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If you’re reading this site, chances are you already know that LEGO is far more than just a toy you used to play with as a kid. But did you know it can help foster a culture of innovation withing companies?
Speaking at this year’s SA Innovation Summit in Cape Town, Pete Smith shared how he uses LEGO as a tool in bringing out innovation, creativity and facilitating companies.
A graduate of Rhodes University, Smith is a professional facilitator and management consultant for LEGO Serious Play and Serious Fun. He lives in Johannesburg and has been involved with the LEGO programs for the past 12 years.
Innovation, technology, and creativity
Before addressing the main topic, Smith spoke about creativity, the human mind, and depression. Smith isn’t interested in technology as a whole, but rather the human element within it. He believes that technology isn’t going to happen without us:
Technology ain’t gonna happen unless there are human beings. I’m interested in the human factor in technology and the role humans play and the challenge that I’m interested in is how the heck do you get people from being in the world we are now.
“We can have 1000 definitions of what innovation is. I’m saying let’s make it simple: new ideas that work,” he says.
The difficulties there are having ideas that are new and that are useful in a particular discipline, such as technology or organising people in technology.
Smith says there is a gap between what we think and what we do. He refers to this gap as ‘The Great Divide,’ because it’s a challenge, and one he admits to having as well.
For example, Smith says he suffers from depression and can sit for hours mindlessly playing Solitaire. He poses the question: What can I do to trigger getting out of that state? To which he responds, “I play with LEGO.” His answer may seem simple and childish, but Danish building blocks are used in a way far removed from being childish. In fact, there’s a much larger challenge involved.
“We have to manage the emotive side of creating ideas. If we can identify emotional triggers then we can get people into stated where they can create and innovate. Get people psychologically involved because that’s when people are most creative and innovative,” says Smith.
The big challenge, according to Smith, is how to take someone from where they normally are psychologically — such as a depressed state — and to a state where they create ideas and innovate. You have to be in a particular state to innovate and an example used is after a fight with someone else you’re in no mood to innovate.
Try having fun while being bored. It doesn’t work.
In order to get someone into that state, you need to manage the environment they’re in. With depression, he says, you have to manage the ongoing lifestyle and ambience of the person to lessen the chance of there being triggers. Even though Smith spoke about depression, it isn’t the only thing he uses LEGO for.
LEGO as a tool
Smith works with companies to help find the problems affecting productivity and attitude of its employees. To do this, he uses a program called LEGO Serious Play.
LEGO works lekker. It’s small. It’s colourful. It’s constructive. It’s simple. It leads to success. You can use it competitively.
Because of these factors, he says, LEGO transcends hierarchy within companies, the differences between people, and culture. Even education falls away.
Serious Play was created by LEGO itself to help with its own company and innovation problems. While the program started off in a closed manner, it is now open source and freely available to all who wish to use it.
One example given is that of a client whose staff weren’t motivated, innovative, or wouldn’t do anything unless told to by their boss. In using LEGO Serious Play, Smith found the staff had collectively decided not to be productive because of their manager and his management style. This ‘toy’ helped the company figure out where their problem lay.
There are some rules to the way the sessions happen. The play must be structured and held within a structured environment, each session will be guided by a facilitator, and it has to have an objective that people work towards achieving. The facilitators are there to make sure everyone has a voice. If someone in the company never speaks, because their manager is always barking orders, they are given a voice. Everyone brings together a range of behaviours and skills, and through this expose their behaviours for observation.
My starting point is the individual. A lot of the starting point of the other approaches is from the group. I need to build brick by brick.
Success is getting people to take one step towards wanting to acive, and the second mesure of success to ensure that another step is taken.
Smith suggests in using Fun (engagement + mood) and Play (context + construction), which equals Commitment (flow & mindfulness), an environment for creation and innovation can be created. It helps people to think outside of the box though he doesn’t make any promises.
Participants in the session are tasked with creating a dog out of LEGO. The final product not only has to be able to move on its own, but also stop before reaching the end of the table, and they have to sing and dance to it. This sort of task can spur on innovation and creativity.
I try and get people to start a journey and carry on with that. The LEGO is a methodology to keep going forward.
When asked about negativity and backlash to the program, Smith said in the twelve years he’s been involved with he program he’s never had someone not participate. His theory is that humans are competitive and thus want to succeed at the given task. When in a session he doesn’t start with theory, but tells the participants it’s a competition and tells them to start building.
A philosophical approach
Smith also takes on a philosophical approach to what makes us human: “I don’t believe my dog thinks about Thursday next week, but you and I can, which means we can think about the future. It means we can set objectives. Which means we can plan to meet objectives. That’s what makes us human.”
When talking about the human mind, Smith says: “When we have perceptions of the world there is not a blank piece of paper in here. What we have here is a collection that has developed over time of our beliefs of life and your beliefs of the world.”