Thinking with your hands: How Lego bricks reduce complexity

Isabel Gehrer

LEGO® Serious Play® is a method of workshop facilitation. Dr Tanja Pohle, Head of Service Unit Organisation & Processes and certified facilitator in this method, likes to use it in the context of transformation and change processes. We talked to her about possible questions and examples of application in the real estate industry.

For a long time, it was impossible to imagine a child's room without Lego bricks. Then in 1989 the Gameboy was invented and the former toy bestseller was banished to the basement, where it eked out a dreary existence in colourless cardboard boxes for years. The Lego group got into financial difficulties, internal strategy workshops to improve the situation were unsuccessful. One of the reasons was that 20 per cent of the participants allegedly took up 90 per cent of the speaking time. Sound familiar? Probably not by chance.

Finally, in 1996, at the suggestion of then Managing Director Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a team developed an alternative to familiar workshop formats by using building blocks as part of the problem-solving process - LEGO® Serious Play® was born. Today, the open source model is used around the world to improve communication in meetings, make problems tangible and solve business challenges collaboratively.

pom+ also uses the workshop method to guide clients in reducing complexities in strategic and transformational issues. Dr Tanja Pohle, our expert, explains in an interview what it is all about.

Tanja, as an organisational developer and new-work specialist, you help companies to work better together and to design the necessary processes and working environment productively. In other words, quite wide-ranging topics with complex issues. How does LEGO® Serious Play® fit in?
Very well, because this is exactly where the great advantages of this workshop method lie. LEGO® Serious Play® helps us to reveal our own values and values. For example, when we want to find out what demands newly introduced processes should fulfil, the opinions are usually already made and the answers are usually pre-programmed: efficient, seamless, cost-effective and so on.

With LEGO® Serious Play® we go one level deeper and learn, for example, that one group member puts reliability above everything and therefore pays particular attention to ensuring that the defined processes are followed in every case. Meanwhile, his colleague weights creativity much higher and demands that they be supported by the new workflows and not restricted in any way. The answers to difficult questions thus become more substantial with LEGO® Serious Play® because the methodology allows insights into individual ideas of a perfect world.

And how do we have to imagine this vividly? Does the management sit together in a circle and everyone builds a house?
To put it bluntly, yes. In reality, however, it is not quite so simple. We usually use the LEGO® Serious Play® method as a supplement to strategy meetings in full- or half-day workshops. We decide together which questions we want to get to the bottom of. Either it is about revealing individual values (e.g. regarding teamwork) and understanding what makes each group member tick. Then, in fact, each person builds his or her own model with the LEGO bricks, which gives the answer to defined questions (e.g. the ideal team). The object depends on the question defined at the beginning and can, for example, symbolise cooperation between two locations.

Or the group builds together on an overall model, also called a landscape model. We usually use this when it comes to strategic questions, where the common attitude is central or a common strategy or vision is to be developed. Then values and attitudes are discussed and negotiated in the team, commonalities are identified and elements that are important to everyone are pointed out. One of the reasons LEGO® Serious Play® is so promising is that it breaks down hierarchical structures and eliminates voice leadership.

It has to do with the basic rules of LEGO® Serious Play®. They are simple: Your model, your story, your values! No story is more important than the other, no value better or worse. In addition, all participants are equally involved because they focus on the building process and less on the other person.

Are there any other rules to follow?
Yes, some. The most important and at the same time most unfamiliar for many management teams is the fact that there is no actual facilitator. Instead, there is a flowmaster, or facilitator. We accompany the participants in their personal process and make sure that everyone can follow their rhythm and develop there.

Lego Facilitator is a protected designation, you have been certified according to the LEGO® Serious Play method. What tasks are you responsible for in this role and how do they differ from your activities in regular workshops?

My tasks as a facilitator in a LEGO® Serious Play® workshop are primarily to provide the framework and to facilitate creative work. This is supported by music, among other things. It helps to get involved in one's own world and to concentrate on the creative process. It also increases the joy and fun. Many managers regularly sit in strategic meetings and workshops. For many, this form of collaboration is a welcome change.

In my role, it is also very important to be able to hold back on content. In contrast to other workshop methods, I don't give thematic weighting or control. This method presupposes that the client is open to all results. After all, creativity methods also bring out new aspects that were not foreseen.

And to what extent can a solid result be guaranteed without prioritising the content?
By taking the preliminary work seriously. This means that we attach great importance to asking the right questions correctly. In the case of the LEGO® Serious Play® method, correct means asking the questions openly. So we don't want to find out whether fixed workplaces or desk sharing are more suitable. Instead, we ask what the ideal working environment looks like.

What other questions are suitable for LEGO® Serious Play®?
Basically, all questions related to organisational development, transformation and change management are suitable. In other words, the classic questions: What is our vision for the future, where do we want to develop and what strategy is suitable for this? More and more often, however, we also deal with explicit challenges such as the shortage of skilled workers in workshops. For example, many of our clients currently want to know how they should adapt their recruitment. Then, thanks to LEGO® Serious Play®, we find out what the ideal company looks like for each group member and what the personal horror ideas are. 

To do this, we then build prototypes out of Lego and discuss them. Research has proven that working with our hands promotes creativity processes. We think about the questions in a completely different way when we're not just brooding over them purely cognitively.

Exciting. If we narrow this down to the real estate industry, which questions are often discussed there?
There is a wide variety of relevant questions. The digital transformation, diminishing returns, the entry of Gen Z into the world of work, the shortage of skilled workers, the agile construction and/or working methods, the increasing requirements for sustainable buildings, the increasing complexity of technical systems...- the interplay between organisation, real estate, data and IT systems is becoming more and more complex. 

More and more companies are looking for answers to these challenges, more and more managers and professionals are looking in depth at the strategic direction and searching for the right vision in a connected future. In this context, we receive many enquiries about organisational development, business models or new working worlds. Whereby the real estate industry is of course particularly interesting in the latter, since here the spatial components are questioned very specifically. For example, the desire for a change in the use of space is often the trigger for an enquiry. But if we then spin the issue further, we notice that it is more about classic questions in the area of workplace solutions and collaboration.

In addition, we are increasingly using LEGO® Serious Play® in the real estate industry to answer property-specific or even portfolio-specific questions. For example, we are currently working with the real estate department of a global company to find out what the perfect site experience should look like. This question also comes up frequently in campus or site developments. Similarly, enquiries in the area of product and project development within the framework of SIA phases 1 and 2 are steadily increasing.

About the expert

Dr. Tanja Pohle is a proven organisational developer and. New Work specialist. She heads the Organisation & Processes service unit at pom+ Consulting AG and supports companies in translating their entrepreneurial DNA into an identity-creating working environment. As a graduate civil engineer and building management scientist, she knows about the relevance of the spatial environment on human productivity. In her work, she focuses on workplace solutions and change management in the digital transformation. She is a certified Design Thinking Coach, LEGO® Serious Play® Facilitator and holds an MBA in Business Engineering from the University of St. Gallen (HSG).

This is how pom+ supports with LEGO® Serious Play®

It doesn't matter whether you are already in the middle of the transformation process and want to deal with specific challenges or are still discussing the change and the associated changes - we are happy to accompany you with an individual offer in five steps:

1. development of the objectives and questions
2. structure and design of the workshop
3. implementation of the strategy workshop using the LEGO® Serious Play® methodology
4. documentation of the results
5. follow-up and recommendations for action


Do you have any questions? Our experts will be happy to help.

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