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.

What is a ‘learning agenda’?

A major source of inspiration for me in my organisational development work has been the Canadian writer on organisations and management, Henry Mintzberg. When I was working for Save the Children UK back in 1989 I read his book ‘Mintzberg on Management’ and one of the many ideas that leapt off the page for me was his explanation of the realities of strategy development. Mintzberg’s model introduced the idea of emergent as well as planned strategy. For me it was liberating to see someone formally recognise what we all know – that the best kind of strategy is open to adaptation in response to circumstances (emergent strategy), always bearing in mind the plans the organisation makes for achieving its mission (planned strategy). It seems incredible now that this was an insight that few other management writers had thought of, but back in the late 1980s it was a revelation!
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the idea of emergent and planned could be applied in other ways – particularly in the field of organisational learning. It fits very well with the idea that organisations need to create an enabling environment that encourages individuals and teams to reflect on and learn from their experience and from others (what I call emergent learning) and the importance of developing a more structured and planned approach to learning (planned learning). This is where the idea of a ‘learning agenda’ comes in. I don’t know who first coined the term ‘learning agenda’ but I think it is a useful concept for all organisations to consider. In simple terms, a ‘learning agenda’ is a set of questions – broad in scope – directly related to the organisation’s work that, when answered, will enable the organisation to work more effectively. A good example of a learning agenda can be found in the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s issue area framework paper on promoting ‘Social Inclusion and Respect for Diversity‘ in their work on early childhood development. The learning agenda related to policy influence on social inclusion comprises the following two questions:
1. What kinds of policies are supportive of reduced violence and enhanced social inclusion and respect for diversity?
2. What evidence, processes and strategies are successful in influencing these policies?

These questions help to shape important decisions such as their choice of partners, who they fund (they are a Foundation) and how they commission research.

Questions in a learning agenda work best if they are open, broad in scale, and genuinely interesting (to stimulate the curiosity of staff and others). A good learning agenda can help an organisation focus its work priorities and link together learning at the four main levels (individual, team, organisation and inter-organisation).

Why MMO?

Why – you may be wondering – is this blog called ‘Motive, Means and Opportunity’ (MMO for short)? The main focus of the blog is learning and development in Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the title relates to a paper I wrote for the Oxford-based organisation INTRAC entitled ‘Organisational Learning in NGOs – Creating the Motive, Means and Opportunity‘. One of the people I interviewed during the research for the INTRAC paper told me that she felt learning in her organisation was treated as if it was a crime – she felt she had to steal the time necessary for reflecting on her work even though the organisation was the main beneficiary of her learning. That made me think about the idea of trying to create a ‘crime wave’ of learning in organisations.

People with an interest in detective novels and television series such as CSI will know that for anyone to be a suspect in a crime three things must be established: their motive (the reason for committing the crime), means (the knowledge, skills or tools used in committing the crime) and opportunity (the conditions that made committing the crime possible). All three are necessary – just two won’t do. So if we want to encourage our people to commit the ‘crime’ of learning, we need to provide motives, means and opportunities to everyone in the organisation. In reality, the motive is rarely a problem – I believe most people love to learn and naturally want to share their knowledge with others. However, providing the means can be more of a challenge particularly for those of us who don’t value the knowledge we have or can’t find a suitable way of expressing it to others. The biggest challenge for organisations is to loosen up enough to create opportunities – both formal and informal – for learning individually and collectively.

Providing opportunities relates to what I call ‘planned’ and ’emergent’ learning. Planned learning relies more on creating formal opportunities to create and share knowledge that relate to organisational learning ‘agendas’ – longer term focuses for individual and collective learning. Emergent learning requires organisations to create a range of ‘spaces’ (what I refer to in the INTRAC paper as a “rich ecosystem of possibilities”) that provides a fertile environment for people to reflect individually and collectively but with no pre-determined plan for what will emerge. This treats learning as an end in itself or, more accurately, a means to an end which is, as yet, unclear. Both planned and emergent learning are essential in healthy, effective learning organisations. The challenge I intend to explore in future posts is how to encourage both types of learning in ways that lead to organisational creativity, adaptability and sustainability.