Play produces serious results
Interview with Peter de Jong
In our article ‘Play to change’ we explained how we applied Lego© Serious Play© at an organizational change project at NS (Dutch railways). Subsequently, we interviewed Peter de Jong about his experiences with LSP. Peter de Jong is an agile professional, manager and coach at NS (Dutch railways). He encountered Lego© Serious Play© for the first time during the ComIT project and rapidly turned from spectator into prototyping coach into certified Lego© Serious Play© facilitator.
What was your first impression of Lego© Serious Play©?
My first encounter with LSP was during the prototyping of Value stream ‘Planning’. It was impressive to see how people can achieve and build something together. Also, it was impressive to see what a great value can be unlocked with a shared model and the narrative that can emerge from it. You could really see how that narrative was growing, how it grew bigger and richer. I also noticed that the process was super intense and that everybody had to give their best and show themselves. There was always something happening: If they were not building, they were telling stories. There was no time for social chitchat. There were only stories, good stories. That is what I thought was so good about it.
What is the value of Lego© Serious Play©?
It can help you to tackle complex questions that cannot be solved straight away. There are of course other methods to tackle complex problems, but with those other methods you will not create this much deeply rooted acceptance for the solution story that is being created. It is all-inclusive: You come up with your story and others listen. It is the power of perspective taking with natural acceptance, a shared vision and a shared story.
Next to being effective, it is also a very efficient process. Within one day you can solve a complex problem. LSP triggers a new way of thinking and a new way of collaborating. You will unlock knowledge that cannot be unlocked with cognitive rational thought processes.
LSP gives dominant players less space and gives less dominant players more space. There is a perspective taking element: Everybody has to listen to everybody and is therefore forced to empathize and to view it from another person’s perspective. You have to take these perspectives that are someone else’s into a shared story. That is normally a big challenge, but with LSP the process is facilitated.
Everybody brings their expertise, wisdom and experience to the table and tells his/her story. Small or big, every story is a good story. The stories supplement each other and can grow into one story. Building this shared story is not just about finding a common denominator, it is bigger than that. You do not ask people to agree with every detail of the story, but you ask people if they can relate to the story. Therefore, you do not just find the overlap and I think that is super valuable.
There are of course more methods that can be used to come to an agreement, but with LSP this agreement is broader. For example, if you start brainstorming and want to come to an agreement, you will end up with lists and votes. This results in a few things being left out, even if those things are very valuable for a couple of people. If you are building a shared model with LSP, you cannot just delete an element, because it is brought to the table by someone. There will be elements that are more important than other elements. However, it is the overall story that it is all about. The story becomes the medium and that is very valuable.
Another valuable thing is, that everybody feels safe to be creative, because what you bring to the table cannot be criticized. As a facilitator, you need to be alert that people might make mental lists before building, not deploying their full potential but just their ration. With LSP you frame questions by giving a setting and the context. Then you ask the participants to build a model. At this point, a lot of the people are lost, because they need the cognitive preparation. That is the fun part. It is unbelievable how serious people get if you tell them to build a model and say to trust themselves that they can do it. With LSP you gain trust that you can solve complex problems together. At the end of the day, everybody will say that it was super exhausting, but that they have also accomplished something together. There is some sort of euphoria in it.
With LSP you will not just create support for the solution, but you will also create some sort of bonding. I remember a session where you had all these different individuals with different expertise and different personalities. In the end they were praising each other and giving compliments that they did a good job on summarizing the story. With LSP you do it together and that is what makes it important. LSP is not only for prototyping, it is very strong in teams that are looking for purpose, products, relations and guiding principles.
What do you think is the value of play itself?
Play in general is valuable because it facilitates a safe environment to experiment and to learn. You are allowed to make mistakes. This safe environment boosts the creative confidence. In the beginning, when people engage with LSP for the first time, they say: “It looks a bit stupid, but…” Eventually they will leave that sentence out and go wild.
What we did not talk about yet, but what you hear me implying all the time, is the fun during the sessions. People are not sighing and waiting for the coffee break to come. People only want to pause when a short bio break is needed. It is just too much fun.
What is the value of documentation?
The documentation is very valuable. The nuances of the story are extremely rich and very detailed. All elements have a meaning. To preserve that richness, it is important to document the story. If you fail to do that, the story dissipates and only a fraction of the matter and the energy will linger.
Besides capturing your own story, the documentation helps to communicate your story to others. If somebody would dive in now, they would know the story. Even if they were not part of the process. The concepts, the abstractions, that were indicated in the models, are all clearly stated in the documentation.
I think the documentation helped in the forming of the organizational units of many teams. Before we had teams in place, but so not adaptive and agile as now. The documentation of prototyping the organization helped to communicate this new organizational context, in which the teams have to adopt a new way of working. Everybody, every team in the unit, looked at the LSP documentation. This helped to convey the mindset of the teams within the new organizational structure. Therefore, I think the documentation contributed to forming the organizational identity as well.
Also, the prototyping teams consist of people from different levels and different roles. They created something together. People looking at the documentation see that and are impressed by the people that were involved in the prototyping. I think this also helped to adopt the organizational change.
Furthermore, I heard that sometimes new people, who just joined a team, by way of onboarding, look at the LSP documentation. They are intrigued and amazed by the content and it helps them to grasp the intention of the team. Watching LSP (video) documentation during onboarding is not regulated yet, but I think it could help!
Did you learn something from Lego© Serious Play© that you take with you in your daily work?
During LSP sessions I noticed that if I stay strict but kind, it is going better. I took that with me in my current job as scrum master. Hence facilitating LSP sessions helped me to improve my process management skills.
Also, the mindset to build a story together taught me that patience works very well. I learned to be patient while building a story, to keep complementing and tweaking it. You have to listen to the others and they have to listen to you. Together you try to build one story. What are the most important elements? What elements are not that important? If you have a little bit of patience while creating a story together, you create great things you can be proud of.
Concluding, it is not just fun to use Lego© Serious Play© for business challenges. LSP is an efficient methodology for tackling complex problems, comes with natural acceptance, unlocks knowledge that cannot be unlocked with cognitive rational thought processes, forces empathizing, includes everyone’s input equally, is richer than a common denominator, facilitates team bonding and boosts the creative confidence. Play produces serious results!