VIDEO: Thinking outside the blocks

Stephen Dann lives in fear of having his luggage break open at airport security. If it did, about 30 kilograms of Lego would spill out.

Dann, a senior fellow with the Australian National University College of Business and Economics, teaches Lego Serious Play, a method of fostering creative thinking and problem solving through the use of metaphor.

Participants use Lego pieces to explain ideas and develop solutions to problems. The bricks and other parts represent different things to different people, and explaining the significance of Lego constructions to others has proven successful in project development and overcoming barriers, said Dann.

Based in Canberra, Dann has taught more than 50 workshops within the past year, several of them in southern Alberta, where an event was held Sept. 21 at the University of Lethbridge.

Participants are ideally organized into groups of four people and each person gets the same kit of Lego. The workshop begins with a few exercises to familiarize everyone with the concepts.

It’s more than “playing” with Lego, said Dann. Corporations and schools have used it.

“Around the world, Coca Cola has used it. Back in Australia, several of their major travel agencies and travel corporations have used Lego in the boardroom as a strategic tool.

“In the classroom, I like to use it to get students to physically make ideas, to explain assignment tasks, particularly if they’re working in a group.

“This very tactile approach changed the game for a lot of strategic decision making because it went away from flat walls and surfaces to three dimensions and being able to move pieces and say, ‘well, if this, then that.’ ”

Examining problems and finding solutions in the corporate world often involves a process in which the people with the fastest reflexes and loudest voices are heard over others, said Dann.

But after five or 10 minutes of working with buildable Lego, and then allowing everyone to explain their strategy, each person can bring ideas into the discussion and potential use.

“The beautiful thing is that many people have come to me at the end of these sessions and gone, ‘I’m not very creative but I was able to create things’ because Lego takes out some of the skill requirements,” he said.

“You don’t have to be able to draw. You don’t have to have an artistic background to use some of the creativity. You can put pieces together and explain what it means.”

The Lego Serious Play method developed when the Denmark-based Lego Group was in financial trouble in the 1990s. Baby boomers may have grown up with the toys’ basic building blocks, but in recent years the company has vastly expanded its product and its reach.

The serious play workshops are facilitated by people such as Dann who are specifically trained in the method.

Participants build three-dimensional models, and each person in the group can ask questions about the model, as opposed to direct questions about the builder’s motivations.

For example, rather than asking “what were you thinking,” a builder is asked to explain the significance of a brick colour or selection and what it signifies.

“What it does is it lets people come together and bring an idea to the table. We talk about it as unlocking the knowledge in the room,” said Dann.

“When you’re making things with your hands, you think a little bit differently then you do if you just are writing it out and just sitting there. We do find that engagement does make a difference for people.”

Bruce Thurston participated in a recent workshop at the U of L.

“I thought it was a very, very unique approach to rethinking problems and solutions and giving reflective thought on the past and the opportunity to build and envision the future,” he said.

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