‘Bricking it’ Part 2: the results

Five months ago I wrote about an intrepid group of Honours students taking their first steps into the wonderful world of Lego Serious Play. Well, the work is done and the report is in – and the team has allowed me to share it here.

Not only that, but they produced a podcast too! I have some reflections on what happened, but have a look at the report and listen to the podcast first:

Changing the World with Lego podcast

I won’t summarise the findings here — I’ll let the students’ own report speak to those — and the podcast tells a great story about the power of projective, hands-on techniques.

But I do want to reflect on something that kicks off the podcast, and that is how different the whole experience was from how academic work is usually conducted. In the podcast, Max-Luca talks about the disillusionment of his first year of studies as he discovered only how ‘messed up everything is’ and not how to create positive change, something that Marjorie reinforces with her comment about creativity being a ’21st century skill’ that’s not really taught at university. The more fun, open, and participatory way of working presented a major challenge for the students at first. Marga and Charlotte said:

When John said at the beginning of the project, “We will just make this up as we go along,” I think that really shocked me. Oh no, there’s no planning, how do I do this, but it was really good for me to have this more creative project.

To me it was a bit of a challenge because it’s definitely not within my comfort zone… I also think the way we’re taught to approach academia, it’s not through play, we’re taught to take it seriously and everyone takes their jobs and themselves so seriously, and their work is important, but I feel like there are so many benefits to having more playful elements.

Now, I can imagine some colleagues bridling at the thought that we don’t teach positive change, but I think this is a real problem. We — and I’m thinking about the critical social sciences and humanities here — do teach critical thinking, and while we also try to teach how to construct a good argument based on sound evidence, we pay almost no attention to creative thinking. Yet criticism without creativity is mere mud-slinging; creativity without criticism is mere decoration for the status quo.

Not only that, but our claims about good arguments can get in the way of effective change because they reinforce misleading ideas about how knowledge and social change is created. That is, we reinforce ideas that reliable knowledge about anything is to be found in places that apply the rules of scientific social inquiry, all the while forgetting three things: (1) that a very great amount of knowledge is social, practical or even situational knowledge, knowledge gathered through experience and practice; (2) that that effective social change requires people to act in new ways, and while you can manipulate incentives and institutions from above, behaviour responds to norms and values not just incentives; and (3) that distributing our lofty arguments via public communication channels changes pretty much nothing, and indeed can make things worse — Exhibit A: Brexit. Conservatives know this much better than radicals: As Robert Peel put it in 1846, “great public measures cannot be carried by the influence of mere reason.”

I can feel full rant mode coming on, so I will restrain myself. This stuff should be familiar enough to anyone who’s read any pragmatism, interpretivism, any recent philosophy of science. Or has picked up a book on change management or a political biography. Or understands leadership in the sense Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people mean it.

The value of not being overly structured, of not having everything planned out in advance is a recurring theme in the conversation. That’s not to say that there’s no planning, because there is. Facilitators need to be very clear about the aims of a Lego Serious Play session, but it has to be devoted to facilitating participants’ creativity, expression, exploration and meaning-making. You can’t go into workshop thinking that you have to extract information X that’s important for your research question, according to your theory of how the world works. You have to go into it more openly, thinking that the aim is to help them speak their experiences, their perspectives, their priorities, their truths. Otherwise it just doesn’t work — you’ll have wasted your time and theirs.

This is, for me, what makes projective techniques like Lego Serious Play so powerful. It forces us to pose questions that are not entirely driven by our own theoretical and methodological fetishes, and frankly our thinly-disguised contempt for other people’s autonomy and capacities. It is, fundamentally, respectful because it gives space for people to be playful, because it disrupts the hierarchies of knowledge production.

 It’s lego serious play, but it’s so much fun! It really pulls out the fun of the game, right? Even when we’re discussing really hard or complicated topics, people are just sort of laughing a bit while they’re building, and they’re thinking about serious topics but at the same time they’re playing, and that’s super nice.

Caterina

Repeatedly, the team noted that none of this would have been possible with surveys or semi-structured interviews. The hierarchy of knowledge would have got in the way, and the results would have been relatively superficial. Lego Serious Play – like other projective techniques – allowed the team to go deep, which made them wonder about how reliable the knowledge generated by other techniques really was, as they saw the gap between surface and deep qualitative exploration opening up before them.

That’s why the team talk in the podcast about applications for Lego Serious Play in academic research and learning, in making positive change in the world. And why they speak so warmly about how its transofrmed their own approaches.

Caterina, Charlotte, Marga, Marjorie and Max-Luca: thank you. I feel grateful that you let me guide you into Lego Serious Play, but even more grateful that you took hold of this with both hands. I learned from you in every interaction. There’s no higher complement a teacher can give: we learned together.

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