Serious Play: team building with LEGO

We spent an afternoon playing with LEGO - all in the name of work, honest offer team building sessions using LEGO
'Team building’ – not exactly a phrase that inspires real enthusiasm or genuine excitement out of anyone who’s been around the office worker block. Most of us have done one too many trust falls to be hoodwinked that easily, even if it does mean an afternoon off the job. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and are aiming to breathe fresh life into the experience – with LEGO blocks.

Using the ‘open source’ LEGO SERIOUS PLAY (LSP) methodology, co-founders and facilitators at Oliver Clark and Oliver Knapman run customised workshops for teams, with themes ranging from ‘identity and culture’ to ‘real time strategy’.

‘Uncovering untapped potential in individuals and teams is our currency and we can use that to help them identify problems, find solutions and prepare themselves for the future,’ Clark says. ‘Shanghai, with its cross-cultural teams, its diverse, fast-paced economy and its sheer size, always stood out to us as having vast reserves of that untapped potential.’

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Thrilled at the news of the Legoland Discovery Centre arriving in Shanghai and, quite honestly, heartbroken at the realisation that it was a kids-only affair, we jumped at the chance of a LEGO-centred workshop. (We’re totally competent adults with real jobs. Promise.)

To begin, we get a quick presentation of the philosophy and organisational psychology behind LSP. The methodology comes largely from the thoughts of three men: developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, mathematician Seymour Papert and neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. Piaget brings a Constructivist approach, which posits that humans produce knowledge and form meaning based on their experiences; Papert adds in the Constructionist angle that learning happens when we are active in the creation of tangible objects; and Penfield’s work contributes the idea of ‘hand knowledge’, that people have developed to live in a 3D world, with our mind mirroring this.

Intertwining these three theories, the LSP workshop model is highly hands-on and focuses squarely on the experience of creating something physical. It’s meant to provoke and disrupt – in a constructive way.

‘The most memorable moments for me are when someone who doesn't ordinarily get their voice heard, perhaps a very junior member of the team, produces an idea that takes the most senior or experienced participants by surprise,’ says Knapman. ‘You can see all of the ingrained hierarchies and restrictions dissolve in a really satisfying way and when that happens you get unexpected results and insights. There’s always much more depth to people than you think, and sometimes you’ve been sharing a desk with them for years.’

lego teambuilding

The workshop is based on a series of ‘challenges’ proposed by the facilitators, our spur-of-the-moment LEGO ‘answers’ and our possibly-embarrassingly-earnest explanations of their meaning. The challenges begin straightforward and literal (‘build a tower in two minutes’) but quickly transition into the realm of metaphor (‘illustrate a bad boss’, ‘show your role on the team’). Even with only ten people, it’s amazing all the different ways a tower can look, not to mention the more conceptual models.

Three hours fly by, and it’s easy to understand how programmes start from a half-day minimum but can stretch to two days or more. As the minutes pass, everyone relaxes into ‘playing with purpose’ and tiny revelations start happening. Knapman is right; it’s enlightening to hear from interns who are industrious but often quiet, or to hear your boss attempt to describe the LEGO metaphor depicting the rock and the hard place he frequently finds himself between.

lego serious play team building

In the few minutes I have before I have to explain my second LEGO structure, there’s much soul-searching as to what in my subconscious could have thought the all-black-and-gold hovercraft commanded by a skeleton with a wise owl perched atop its head was a reasonable answer. I’m not entirely sure that I’m dissolving any hierarchies with this one, but I can see the potential. runs LEGO SERIOUS PLAY workshops begin at around 500RMB per head depending on group size and can run from three hours to two days. See or email for details.