them to play. Participants to the Jam varied greatly in terms of skills, age and competencies yet, as in the LSP tradition, differences are an advantage to capitalise on to boost discussions and enhance meaning making and knowledge sharing. So, the key to handle this variable is to capitalise on the fact that people do not know each other and avoid external roles and statuses to interfere with the situated reality: building a sound situated identity and setting the magic circle is strategically essential for a successful workshop and when facing situation where there’s no shared history, this can be turned into an advantage.

Variable #3: Motivations & Take Aways

That was a variable I was reflecting on during the workshop: while in a classic LEGO SERIOUS PLAY workshop participants have a real need or problem to be tackled and solved, in a Jam things are slightly different. Generally, a workshop is a tool to face a real situation, to overcome a critical point in the organisation’s or team’s life and everyone is aware  that they are involved in a playful yet serious activity, which is supposed to highlight a solution, to provide an insight and to bring ideas that allows them to move forward and tackle an explicit or tacit situation.

In a Jam session, jammers are there simply to experiment and to play, although there’s a formal common goal – i.e., building a service on the given topic – the Jam experience is a playful and experimental one, where the outcome has no impact on the external world and on participants’ lives outside the magic circle. The result of the Jam stays in the magic circle, is not meant to affect reality and the future: it’s a detached situation where strangers meet to spend 2 days together, doing something different, knowing that they are part of a global initiative and being aware that they are not expected to take home anything in particular from the experience, if not the experience itself.
The overall goal and motivation of a Jam, is the experience itself. Bringing LSP in such a context requires a full understanding that the participants are hungry for experiences and their direct and most important take away, it’s the experience itself and not the outcome of the experience.

Keeping in mind that LSP is a tool for an experimental situation, where the final goal is not the result of the workshop itself, neither the final outcome of the Jam, but it’s the experience itself, becomes essential when designing the workshop. Moreover, LSP is said to be serious play for a reason: it’s not a fun game to kill time, as people who has taken part to a LEGO SERIOUS PLAY know well, therefore, the planning should take advantage of LSP in the measure that the balance between playfulness and serious play is not excessively demanding, otherwise the risk to break the magic circle and suppress the situated identities becomes high. And when the magic circle is broken, external scripts and roles take the lead and instead of metaphors and story telling, you’ll see a group arguing on abstract acronyms, abbreviations and technical words, in order to push others away and gain distance and prestige. So, variable #3 needs a careful consideration if the goal are external or internal, never design a workshop if you have not clear in mind what are people’s real motivations, regardless what you think the workshop’s raisons d’être are. A deep analysis of people, situation, context, time, expectations, implications and motivations needs to be the premise for a wise and efficient design.

Variable #4: The Facilitator’s role

When you are called to facilitate a workshop, people ask for you and your skills: you are chosen and selected over a zillion of alternatives – including doing nothing. This means that your professional skills are valued and your role and competencies are recognised and needed. Therefore, when you start the workshop, you are allowed to set the rules and everyone in the room knows that you are the professional who has been called to help them to solve a situation. This gives the facilitator the authority to clearly set the rules, the timing and to manage the individuals or the group according to the needs.

But when people meet a facilitator in an open contest, where none asked for the specific skills and where everyone sees the facilitator as one of them, the authority needs to be gained differently and subtly. In a Jam, the facilitator is perceived initially as a peer that guides a process of a fun experience. Authority, which is a mild level of respect and recognition, should be gained by proving participants that even through serious play, you know where you are taking them.
Trust is not given or assumed, should be gained through playful yet clear means that prove people that they can trust you, because you are skilled, competent and even if a peer, you are helpful to them. At the beginning of a Jam, when you are seen as a simple peer, the hardest work is to convince people that having long-phone calls during the process is negative for the group and for the process, that timing needs to be respected and that the workshop is designed to make the most of their time, but all these issues can not be imposed explicitly – after all, who are you, poor facilitator in a Jam, to ask voluntary participants and professionals, not to take phone calls, twit or answer emails during the process? To face this, you should prove them that you are not authoritative, but you are a useful tool for them to achieve their goal. This works well, yet most difficulties in a Jam are at the beginning, when you have to establish the trust and let participants understand that the process and you are useful for their goals. So, avoid being authoritative, use irony, playfulness and fun, gain respect showing them your competencies and gain your role through what you do the best: interact, play and engage with them. Smiles and subtle witty jokes can do wonders!

Variable #5: The Open Environment

When a workshop is held in organisations or in close groups, as normally happens, the process goes overall smooth: you have your script, timing is set, you plan-do-plan-do if required, you manage the participants and you focus on them and on the process. But what you have been used to do in a traditional workshop, does not work in a Jam or any open context. Participants to a Jam are volunteers [see Variable #2]: they have a life beyond the workshop that goes on and that requires them to leave and come back, to take long phone calls and to answer emails. Regardless how much you stress that the workshop is close and those who participate are required to take part from the beginning, because without the skills building phase, none can join the workshop, someone will come later and ask to join. So, the problems when managing a LEGO SERIOUS PLAY workshop in an open environment, are multiple and you will find yourself dealing with:

  • participants who are late for the kick off and ask you [and the other participants!] to wait for them;
  • participants who came after the skill building process, asking to join;
  • re-integrating participants who left after the skill building process and ask to rejoin the workshop as soon as they are back;
  • participants who contribute actively but need to leave before the workshop is over, thus leaving their ideas and models orphan;
  • curious people coming and asking about what is going on.

Which means that beside the workshop and facilitation, you have to deal with a variety of contingent situation and you have to constantly balance between different needs, questions and distractions.

This naturally becomes very demanding and requires high diplomatic skills, because it’s not nice to say late-comers that without the skill building exercises there’s no way to integrate them into the process, and you can not force people to stay until the workshop is not finished [see Variable #4].

But what happens when a group starts with 12 participants and finishes with half of them, is that lots of valuable contributions and ideas are left orphans and the negotiation and the whole process changes continually, requiring the facilitator to constantly adjust and adapt in order to make the individual models of those who left considered in the meaning-making process and try to keep participants in the magic circle, regardless what’s happening around them. It’s a demanding variable and requires lots of improvisation, negotiation and multitasking skills: you are focusing on many things at the same time and should keep the process flowing, regardless the chaos happening all around. Such a distractive situation is demanding both for the facilitator and for participants as well, who find themselves disturbed both by their own contingent situations at work and by the changes – people coming and going, participants leaving… So, be aware that it’s a demanding process for all and plan accordingly.

These are the lesson learned that I consider useful to share, also to thank all of you who supported my design phase and provided useful tips. Experimenting LEGO SERIOUS PLAY in such extreme conditions is inspiring and extremely challenging, certainly the hardest training for a facilitator, surely not for the faint-hearted!


3 Responses to “Jamming with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY: the 5 variables of Workshop Design”

  1. thanks so much !! your comments are great, I´m just starting on the LSP workshop desing adventure and now I have more thoughts and Ideas. greetings from Mexico City.


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