Every Saturday morning as a kid I would haul three large plastic boxes of LEGOs down two flights of stairs into my family’s living room, before dumping them all out on the rug. The red and blue squares would scatter across the floor. The little heads and legs would tumble underneath the glass table. I would disguise my voice, as I mimicked characters I made up on the fly, all of whom were either trying to destroy the world or save it through brute force.
When I played with my LEGOs and acted out each scene, my stutter would disappear. The stress of not being able to speak would subside for a moment as I lent my vocal chords to somebody else. My speech therapist would encourage my parents to create time for me to play with LEGOs, and that was the green light I needed to beg for more pieces as often and as annoyingly as possible. Bingo!
LEGOs also created a special bond between my grandma and me. She was a painter who spent much of her life teaching others the craft, creating her own holiday cards, and producing life-like scenes and portraits on sprawling canvases and walls. She’d figure out ways to gift me new LEGO sets because she loved to watch my brain at work. When Princess Diana died, I constructed a replica of her ceremony. My parents took a picture and sent it to the local newspaper.
As I grew older, LEGOs became less a part of my life. But whenever I had to work through a tough decision or whenever my parents had an awkward talk with me, I remember grabbing a few blocks to fumble with through the dialogue or thought process. When my mind couldn’t work as fast as my hands or mouth, LEGOs were how I communicated.
I no longer stutter, and my grandma has passed away, but my life’s foundation will forever be supported by the influence LEGOs had on my early development and creativity. I know I’m not alone in my experiences.
This past summer, Cambridge University announced that it would be searching for and filling a LEGO Professor of Play, Education, and Learning role that would lead a $6.1 million research department on behalf of the LEGO Foundation. The goal of this program is to better understand how LEGO Serious Play (LSP) could help enterprise business executives and staff solve tough workplace challenges.
Robert Rasmussen, an expert who specializes in LSP, told Quartz that, “[The LSP methodology is] an engine. It’s like a language. It’s a technique without content. It’s a facilitator who asks a question, then the participants build the answer to that question using LEGO bricks, using them metaphorically to add meaning.”
The LSP methodology has been used successfully by organizations like Google, NASA, Coca-Cola, Toyota, and Unilever. And according to Rasmussen, the reason LEGOs are so effective in problem solving is because building something out of the bricks requires the use of one’s hands while the mind is in an unplugged state. He says, “LSP capitalizes on this by asking the hands to find a solution that the mind hasn’t yet been able to on its own.”
For a young kid with a stutter, the hands do the talking and the unplugging, and the result might be a clearer vision or a new persona. In business, the hands help work through tough transformational challenges while the brain rests, and through this play, solutions can come from all corners of the office.
However, not every study or researcher is behind the idea of using LEGOs to solve big business problems.
According to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, when adults are given a set of LEGOs to solve a well-defined problem, their creativity may suffer when tackling subsequent tasks.
The study’s authors, C. Page Moreau and Marit Gundersen Engeset write, “There are a lot of studies that explore what enhances creativity. Ours is one of the few that considers ways in which creativity may be undermined.” They continue, “What we find is that a well-defined problem—in our case, following an explicit set of instructions to build something with LEGOs—can actually hamper creativity in solving future problems.”
The two go on to say that when people use LEGOs to solve well-defined problems and they have success, they’re more likely to tackle other issues with well-defined goals. Meaning, people are then less likely to face off with abstract issues, such as coming up with the next great content marketing idea or campaign.
So we’re left with a group of people saying that LEGOs are powerful tools for developing business solutions, and another group who say that the bricks block creativity. But perhaps there’s an easy way to draw the line here; a clear use case of LEGOs in both creative problem solving and in business innovation.
In marketing, people often confuse the use of “creative” and “innovation.” While innovation is sometimes creative, not all creative outcomes are innovative. Innovation most often refers to the simplification or refinement of a process that we didn’t know we needed, while creativity may just be the introduction of a new perspective. There are similarities, but just as many differences.
According to a study by Rice University, the University of Edinburgh, and Brunel University, creativity and innovation are not sufficiently integrated in either the business world or academic research.
Jim Shou, the Houston Endowment Professor of Management at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, and co-authors, say that creativity and innovation are complex, multilevel phenomena that pan out over time and require skillful leadership to maximize the benefits of new ways of working. However, most companies aren’t facilitating environments for creativity or innovation or both.
Using the LSP methodology to jumpstart creative thinking can be a powerful way to move employees toward innovation solutions. The main difference between the study published in the Journal of Marketing Research and the LSP methodology that Rasmussen advocates for is that one recalls an experiment that requires participants to meet a defined end goal, while the latter simply states a problem, and unleashes a room of hungry minds to find several possible answers.
So while giving LEGOs to a group of people tasked with reaching a well-defined goal might harm their future efforts, there are use cases where LEGOs can liberate our minds and allow us to see challenges from a new vantage point.
My grandma always used to say that I’d be an engineer when I grew up because I played with LEGOs so much. At the time, all I wanted to do was build something the world could see and use.
But LEGOs help kids develop other, less noticeable skills. These small bricks create a space that forces the mind to problem solve on the spot.
“I want to build a spaceship, and these are the pieces I have available to me, so I have to make it work.”
They give you the means to develop a world only you can imagine, and that has to be the underlying benefit to the LSP methodology. The solution might be something only you can come up with, and there are tools out there to help, so long as you’re able and willing to open your mind one brick at a time.
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