Lego and organisational development

Earlier this week I was invited to a seminar at the University of Edinburgh Business School. I have been invited to other evening events and usually decline to make the journey but two things made me decide to go this time. The first was the venue – the Business School has moved to new premises and I was interested to see the new setting for my alma mater. The second was the subject – playing with Lego for business purposes. Who could refuse? The seminar was organised by Invenzyme and used a trademarked approach called Lego Serious Play. I’m not a believer in people packaging old ideas in new clothes so I admit to being very skeptical at the outset. However, because I regularly ask people to draw ‘rich pictures’ of their organisational dilemmas (a technique I learned from Soft Systems Methodology) in my consultancy work I was interested to see how much difference adding a third dimension would make.
I think the answer is “a significant amount”. Though I have yet to use Lego in this way I am now planning to try out some model building on the course on organisational development I will be running in Oxford in a couple of weeks’ time.
Back to the Business School seminar. I was won over by the fact that we were each given a little plastic pot of Lego before the presentation. (But why did we all have to have identical pieces, I wondered.) Actually, it was just as well we had the Lego at the beginning because I found the presentation somewhat, how can I put it, lacking in energy. So I found I could easily listen to the speaker (15%), watch his rather good powerpoint (20%) AND doodle with my Lego at the same time (65%). Looking around the room at the fifty or so other participants, it was interesting to see the different reactions. There seemed to be two groups – those who didn’t open up their pots until told to do so and the rest of us who were already on our third construction before we were given the first assignment.
So, somewhat inadvertently, the speaker proved his point. That we learn better by using our hands as we listen and talk. All good Piagetian stuff.
The conditions were not the best for creative thinking. Ranked seating in a lecture theatre doesn’t make communication easy but the exercises were fun “Build a model of yourself as a leader”, “Build a model of a challenge you are facing in your work” each followed by a period of talking to the person next to you.
Before I attended I had looked at some of the background literature on Lego Serious Play and have since found other material explaining that LSP (as it is called) has gone Open Source. Well done Lego!
By an interesting coincidence (if there are such things), I found that one of the theoretical sources for Lego Serious Play is the book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ by Csikszenmihaliyi which I picked up recently and had started reading with great interest.
So what did I learn from the seminar? That playing while listening and problem-solving really does tap into interesting areas of creative thinking. That, as with all techniques, it is the quality of the facilitation that really makes the difference between a successful session and a flop. That I will try using Lego instead of rich picture methodology and see what difference it makes especially for those who say “But I can’t draw!” Perhaps most of all I learned that I still love playing with Lego almost fifty years after receiving my first set.

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Toolkit for Organisational Change

Last week I was facilitating a course in Oxford entitled ‘Toolkit for Organisational Change’. It’s a new three-day course that I designed for INTRAC as a ‘follow up’ to the five day Organisational Development course I have run since 2001. Despite the ‘raw edges’, the Toolkit course got positive feedback from the small group of six participants who attended. It was really interesting to hear them share their case-studies many of which concerned ‘live’ change processes that are going on in their respective organisations.

One issue that came over very strongly from the cases is the complex nature of the changes that organisations are dealing with. Other important points to emerge from the discussions were the particular challenges involved in facilitating change in large decentralised organisations and organisational partnerships. Many of the more conventional approaches to managing change assume that managers have control over the change process. The reality faced by organisations in civil society is that they are more likely to have influence rather than control over the change process. The change agents who support (but do not manage) change have an even more difficult task.

The course discussions have prompted me to start my own research into complex change in decentralised organisations. I will post what emerges from this and include links to interesting articles and materials when I come across them.

Toolkit for Organisational Change

I have recently been asked to design a course for change agents on expanding their toolkits for facilitating organisational change. I’m a bit wary when I receive requests for tools. I get concerned that people are looking for a quick fix when we all know that organisations are incredibly complex and organisational change is very unpredictable. However, I am always interested in developing my own ‘toolkit’ so I guess others are too.

The idea of facilitating a workshop started me thinking about what tools I use regularly in my own practice as a change agent. I quickly began to realise that most of the time I devise tools to fit the circumstances – but that’s not very helpful to people who are looking for practical ideas. However, there are some ‘tried and tested’ tools (or are they techniques?) that I use regularly such as organisational timelines, rich pictures (from Soft Systems Methodology), force field analysis, disaster charting, SWOT analysis, problem trees, portfolio analysis, talking walls, card sort prioritisation, life-cycle assessment, organisational mapping, ‘goldfish bowl’ discussions, and occasionally role play and sculpting.

Why these? Well, firstly I feel confident using them and I think its really important that using a tool shouldn’t be a source of anxiety for the change agent who introduces it – we have enough to be concerned about! Secondly, the tools have a real purpose and are not simply entertaining gimmicks. I’m not against entertainment or fun in organisational change but I’d rather pause the process and introduce an energiser than use an exercise that has little point. Some of the techniques (or maybe they are methods) that I use most are interviews, group discussions and questionnaires. With these, what matters most is choosing questions carefully and being able to facilitate in-depth (and sometimes sensitive) dialogue and discussion. In my work on organisational learning I sometimes use a tool I devised a few years ago called the ‘Learning NGO Questionnaire’ but more often I devise customised questionnaires after some in-depth discussions with people in the organisation. In organisational change, one size definitely does not fit all.

So where does that leave the idea of the toolkit workshop? I think it could be a really good opportunity for participants to share their own favourites by illustrating how and when they have used the tools. Maybe the real focus of the workshop will turn out to be the criteria we use for selecting (or devising) the right tool for the circumstances. Since this is something we do more and more intuitively as we become more experienced, it will be a challenging issue to examine. But no matter how experienced we think we are as change agents, its always a good idea to re-examine our practice. A workshop on tools could end up being more challenging than it first seems!