BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — SALEM — Last week, 37 people gathered in groups around tables in a conference room in the Enterprise Center on Salem State University’s campus to play with Lego building blocks.
The two-hour workshop wasn’t child’s play, however, as two consultants introduced the grown-ups to “Lego Serious Play,” which has a deeper meaning than just the construction of towers and bridges.
Playing with colorful plastic building blocks can help organizations solve complex problems by breaking down the rigid social conventions of the typical business meeting, said workshop facilitators Donna Denio, the principal of S&D Global Partners of Winchester, and Dieter Reuther, an operations consultant with Cast Collective of Boston.
Those in the Lego Serious Play workshop on Dec. 4 were North Shore businesspeople, organization and education leaders, Gordon College students, and even some who are between jobs. As they played with the Lego blocks and spoke about their ideas, they tackled what it means to be an effective leader, to work together on a project, to share ideas and to be creative, almost from the first tower they built.
At its base, Lego Serious Play is a tool to help people communicate better and solve problems by simply having people play with the building blocks and little people, then describe what they have built.
The act of putting together Lego pieces and thinking about the ways they go together, then relating that to a business or technical problem, can draw people out. According to Lego Serious Play etiquette, participants can only refer to flaws with their models rather than to a person’s idea, which acts to defuse egos and make talking about problems far less personal.
For more than 10 years, companies and workshops in Europe have used Lego Serious Play to break through challenges such as finding ways to get more clients; helping with a change in leadership or direction in the company; getting employees to collaborate on a large, complex project; or encouraging individuals to contribute equally in important meetings.
A seminar with Lego blocks might also be employed when a project team hits a stumbling block. A company that has offices in various locations might have people come together in a Lego Serious Play workshop to figure out ways those offices can communicate better. One high-tech company used the workshop to try to spark a change in its culture and find ways to help women stay in high technology.
Denio said that at one company she worked with, a team of engineers was having trouble attracting clients, so they built figures of chickens that they then launched, expressing in three dimensions their fear of going out and looking for new business.
Lego play can solve one of the most vexing problems businesses and organizations face: meetings in which a few dominate and most sit back passively.
Many in meetings are also constrained by “imagined or perceived power positions.” For instance, younger people won’t talk if an older person is talking. If people lean back at a meeting, that means they are not engaged. Often, however, the shyest person in the room has the best ideas.
In a Lego Serious Play workshop, there’s no chance of people sitting on their hands. The exercise also forces participants to use both sides of their brains — the creative side and the analytic side — because one uses both hands to build.
The first challenge the participants faced was to build a tower, then to simply share what went through their minds as they built it.
“My guy is going off a diving board,” said Gayla Bartlett, the president of North Shore Women in Business and manager of Cranney Self Storage in Danvers. Bartlett had constructed a tower with a piece jutting out and a figure standing on it. “He’s going to take the plunge and go.”
“I try to use every piece I can,” said Clarence Wallace, a heavy equipment operator from Georgetown. “I try to make it sturdy.”
Later, Wallace spoke at length about the importance of safety in a construction job.
There is no one right answer as to what the tower should be.
“It’s a tower if you say it’s a tower. You can tell a story with a single brick,” Denio said.
“I was thinking about alternative energy, so I built a windmill,” said Deborah Mason-McCaffrey, an assistant professor of physics at Salem State University.
The simple task forced participants to think and then use their imagination to come up with all sorts of designs.
“This is my tower, and I turned it into a boat,” said Anna Blumberg, a junior at Gordon College. “On every boat, there has to be a plank.”
Participants were then asked to build an aspect of their work that is energizing. Some made coffee coasters, and others tried to build models describing their work, including Paul Speidel, a self-employed Beverly consultant who said he works with scientists, so he added a propeller to the head of one of the figures.
Speidel said the workshop immediately broke down barriers between participants, as both the students and experienced businesspeople used the blocks to help them describe their ideas.
“It immediately tore down the barriers you accept and put up,” Speidel said.
The next challenge involved building an important aspect of leadership, and the final challenge was putting them all together to create a model that describes an effective leader. Many of the tables created circular models, but the trick was relating them in some way to define a leader’s quality and interpret that.
“There’s something about going through the building process,” Denio said, “making what we didn’t even know ourselves concrete.”
The most important answer came at the end when a participant asked if participants got to keep their Lego sets.
“Yes,” Denio replied.
If this had been a longer workshop, the technique would have been applied to solve a real-world business problem, Denio and Reuther said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.