Introduction to Lego Serious Play – Video and Slides

20-minute presentation about the core concepts of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® presented by Marko Rillo from – the global community of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitators.

Slideshare presentation

The presentation focuses on three reasons why LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® makes a difference
1) stronger engagement of a team
2) play helps to understand better
3) metaphors help conveying messages and remember the most important.

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Descriptive, Creative and Challenging Imagination

Roos Victor 1999 European Management Journal p.351

Roos Victor 1999 European Management Journal p.351

You must have heard about three kinds of imagination: descriptive, creative and challenging. Roos & Victor introduced those three types of imagination in their 1999 EMJ paper “Towards a New Model of Strategy-making as Serious Play“.

  1. The first type of imagination is descriptive imagination. It focuses on seeing the world out there as it is. Describing it with our words, drawings or building the concepts with bricks. Most synthetic tools that consultants use help us better capture the world through description.
  2. The second type of imagination is creative imagination. This is so called ‘out-of-box’ thinking, which is associated with ‘blue oceans’ or ‘value innovations’ that entail trying to come up with something that does not exist there out yet. Most fantasies, science fiction belong under creative imagination.
  3. The third is challenging imagination. With the help of antithesis, negation and contradicting our previous beliefs we try to completely redefine or revolutionize existing systems of operation. Challenging is often a prerequisite for a new round of creative imagination.
Richard Kearney Wake of Imagination

Richard Kearney Wake of Imagination

When you are dealing with Lego Serious Play facilitation then the typology of imagination was most probably introduced to you as one of the cornerstones of facilitation concepts on how to encourage different participants to become more active in discussions.

The roots of categorizing imagination are much deeper. The historic concepts were well mapped and elaborated by philosophy professor of Boston University Richard Kearney in his book The Wake of Imagination. Toward a Postmodern Culture.

In this book that was published in 1998, prof. Kearney digs into the history of contemporary imagination, starting from the way imagination was conceptualized by Hebraic legends, in Greek myths, in medieval Christian icons and theology, throughout renaissance and romantic era. Finally he concludes with existentialist takes on imagination and concludes with post-modern contemporary classics.

If you are interested in deep analysis of history and typology of imagination then this book is certainly for you.

Lego Serious Play and Business Model Canvas

Business Model Generation and Lego Serious Play combo

Business Model Generation and Lego Serious Play combo – photo by Marko Rillo

There have been a number of attempts to combine visual thinking with other tools. Graphic facilitation hand in hand with world cafe. Gamification with analytical tools. But what do you get when you pair two visual facilitation techniques? Come to play: Business Model Canvas and Lego Serious Play!

One may joke that during “old times” a group of people brainstormed about the business idea, wrote the top of the creme ideas on a flip-chart and spent days doing internet searches and Excel tweaking to come up with a 30-page business plan that tries to imagine the future.

Several people have now tried and tested the combination between Lego Serious Play and Business Model Canvas. Most tell about achieving powerful results. The Essence of combining the two methods side by side is to assist the participants in the session to focus on elaborating their business ideas.

Business Model Canvas

Business model canvas gives a framework to describe the most important building blocks of your existing business or fledgling business idea in a quick, simple, yet comprehensive manner.

The business model canvas includes the core information about your “product”, your “market” and your value creation structure – how do you use your resources the best possible way to create something new and valuable to the world for which enough customers are willing to pay.

The method works in an intuitive manner. Depending on the complexity of your business idea you can may jot down the core elements of your business model on a canvas in 15-30 minutes. The easy way is to just download the business canvas poster and give it a go. The canvas has also been rethought for start-up businesses by Ash Maurya who has labelled the simplified version Lean Canvas – if you need something just for an easy testing.

Lego Serious Play

Lego Serious Play is there to metaphorically give your brain a hand. With the help of Lego bricks the participants build their understanding of key elements of the business models – typical customers, primary sales channels, resources and partners. They can use the results of their construction to describe their value offering, cost structure and revenue streams.

While we all have been victims of a paralysis of analysis, the Lego bricks can help to free our imagination and think about the things that we did not know that we knew before. Based on the guidance of a skillful facilitator the participants are urged to stop holding meetings with themselves and instead just start building. Frequently the understanding about certain core issues in the upcoming business model representation emerges through the very action of building something.

Furthermore – the Lego Serious Play can also activate the introverts among the groups who in a normal marker-whiteboard situation would have held themselves back.

The participants’ feedback is there to prove us that a comprehensive business ideation framework married to a powerful facilitation methodology provides you with unique and valuable insights in making the best of your business idea.

To test it out – just buy a bunch of bricks and find out!

Further Reading

However, if you would like to get a good grip of it then I urge you to read the Business Model Generation book and both of its derivatives – e.g. Business Model You on reinventing your personal career and Value Proposition Design about defining the unique aspects of your core strategy.

There are also plenty of interesting books to read about Lego Serious Play that you can combine with other valuable resources from the Serious Play Pro community website:

  1. See the blog post by Rory O’Connor and its second part, where he has written an interesting case study on how he utilized a simplified version of business model canvas, called Lean Canvas for start-ups and business ideas to create landscapes about the business models.
  2. Jan Peeters collaborated with Olivier Treinen in facilitating a large-scale event where they did a full scale business model workshop with the assistance of Lego Serious Play. In preparing for the event they even wrote a helpful set of slides.
  3. Eli De Friend reported about the workshop that they organized with Yves Pigneur who is known as one of the co-authors of the famous Business Model Generation book.
  4. Finally, also the author of this post – Marko Rillo has facilitated a number of workshops using the combination of the two. If you need a hint on how then get in touch.

Doing Business with Lego Serious Play

Charles Handy - The Elephant and the Flea New Thinking for a New World
Charles Handy – The Elephant and the Flea

One of the recent members of the Serious Play Pro community asked me privately about whether it pays off to quit his day job and start working as a facilitator full time.

He wrote: “I want to pick your mind on how you got started on LSP. Did you start it while you were already doing freelance consulting/coaching? Or did you start it within a corporate setting and then just spun off to a freelance gig once you got the hang of it? If you know of anyone with similar experiences, whether freelance LSP consulting right off the bat or a spin-off from their corporate career, a referral would be appreciated.”

Let me start with a reference to a research paper that I read in the most recent Academy of Management Journal. Two PhD students of of University of Wisconsin Madison: Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng wrote an interesting piece: Should I Quit My Day Job? A Hybrid Path to Entrepreneurship. They concluded that while entrepreneurship entry paths are different – those who started as part-time hybrid entrepreneurs while retaining their day jobs had higher survival rates. But still – the most decisive factor of entrepreneurship success were the characteristics of the particular individual.

Like Raffiee and Feng wrote in their paper and supported with data – I also believe that all the roads that lead to Rome are different, but probably it is worth discussing about various models of business for starting off as an entrepreneur for handling Lego Serious Play and other facilitation work. Lets start with my story. Hopefully others will find it interesting to spell out their experience below.

I started off as a self employed consultant a dozen years ago in 2002 when I came to realize that you may as easily work for larger organizations without being a part of them. While large organizations can give you interesting collaboration and learning opportunities – the headache of daily rigidities of reporting, some pointless meetings and power at wrong hands destroy the fun part of it.

Brand You
John Purkiss Brand You

After reading a couple of popular books in this field (e.g. Charles Handy’s The Elephant and the Flea and John Purkiss’es Brand You: Turn Your Unique Talents into a Winning Formula) I decided that an one-man-band type of organization would be much more suitable for my taste.

Instead of jumping the ship completely I created my firm and thereafter started off with a single client. I worked for 4 months for one of my previous employers as an independent consultant. At the same time, I started actively building my independent brand, seeing how to best open the sales leads and after a few short training and analytical gigs I commenced full time into the world of managing myself.

During the past years this has been the approach that I have had. I have balanced the work between a handful of long term clients with whom I frequently establish long-term collaboration that span over 2-3 years. These larger customers seem almost similar to full time job in a larger organization, but in reality they are not. They usually account for 50-70 per cent of my time and provide a bulk of my income. However, with the remainder of my time I can work on interesting short-term research assignments, training and speaking engagements here and there, which also add value to my long-term clients.

The short-term work frequently requires me to expand my tool-set with new techniques while the long-term work is primarily about achieving change in a corporate or public sector context where change does not come easily with one-off moves.

What about Lego Serious Play and faciliation tasks?

I worked on different training tasks which essentially required facilitation skills already a number of times before I came across the Lego Serious Play methodology in 2005. After reading a few working papers and Johan Roos’s Thinking from Within I tested and tried the use of the methodology at a number of companies. I used the methodology based on my best knowledge quite some time and it was not until 2009 when I finally went through certification process with Lego.

Thinking from Within

Thinking from Within

Nowadays I just use the Lego Serious Play as one of the tools in my consulting practice. I would not think about working only with that and be known as just the “Lego guy” because there are just so many things that a method can help you to achieve. It certainly comes with its limits. It works well in situations with lots of ambiguity, where creativity is required and where the group dynamics needs some space to develop. However, there are plenty of situations where you need to handle lots of data, supporting an analytical team who scores extremely well in terms of open collaboration and understands its tacit signals. Under those circumstances the Lego Serious Play-based approach does not add much value.

For that reason there are many other methods that I rely on. Some are more analytical, the others more playful. In my case – Lego Serious Play-based facilitation is an important aspect of my daily work, but it still just accounts for roughly 10-20 per cent of my time and revenues.

As a Summary – Some things to Think About before Embarking the Journey of an Self-Employed Facilitator

  1. When you contemplate starting off your business then I suggest also to you that try to think about the Lego Serious Play as just one of the tools. If you don’t have many other alternatives then I would propose expanding your portfolio.
  2. Remember that all facilitation work relies heavily on your personal time, which means that it is ultimately scalable only up to the maximum useful, productive and billable time that you can provide for your clients. Until you have a number of those clients potentially at sight, you might wish to postpone your independent moves.
  3. Finally – in addition to your network of clients – try to also build your network of peers who help to develop your professional skills and challenge your thinking.

Ideological Currency – A New Level at Maslow Pyramid?

Amur Leopard Cubs - © Maaja Kitsing at Tallinn Zoo

Amur Leopard Cubs - © Maaja Kitsing at Tallinn Zoo

During past couple of days the favourite pastime of our little daughter has been looking at newborn leopard cubs at Tallinn Zoo live webcam. Her enthusiasm about these cute animals reminded me of couple of papers that management professors Jeffery A Thompson and J. Stuart Bunderson have published about the motivation of zookeepers. Their work strikes as an interesting reminder to all managers about what is really important at work.

Abraham Maslow told us already nearly 70 years ago that we first satisfy needs of physiology, safety, belonging and esteem before  thinking about self-actualization. We might not agree with the model having seen artists or scientists who are pleased to actualize themselves leaving their social or physiological needs completely neglected. Still, Maslow pyramid provides a charmingly simple behavioral theory that makes an useful discussion starter for the MBAs. Its basic principles have been put into good use as a cornerstone to many motivation systems.

Although Maslow model appears comprehensive – it leaves one corporate practice clearly uncovered. Namely – formulation of vision statements. You might have heard the leaders talking on how their corporate vision increases enthusiasm or commitment of their employees. One might agree that a clear vision might contribute to self-actualization possibilities, but in practice there appears to be a discrepancy. Look at some of the vision statements of the global firms. Core essence of the most of them is simply alfa-male driven “Becoming global leaders in this-or-that”.

Having not stumbled across any of the in-depth studies on this subject, I dare to doubt if any of the employees really care if their multi-million corporation would become multi-billion or quite the opposite. Is the connection between vision statements and motivation a complete nonsense? But then again – perhaps I should not be so ironic. It could be that the connection still exists, but it is down to the actual contents of the vision.

I had a chat with a friend who recently resigned from his well-paid corporate position and restarted in a non-profit organization. None of the Maslow pyramid elements drove him to his decision. The key driver behind his choice was the noble vision of his new organization. Not surprisingly, we have also heard about principled programmers who spend vast amounts of their time on working on open source software because of their shared (utopian) vision that software should be free.

Returing to zoo – Thompson and Bunderson spent lots of time studying zookeepers, their personal calling and nobility of cause as key motivating factors for their work. Zookeepers, too, tend to work at minimum wage. Apart from communicating with their furry companions, the work tends to be solitary. No patting on their back from their bosses. No smiles from customers. And lets even forget about career progress or self-fulfilment opportunities.

“People will work hard for money; they will work harder for others. But hardest of all work those who are dedicated to a cause.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick

Thompson and Bunderson have written about “psychological contract” – a tacit agreement between employer and employee, which shapes the behaviour of both parties. Traditionally the currency of psychological contract has been either monetary (paycheck) or emotional (pat on the back). Thompson and Bunderson suggest that based on the zookeepers’ example – the strongest currency of all is the ideology of the organization. If the organization is out for a good cause what the employees really believe in then the managers have the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of their employees more easily leaving aside the other currencies or levels of Maslow pyramid. Should we add this as an additional component to existing 5 levels of Maslow pyramid?

Indeed. People at Skype have told that some employees have agreed to join their team with modest salary requests – just to help people phone each other for free. You might also want to reflect upon your company vision: “What is your noble cause that would help your employees to find their true calling in your organization and worry less about the other Maslow levels?”

PS. Thompson and Bunderson have added a kind disclaimer to their 1993 paper – should your company breach the noble vision then the most committed employees will react fiercely. So use this advice with caution and only if you really mean it! 🙂


Bunderson & Thompson (2003) Violations of Principle: Ideological Currency in the Psychological Contract. Academy of Management Review. Vol. 28, No. 4, 571–586.

Bunderson & Thompson (2009) The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 54, 32–57.

Maslow, A. (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4), 370-96.