DAVID GAUNTLETT ON LEGO SERIOUS PLAY
David Gauntlett is the author of a number of books on media and identities, including the forthcoming Creative Explorations (2007). For several years he has been developing research methods in which people are asked to make and create things; his previous studies have used video, drawings, and collage. More recently he has been collaborating with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY to develop new research and approaches. We interviewed him in May 2006.
What's LEGO SERIOUS PLAY all about?
LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is a consultancy process, developed by the LEGO Group with some leading business and organisational thinkers, and psychologists, in which participants build metaphors in LEGO bricks, representing what they want to talk about. It's a process which takes time; first the people need to get used to building with LEGO bricks, and then we do some exercises to get them thinking about metaphors, and showing things metaphorically in their individually built LEGO models. And then you have rounds of building and talking, building and talking. But the building always comes first - building with your hands. You're never just put on the spot to talk about a problem or situation or experience - instead, you build it first, then talk about what you've built.
Does it work?
Oh, it really works. It gets people thinking and responding to each other in a different way. Everyone gets to contribute. Unlike those consultancy practices where an external 'expert' comes in and tells you what they think is 'wrong', LEGO SERIOUS PLAY begins with the idea that the answers are already in the room. People build metaphors of their role and identity in a team or organisation, then you get them to put it all together into one shared model, establishing the relationships between the different parts, all through working physically, and sharing it. By helping people to realize that they are themselves the true experts, team members feel genuine ownership of the insights that emerge.
How did you come to be involved?
I was contacted by the director of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY because my previous research had been about the same central idea - that making things and then reflecting on them and telling a story about them is a great way of getting people to assemble their knowledge, thoughts and feelings about something. I also happened to be keen on LEGO, and had used LEGO figures on my website to illustrate some theoretical ideas. So it all came together very neatly!
My own work with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is not actually about teams and organisations, instead I'm looking at how we can use the process to explore identities. So people are asked, after going through the introductory exercises - called Skills Building in LEGO SERIOUS PLAY terms - to build a model which represents their personal identity - who they are and what they bring to the world. Then we also build influences on their identities, and explore those connections.
Well, we say to participants that you're only presenting 'an introduction to me'. They don't have to reveal their darkest secrets. We want to know how people think about themselves and what they do, insofar as they are willing to share that with others. Having said that, people certainly do open up to the group, typically, and a kind of bond develops amongst people who've done this slightly unusual, revealing kind of experience together.
And LEGO is a good way to get people talking?
Yes. But of course the talking comes second. Social research - and also consultancy - these are both processes involving people, where you want to know what people think, and this usually proceeds by asking people things. Of course, that's pretty much common sense - if you want to know how someone feels about something, you ask them about it.
But then you're assuming that they can give you an answer about something straight away, and put it into words. That's quite a big assumption. I found in previous research that the information you get from someone when they've spent a lot of time making a video, or just making a picture, is considerably different from what they would tell you in the first ten minutes if you just asked them about it. We've found the same with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY - it gives people a new way of expressing themselves, a deeper way of exploring complexities and presenting them in one go.
I think you said these activities enable people to 'assemble their knowledge' about things. What does that mean?
Well, this stems from research in the science of how the brain works. In research traditionally, and in consultancy too I guess, we assume that people have a little list inside their heads which tells you key aspects of their identity, and their preferences. Researchers are normally careful in the way they talk to people, because they are concerned that the person may be unwilling to share what's on their list, or might be dishonest about what's 'really' on the list. But we're still assuming that there is a list. What if there is no list?
People don't really carry round with them a bunch of mental lists which say 'what I think' about all different issues. We have feelings and impressions and memories about things, but identity is not something that lives inside your brain in a straightforward, continuous and ready-made way. That's why you need to go through processes, creative processes, to put that knowledge together. If you build something metaphorically in LEGO, you're bringing together all those feelings and impressions and memories about whatever-it-is, and you're physically building it and putting it together. The work you do in this stage of the process means that eventually when we do talk about it, you'll actually have a much clearer sense of what we're talking about and how you feel about it.
But using words, you can talk and explore things. In this LEGO approach, you seem to have to build it all in one go.
Well, you usually get several 'goes' at building it and revising it. But that sense in which you do build a whole thing, 'all in one go' as you say, is crucially important. When we talk about things, in language, it's all necessarily linear - one thing after another. If I was to ask you to 'tell me your identity' - well, that doesn't even seem to make sense, so we'd translate it into something more straightforward like 'tell me some things that are important to you' or 'tell me about some key events in your life'. And then you'd have to tell me one, then another one, then another one … then maybe another one, and then it kind of peters out. And it would be hard to see how these things fit together. This is another sense in which identity is not a list - it's not a string of different things. Most of us think of our identity as one thing, but with different related parts.
So that's why it's just right to build it as one whole thing, 'all in one go'. When you're building a metaphorical model of your identity, most people seem to want to have a kind of balance. 'If I've put on [this], I also want to put on [that]'. 'I've said that [this thing] is important to me, but also clustered around that are [x], [y], and [z], and these are all kind of fed by [something else] that's important too'. You want to put it all down and show how it fits together. That's not something you could do easily in language.
So do you need a kind of mental picture of 'my identity' to start with?
No, no. I don't think anybody starts with that. Maybe some people might begin with one key image, such as a lighthouse, or engine, or garden. But basically you don't need to have a mental picture first, which then you build. That's not how it works at all. Rather, the building is a process of putting things together, exploring what seems right, what seems wrong, changing it, until it feels like a good representation.
OK. So what have you found in your research?
Well, for my current research project I've done ten different groups, including charity managers, architects, art gallery staff, social workers, students, and three different unemployed groups. (I've also run other LEGO SERIOUS PLAY sessions for other purposes). These groups have all got very different backgrounds, but each group makes identity models that are just as rich in meaning as any other.
The project is not about saying that this group of people are like one thing, and this group of people are like something else. Rather it's a way of seeing how people think about themselves, looking for the kinds of stories that people tell. It gives you a different way of thinking about identities, which I'm then analysing and theorising about in the book I'm writing.
So you're doing this sociological work, asking people to think about their identities through making things with their hands. But it seems this would also be useful in business, to support areas such as people development, team development and leadership development, where the focus to a large extent is on working with individual identities?
Yes definitely. That's the point of the original LEGO SERIOUS PLAY processes. One thing that comes through clearly in my research, and is well established with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY generally, is that people love doing it and they get a lot out of it. It's a great way to think about yourself, how you interact with others as well as how you consider yourself and your relationships. It can start off being quite introspective, but then everyone shares their stories and then, in the team process, can collaborate and make physical links with each other - by connecting up and integrating the LEGO models - which feels like a real bond. So then it becomes a surprisingly emotional process too.
It seems you really like it!
Of course I like it! But more importantly, everyone that takes part in a LEGO SERIOUS PLAY session seems to get a lot out of it. It's a unique kind of opportunity to reflect on yourself and how you work with others. People who take part seem to really enjoy it - and I think that's crucial.