On a Wednesday morning in June 2017, I find myself in Menlo Park, California, sharing a small table in a faux-European coffee shop with a woman I’ll call Julia — and I’m making a duck out of Legos.
Outside, it’s sunny and warm. A late-morning breeze ruffles the big brightly colored umbrellas above the tables in the plaza. Inside, young techies gaze up at the chalkboard menu above the counter and sit at tables, clicking at laptops. Django Reinhardt’s guitar emanates from hidden speakers. Nobody pays any attention to the two gray-haired people sitting over near the window with their plastic toys.
Julia and I have never met before. She’s a cheery, round-faced woman in her fifties with a disarming smile and an easy laugh. Julia arrived carrying a big canvas bag filled with Legos, and they’re now scattered out on the table. As we’re making small talk, she plays with the pieces, idly snapping and unsnapping them. Soon, between sips of my caffè Americano and bites of a remarkably good almond croissant, I start tinkering with the Legos too.
A few years earlier, I briefly worked at a Silicon Valley–style startup in Boston, a disastrous experience I chronicled in my last book, before getting a job as a writer on the HBO comedy Silicon Valley.
Today, I have returned to the setting of that show — which, while a real place, is also a state of mind — not for fun, but for research. For the past two years, I have made it my mission to speak to as many people as I can to better understand the modern workplace and why work today seems to make so many people unhappy. My theory is that at least some of the unhappiness at work comes from being herded into silly workshops where people are fed a bunch of touchy-feely nonsense about self-improvement and transformation.
Why does work now involve such infantilization?
That’s how I’ve come to be on this coffee date. Julia makes a living running the weirdest kind of corporate workshops I’ve heard about so far. In Julia’s workshops, she asks people, office workers like I once was, to play with Legos. This is an actual thing now, and the people who teach this take it very seriously. The methodology is called Lego Serious Play, and Julia is one of thousands of people who have become certified to run LSP workshops. Huge companies, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and Google, have embraced it.
When I first heard about Lego workshops, I thought someone was pulling my leg. I was talking to a corporate trainer — I’ll call him Edward — who said, “You know, you should talk to some of my friends who are certified in Legos.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’m serious,” he said. He insisted that Lego training really helps people get better at their jobs. “It’s powerful,” Edward said. “The Legos are a prop. They help get people to talk about how they feel about things, unfiltered. It’s like kids who have been abused and they talk through a doll. People talk through their Legos.”
Oh dear God. I closed my eyes and pictured a bunch of poor Jims and Pams talking through their Legos, pouring their hearts out to a team of New Age quacks. This could be either the worst thing or the best thing I might ever see in my entire life. Maybe both.
Edward gave me a name and a number. Soon I was talking to one of the top Lego trainers in the world, a man who lives in Southern California. He put me in touch with Julia, who lives in Silicon Valley, a few miles from where I’m staying.
I’m a little disappointed, because I came here expecting, and actually half hoping, to meet a complete nutjob or a shyster. Unfortunately, Julia appears to be neither. She’s very bright and really sincere. She has a master’s degree in engineering and spent two decades writing software inside some serious organizations. Moreover, I really like her. I don’t want to make fun of her. And yet — here we are, in a coffee shop, playing with Legos.
“It gets people talking,” Julia says. She tells me about the brain science that supposedly explains how Lego Serious Play works. There is, in fact, a body of scholarly-looking research around LSP discussing things like the cerebral cortex and the limbic system. Julia says LSP is especially useful with software programmers, who tend to be introverts, because it creates a “safe space” where they can talk. Lego workshops also help Type A top executives stop being such overbearing assholes and can even be a catalyst for changing an entire organization, she claims. I can see why HR departments go nuts for this. HR people used to be glorified office managers, but now they get MBAs and are called Chief People Officers. They talk about being “strategic talent managers” who “drive corporate transformation” and are “building the workforce of the future.” They’re suckers for pop neuroscience, and though most wouldn’t know an amygdala from an anal wart, they will jump on anything that they think can rewire the brain circuitry of their employees. Lego Serious Play promises to do just that and comes wrapped in just enough scientific-sounding literature to make it seem legitimate.
To me, these sessions sound like a waking nightmare, like a cross between an est seminar and group therapy, with the added insult of toys. Julia swears it’s not like that. Sure, some people are pretty skeptical at first, but they’re quickly won over.
In just the past few years, LSP has become a booming industry. There are LSP consultancies and LSP conferences. People write LSP books, LSP white papers, and LSP articles on LSP websites. There’s even a Global Federation of LSP Master Trainers. The concept was created in the 1990s by two business professors in Switzerland who drew on research in psychology and educational theory. Over time, people started adding in theories about brain science. By one estimate, more than 10,000 people have become certified Lego facilitators and more than 100,000 people have participated in Lego workshops.
Lego Serious Play has grown by attaching itself to another corporate training fad: Agile. Agile has become immensely popular in the corporate world and has evolved into something akin to a religion. It’s also now a huge industry unto itself, with conferences, consultancies, trainers, gurus, and literally thousands of books devoted to its teaching. A few years ago a lot of Agile trainers started getting certifications in Lego Serious Play, since the concepts behind Lego and Agile are considered complementary. That’s how Julia got into this. She began her career as a computer engineer, but about 10 years ago she became a programming coach—someone who teaches coders how to code. To do that, Julia needed to get a certification in Agile. Later, she added Legos to her bag of tricks.
Julia produces a little plastic bag and spills out six Lego bricks: two red, three yellow, and then another yellow one that has eyeballs on two sides.
“Make a duck,” she says. “You have 30 seconds.”
For a moment, I sit there just looking at the six plastic blocks. The image that pops into my head is a squeaky yellow bathtub duck, like the chubby rubber ducky that Ernie sings about on Sesame Street. Somehow I must combine these six rectangular Lego blocks into something that resembles a rubber ducky. The head part is obvious. But what about the others? The two red pieces are flat slabs with six knobs. Does one sit on top of the duck’s head, like a hat? I hate things like this — Rubik’s Cubes, Sudoku puzzles. I hate them because I suck at them, and I never know the trick to solving the puzzle, so I just sit there flailing away. Or I just surrender and sit there staring at the cube, with the same look on my face that my cat has when he looks at the TV, wondering how those little birds got inside the box.
The clock is ticking. I start snapping and unsnapping. I feel frantic, while Julia sits there, calm as Buddha, with a bemused expression. Of course, she knows the answer. She has watched hundreds of people, maybe thousands, try to solve this. I wonder what percentage of people succeed. I wonder where I rate among all those people. I suspect I’m near the bottom.
This puzzle might be a kind of IQ test, and if so, I’m about to land in a very low percentile. Or it could be a Rorschach test, a puzzle that reveals something about my personality. Oh, he’s one of those, I imagine Julia thinking. Companies could use the duck puzzle to evaluate workers and separate the wheat from the chaff. The good problem solvers get marked for promotion. The ninnies, like me, get put on the list for the next round of layoffs.
In a panic, I try a new configuration. This too does not work. I break up the bricks and start over. A child could do this, I tell myself. And yet I cannot.
Julia sighs, which I think is the signal that my 30 seconds are up. Quickly, I snap together a four-piece duck, leaving two bricks on the table.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That’s all I could do.”
She picks up my duck and looks at it. In addition to using only four bricks, I’ve put the head on sideways. Julia gently unsnaps the head and puts it on so that it’s facing the right way.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, stammering. “I think I got nervous. I know there must be a way to use all the pieces, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t see it. Maybe if I had more time. I don’t know.”
“What makes you think you have to use all six bricks?” Julia says. “I never said how many bricks you had to use. All I said was make a duck.”
She gives me a little smile, as if to say, Gotcha!
You know these workshops are pointless, but to keep your job, you must play along.
It turns out that Make a Duck is the best-known exercise in the Lego Serious Play canon, and this is its lesson — that everyone makes a different duck. The duck is not a puzzle, or a brainteaser, or an IQ test. The duck is a window into your soul. Why did I assume that I had to use all the pieces? Why did I think it was a puzzle, or an IQ test? Why was I so afraid of failing? I hate to admit this, but in less than a minute, with a half-dozen plastic bricks, this woman has gutted me like a fish and laid bare my neuroses.
But then something else occurs to me.
“Are you telling me I could just snap any two bricks together and call it a duck?”
“Sure,” she says.
“Or I could just hand you back a single brick and say, ‘Here you go, here’s my duck.’”
“Whatever you make, that’s your duck. That’s how you make a duck. And your duck is different from everyone else’s duck. Besides, these aren’t ducks, are they? They’re representations of a duck. They’re metaphors for a duck.”
I have to give Julia credit. She has an answer for everything. There’s no way to shake her faith in Legos. What’s more, she genuinely believes she is helping people. And maybe she is. A lot of people benefit from going to church, and I don’t begrudge them their beliefs.
Lego workshops are just one example of the nonsense that is creeping into the workplace. A lot of Agile trainers also do workshops with Play-Doh. In another game, called Six Thinking Hats, people put on different-colored hats and role-play. In something called the Ball Point Game, teams compete to find the fastest way to pass tennis balls into a bucket, fire-brigade style. Do a search for “Ball Point Game” on YouTube and you can watch fully sentient adult human beings actually doing this at work.
Why now? Why has the workplace become a cross between a kindergarten and a Scientology assessment center? Why do our offices now have decor that looks like a Montessori preschool, with lots of bright, basic colors? Why does work now involve such infantilization?
I suspect it’s because companies are afraid. We live in an age of chaos, a period when entire industries are collapsing. We’re headed into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and facing “transformation… unlike anything humankind has experienced before,” says Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum. Even the biggest, most powerful companies in the world are threatened with extinction. To survive, the Big Old Companies must evolve and recode their DNA. That means replacing or transforming their people, which is why they’re digging into our brains and trying to rewire our circuits.
But what does all this psychological poking and prodding do to us? The problem isn’t just that these exercises are pointless and silly. For a lot of people, this stuff can be really stressful. For older workers — say, people over 50 — these workshops compound the fear they already have about being pushed out of their jobs. But younger workers hate them too. “It feels like you’ve joined a cult,” says a thirtysomething software programmer whose department spent a day doing a Lego workshop. “The purpose seems to be to indoctrinate people to follow orders.”
You find yourself being gaslighted, immersed in the kind of shared psychosis and group delusion found in cults. You know these workshops are pointless, and that no one is going to be transformed by Legos. But to keep your job, you must play along. You must deliver a performance and convince management that you are flexible, adaptable, and open to change, the kind of engaged, dynamic worker who meets the needs of the new economy. Basically the company is conducting a large-scale experiment in organizational behavior. They’d like to test out some theories on you. So you all go into the box, and you are poked and prodded with various stimuli to see how you respond.
Your office has become a psychology laboratory, run by a bunch of quacks. You’re not a duck. You’re a lab rat.