Using Legos to debug communication issues


One of the newly hired instructional designers on my team told me of a time when he used Legos in facilitating a workshop he did with a client. I know what you’re thinking — workshops, facilitation, Legos — he used Legos to get people to make their ideas tangible rather than just talking about it. I thought that’s what he was going to say as well, until he started talking about how he used the process of building Lego as a metaphor for the daily operations that happens at the company, which externalized the mental models that the different teams had about how work was being done, in order to diagnose the workflow for breakdowns in communication.

The client team that participated included the business analysts, systems analysts, and engineers. They were having communications breakdowns that affected their ability to deliver results. So they brought my coworker in to help.

  • The customer facing business analysts understand the big picture from the customers’ point of view, but can’t always translate that to the requirements that engineers could understand.
  • The engineers have the tools to solve the problem, but they aren’t always clear what the problem is that they’re trying to solve.
  • The business analysts act as the translators between the two groups, but the projects are so diverse that they don’t have a system for scaling their efforts across multiple projects.

What they needed was a system that everyone could abide by in order to collaborate more effectively.

My coworker bought several Lego kits from the store and separated the image of the assembled kit, the instructions, and the pieces. He then gave the images of what the final assembly looks like to the business analysts, some of the instructions to the system analysts, and the pieces required to make the assembly to the Engineers. He then asked the three groups to work with each other to build the assembly while hiding from each other what they have in their hands. Using Lego as a metaphor, he was able to extract the communication aspect of the complex projects that the groups worked together on and ground it in a context that’s better understood by all parties. He can rotated the teams so the engineers were instructing the business analysts what they wanted built and vice versa. The exercise created a shared understanding among the parties and allowed them find common language to resolve the problems they had.

Another new member of my team commented today that “you have to step out of your own reality in order to see it.” While she said that in a totally different context, it really is the essence of the Lego exercise. When you’re working on a project day in and day out, you don’t really see the nuances of your everyday actions because that’s just “the way things are” — there is only one reality. Just like if you asked a goldfish what water is, the goldfish would look at you with a confused face and ask “what’s water?” But if you filled the tank one day with water and the other with beer (don’t try this at home), then the goldfish might actually develop a vocabulary (i.e. boop vs burrp). People know that they know how to assemble Lego, so when they encounter difficulties trying to assemble the Lego together, the contrast can help them identify where the breakdown happens.

This isn’t unlike a story I heard from Glen Drummond in one of the classes he taught about how he used the image of a park to get people from various departments of a software company to agree on what they want the user interface to look like. Because everyone understood the facade of a park, the metaphor allowed them to arrive at a common language that they could use in the context of the user interface design.

Another example I heard about was at a conference recently when one of the attendees I had met told me about her thesis project on the conflict between the Isreal and Palestine. She uncovered through her research that the biggest barrier to resolution is the conflicting narratives that both sides have about the conflict. Before a plan to resolve the conflict is even considered, the two sides must first agree on exactly what’s happening.

We are living in a time when it is imperative for experts of different disciplines to work together to create big, bold ideas and tackle systemic challenges. Communication has never been a more critical capability to master. Next time when you run into a communication problem, ask the question of

how might we use a simple metaphor to establish a common language?
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