LEGO

What do you learn from building with LEGO?

They’re just pieces of plastic that kids play with.

In April, I participated in a workshop led by Aneta Key, Chief Executive Muse from AEDEA Partners, LLC (aedeapartners.com) in the Bay Area. One portion of it was devoted to building a “library” using LEGO pieces. A group of us had to share a bag of bricks and other parts, while each quickly designing and constructing our own library.

  • We had to begin and complete the project with very little instruction
  • Each of us had to decide what was meant by a “library”
  • We had to use what was in front of us
  • We had to deal with sharing limited resources
  • Some of us even had to negotiate trades for the pieces we needed

Following the building, we were given some time to “present” our designs within our groups, and then to respond to each others’ presentations.

In my own small group, we had interiors, exteriors, whole libraries, parts of libraries and a a representation of a “digital library” – someone built a computer server with their LEGO pieces.

  • What different approaches did people take?
  • What can we learn about people from the approach they took?
  • What did each of us bring to the process?
  • What did each person focus on in their presentation?

It took me a couple of months to get my LEGO kits together; I convinced my teenage son to part with his bucket of LEGO pieces (delivered to my office with a laugh). After a couple of hours of sorting and dividing, I headed off to the store for a set of “plain” bricks to give the sets enough pieces so that 4-6 people could share them. (Do you know how hard it is to find plain LEGO bricks?  If you want to build Hogwarts, you are in business, but just old school bricks are hard to find.) I persevered, and found a 650 piece set. Later, I found out about a used LEGO store, so Alex Falcone and I went there after a nearby corporate workshop and bought a bunch of flat pieces – bases, if you will.

So I’m set – we have 8 big Ziploc baggies with a variety of pieces in them.

I’ve used this exercise 5 times in the last week with wildly different groups:

  • College textbook salespeople
  • Property management maintenance guys (yes, ALL guys)
  • A gathering of the Applied Improvisation Network Portland Local Group
  • High school grads in a “pre-work” program sponsored by the public schools
  • Middle schoolers in our CSz Summer Camp

ain

In one amazing week, I’ve witnessed colleges, apartment complexes, restaurants, places to work and tree houses being built. Many tree houses included pools, flying ability, an aquarium and amazing ways to climb aboard. My favorite college looked like a microscope. One of the apartment complexes featured an unpaved part of the parking lot – “we haven’t paved that part yet.”

All we did was play with LEGO, but we also learned about:

  • Imagination
  • Cooperation
  • Making do with what we’ve got
  • Recapturing a sense of play (even a couple of middle schoolers needed help with that)
  • Just starting and seeing what happens
  • Designing improvisationally
  • Failing often
  • Presentation skills
  • Building on others’ ideas
  • Sharing experiences from our selling stories
  • What’s most important to us in doing a good job
  • Gibberish skills – expressing our design without real words and seeing what we’re able to communicate

Is that all?

What have you learned?

camp

Patrick Short has been teaching applied improvisation for business since 1989, used Duplos (large, little kid LEGO pieces) in an exercise he’s always called, “LEGO”, and now he has a naming problem. Follow him on Twitter @patrickshort4

I Was Used

Shimon Shmueli set me up.

He’s the leader of Touch 360, a “strategy, innovation and design” company; he’s got a high-tech industry resume several times longer than my arm, and he was getting ready to speak at an Applied Improvisation Network regional gathering in Portland.

My contribution was to lead a series of warm-ups to the evening focused on design thinking.

I was walking to the front of the room, and Shimon took me aside and told me he thought I should lead the group in Sun and Moon.

Sun and Moon is a simple and profound activity. Participants stand in a circle, and are asked to pick a “sun” and a “moon” from among the other people. They are not to let on who they’ve picked; it’s a secret. When the game starts, they are to move quickly to “become equidistant” from their sun and moon, as fast as they can, and if their targets move on them, they have to keep moving. Chaos ensues. (There’s also a second round, but it’s not germane to the story.) Shimon had seen me run the game at a Portland State University class he teaches on entrepreneurship.

We ran the game, it was fun, and the very bright group of participants completely got the “jolts” of understanding that Sun and Moon offers.

Following another exercise, Shimon started his presentation, Creativity by Emergence and Leadership.

I can’t completely do his thesis justice, but let me try:

Doing something truly new requires intentional creativity.

Improvisation is great for

  • scenario playing and interaction prototyping
  • brainstorming via emotional uplift and allowing failure
  • demonstrating

But if a new product or service or other innovation is a story, does improvisation do the job?

Improvisation is:

  • Process, not product
  • Limited in its resources
  • Sequential, not parallel

Shimon compared improvisation to the TV show Survivor:

  • no overall leaders
  • simple rules
  • safer in large groups
  • steer toward consensus
  • unpredictable, internally and externally
  • players avoid “visibility” (they don’t want to stand out from the group – publicly)
  • common objectives fall apart fast

For design, and true, intentional creativity, you need a story line – setting the stage, anchor points, climax and the end – along with coloration.

Shimon also compared improvisation to swarm theory, and showed us videos of a very large, very active flock of birds.  If it’s “beautiful” or “cool”, it’s because we (the observers) are applying those values.  There is no creativity in what is happening inside the flock. The birds are each reacting to the moves of a group of birds in their immediate vicinity, and are continuously adjusting to aim for the center of that group.

It’s just like Sun and Moon, said Shimon, where the individual participants where simply responding to a couple of simple rules and the moves of their “sun” and “moon” (the birds in their immediate vicinity).

And that’s why we needed to play Sun and Moon. I was used.

Is he right? Is what we do just a series of responses that do not indicate intentional creativity?

Sometimes, yes. But I like to think there’s more to it than that.

Add a few constraints to improv, including some rules, styles (coloration) and a goal, and you can tell a story.

Even if improv performance is not your goal, accepting an improvisational mindset is a great way to lead to intentional creativity – build a great team and turn them loose – with constraints and a goal.

If all you are doing is reacting to the people nearest you, maybe you are just flying around in a flock. Or playing Sun and Moon. It’s fun, it might look beautiful, but it’s not creating anything.

I was used.