Lego ModelThe story of the Lego® Serious Play® method, now widely applied in small and large organisations globally, is an interesting one.

The LEGO Company, despite being in the business of creativity, decided that the manner in which it developed its own strategy was decidedly uncreative. In addition, the company was facing huge pressures as video games had begun to enter the market. The trend of children growing up before their time meant less young people were asking for Lego bricks at Christmas. Kirk Kristiansen, CEO of LEGO, decided that it was time to get imaginative and create a new, lived strategy for the LEGO Company, one that departed markedly from more traditional approaches. But how?

He looked to Professors Bart Victor and Johan Roos from IMD in Switzerland. This business school had been assisting the LEGO Company leaders with their own professional growth and development. The prof’s and Kristiansen departed from many of the same points: they believed that approaches to developing strategy had much room for improvement, that people are central to organisational success and that they can and want to do well.  Strategy should not be static, but rather created and lived every day.

Together they embarked upon a journey of research and development, hoping to formulate a superior, effective and creative approach to setting business strategy. They established a LEGO subsidiary called Executive Discovery Ltd, and agreed that the work would be funded as a new approach for LEGO to use inside the company. The subsidiary offered the advantage of being able to carry out academic work within in a real-world setting.

The task at hand required much iteration and live-session prototyping with companies. Finally the team came upon a process that was found to work consistently across different groups in a robust and reproducible way.  A new way forward was emerging. They called it Lego® Serious Play®.

A large part of the appeal for companies was the way in which the method provided a unique opportunity for groups to see the systems in which they were located, with roles, relationships, and culture, and to test those systems with different scenarios. Organisations today compete within ‘complex adaptive systems’ which have  emergent properties, making it less clear cut to predict how one change may alter an entire system. The Lego® Serious Play® Application Techniques (building individual models, building shared models, creating a landscape, making connections, building a system, playing emergence and decisions, and extracting simple guiding principles) draw on research into complex adaptive systems. They act as scenario planning tools, allowing us to imagine the future and its variants, and to debate them with visual aids.

Lego® Serious Play® requires 100% participation, everyone must lean in and contribute as wisdom is considered to be in the system – a useful touch for our distracted age. It activates, extends and releases new thinking, valuable in our age of high innovation. The facilitated process of construction, where Lego bricks serve as metaphors, is said to function as a language that connects within and between brains. Building shared models connects individual thinking into collective wisdom and can rally teams around a central focus or goal. The method is used for a wide range of personal, team and business development topics. Facilitators must be trained to work with the method.

It is seldom that we have the pragmatics right at our feet for unlocking new thinking, breaking habitual thinking, and jointly designing new futures. But here it is.

Have you tried Lego Serious Play at work?




It is not possible to predict the future with much accuracy. So says Nassim Taleb, whose deep and considered work concerns problems of randomness, probability and uncertainty. Exposure to unknowns is amplifying and our world, calibrated by rapid rates of change and technological advancement, seems increasingly complex. While some individuals appear to relish change and complexity, discovering within it treasure troves of opportunity, others primarily experience stress and anguish. Our task as leaders and citizens of the world is to set the conditions for more relish and less anguish. So should we focus our efforts on building personal and organisational resilience? Probably not.

We need to go beyond resilience in order to thrive through chaos. While the resilient can take shocks, they stay the same. Staying the same or copying more of what we already know or do is risky strategy in times of turbulence and change. To go from zero to one, we need to keep learning and growing. We need to go beyond building resilience. Taleb describes the ideal state as ‘antifragile’. This is when you encounter change, or possibly even chaos, and you learn from it so that you emerge differently, stronger. The job after all is not to catch up to the current status quo, but rather to create it (Seth Godin’s famous mantra).

Building antifragile

Virginia Satir is an important figure in the history of systemic therapy. Her model of change details how we transition from a late status quo, through resistance and chaos, to a new status quo. It was developed to assist individuals to move through dramatic personal change, and is successfully applied in organisations.

There are 5 phases to the Satir Change Model:

  1. Late status quo: a period of relative familiarity, comfort and balance with established routines. The balance is likely not ideal, but the system maintains it. We may not speak up about poorly performing team members, or resist changing ways of doing things that are no longer working for us.

Enter the Foreign Element, something that the system can no longer deny, internally or externally. It could be a randomly generated event. The balance is now destroyed. Examples could be a technological change or other factor that invalidates position in market, or attrition rates of employees / customers tipping over a tolerable edge.

  1. Resistance: the natural repertoire of response to a foreign invader is ignoring, rejecting, denying, blaming or trying to swallow the element within established practice. Another tactic might be to try and ‘wait out’ a change initiative.
  2. Chaos: confusion typically ensues around what to do and how, and the discomfort with uncertainty is usually pervasive and palpable. Loss aversion kicks in and there may be a search for the familiarity of the old status quo.

Enter the Transforming Idea. Astute leaders recognise that change cannot be entirely mapped out in advance and forced through with inflexible plans. They create an experience of change where transforming ideas can and are encouraged to surface, where ideas get recognised, and where learning and discovery is prized.

  1. Integration: the phase of learning about new practices and new tools. Energy lifts and excitement starts to build for what could be. More ideas mean more experimentation. Some ideas will not work, and systems can fall back into chaos. Indeed there are organisations that oscillate between chaos and integration, stuck in a liminal phase where no benefits are ever truly realised. Is your organisation one of these? A quick succession of new leaders, each looking to make their mark, can stir up this state.
  2. New status quo: supportive environments and continued enrichment assist with moving from chaos towards positive resolution. Familiarity with new ways starts to settle in and ‘the way things get done around here’ becomes established and known, providing relief and relaxation.

Your responses to the events of life are more important than the events themselves. – Virginia Satir

The model is valuable as it provides one tool for dealing with major unexpected change. In my mind, I see how this thinking is actually aiming at building ‘antifragile’. I find Virginia Satir to be a source of inspiration in our digital age, reminding us of what is important but may be forgotten. The principles informing Satir’s view of transformational change are:

  • experiential (encouraging a full and meaningful perception of one’s own life),
  • systemic (interacting with others, past, present, future, and environment),
  • positively directional (generating new interpretations of experiences with the help of others, a positive approach, strengthening personal resources)
  • focused on getting to know one’s self better.

Satir energetically urges us to tune into our own wisdoms, to get excited about who we are, what we are, and what can still be for us. Implicit in this approach is not resilience but rather a relish for the positive opportunity that lies in wait. Satir was one of few therapists to record her therapeutic sessions with individuals and groups. This is a courageous move, one I see repeated recently in a podcast from Esther Perel, another highly on-point therapist whose work extends to the corporate sphere. Perel records her live session with two business partners going separate ways. It is a fascinating listen. The transcripts of Satir’s work reveal a deeply human figure, vigorously and faithfully extending a hand, a connection to those struggling to make sense of the chaos in which they find themselves. These are human problems, she often says, normalising the feelings overwhelming her clients. The main goals of her work were to raise self-esteem, boost decision-making skills, become responsible and achieve congruence. With these in place, conflict in the family could be minimised. We can see why these goals have a salience wider than the institution of the family, notably, within the institutions of business. Her approach is humble, honest and responsible.

The cycles of Stair’s model of change continue, but perhaps it feels as though they are speeding up. We are familiar with and have extensively applied a modus operandi of clarity and direction, which is expected of strong and successful leaders especially in more changeable times. And yet rushing for certainty too quickly could trap us into a state of diminishing returns, where we oscillate between chaos and integration. Satir’s hand of connection through change was vigorous and positively directional, but she pushed insight, decision-making skills, responsibility and congruence. With these factors, unproductive conflict in the system was reduced.

A new status quo

Leaders largely control the resources of the system and set the conditions for learning and experimentation within it. When foreign elements appear and descent into chaos looms, leaders can strip employees of their autonomy and contribution. This is perhaps where we are now, the “late status quo” in Satir’s model. Or, perhaps they may choose to empower humans to become antifragile, to navigate chaos and surface transforming ideas for experimentation and implementation. In this scenario, as leaders we may be able to offer less clarity, and as employees our agency and responsibility may rise. We all need to get used to these shifts. But the probability that we will thrive through chaos will surely go up.

Some groups coalesce to form more than the sum of their parts. They go beyond ‘performing’. We concluded in the first article on this topic, that the secret sauce for achieving truly transformational goals lies in the commitment to building and nurturing social capital.

Academically we now know that highly successful groups are underwritten by their efforts in three critical areas: building psychological safety, being vulnerable (so that they can move to being invulnerable), and having purpose. But how do we put this knowledge into practice? Strategy without backing is as useful as no strategy at all. Fortuitously, culture is a non-linear system, meaning that small changes can have a big impact. What if we could identify and experiment with a few small changes?

This post is dedicated to experiments with small actions. Perhaps you’ll share your experiments with us over time.

  1. Build safety
  • Change the format of a meeting (or part of a meeting) into a standing circle. Physical proximity and eye contact are important factors for building safety.
  • Ask one beautiful question a day at work (tips on asking more beautiful questions here).
  • Say ‘thank you’ more each day.
  1. Share vulnerability
  • The next time there is a strong difference of opinion, try responding with “I am interested in what you are saying. Tell me more about why you don’t agree.”

Vulnerability is the willingness to show up when we can’t control the outcome says Brene Brown. Discussing emotional turmoil and a sense of inefficiency is uncomfortable but necessary. Showing fear or uncertainty can be a valuable precursor to deeper insights. Tough conversations help groups to build shared mental models to navigate the future.

  1. Establish purpose
  • Answer these questions about the work your organisation does, then ask 3 people you work with too: “What’s this all for? What are we working toward?”

Purpose is like a story that gets retold between a present moment and a future ideal. Simple beacons repeatedly focus attention and engagement on a shared goal. Humans are very responsive to patterns of signaling, our brains light up in response to story. In the words of Dan Coyle: ‘Stories are not just stories. They are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behaviour.”


There is likely to be a part three in this series, with the next post exploring new work on methods for building social capital at work.

Click here to read the first post “On the heels of Social Capital – beyond performing teams”.

This series has also been published on Talent Talks.


Some groups are more than the sum of their parts. They go beyond ‘performing’, beyond achieving financial targets, beyond balancing stakeholder needs.

Despite our best efforts to create perfect teams, a large number remain best on paper, an elite collection of IQs, track records, qualifications, agreeableness and inspiration, mostly as individuals. Others amalgamate to deliver profound impact. They appear to craft and refine a special type of relational capital, interacting with closeness, conflict and purpose. Reaching a ‘performing’ state is a not a desired end goal. There is always more. They coalesce to drive a larger agenda, running as thread between them, and only fully realised through their collective.

Relational capital, also known as social capital, is not built over-night. But it is increasingly badged as the secret sauce of transformative groups. So what is it? And are we already building it in our organisations?

Social capital refers to the functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships. It is the shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity within a group. It may seem that we already invest in building this kind of interaction with teams. Yet if we unpack what makes some groups exceptional at problem-solving and innovation, drawing on the work of Daniel Coyle, we note that highly successful groups are underwritten by efforts in three critical areas:

·      Building psychological safety

·      Being vulnerable (so that they can move to being invulnerable)

·      Having a purpose.

Are we explicitly tacking these kinds of issues in our work with teams? I would argue that in many ways, we are only touching the tip of the relational capital iceberg. It is certainly more fashionable to question, although we are still accepting and building the skills to do so, and the skills to speak up. Think of the continuum emerging from the radical candor of Kim Scott, moving right along to Ray Dalio’s radical truth and transparency. These are far from ‘the way things get done around here’ in most organizations, especially large legacy ones.

Margaret Heffernan insists that for good ideas and true innovation, human interaction is necessary, but it is not a measured, ‘objective’ roundtable debate of consensus seeking. Conflict and argument are essential, she notes, between motivated people who share bonds of loyalty and trust. Suddenly the ‘as is’ state starts to digress significantly from the ‘want to be’. Very few leaders intentionally create conflict and argument at work. In the face of conflict, most shy away or manage down. We do not trust much at work either. The gap seems big.

But investing in building relational or social capital as a ‘want to be’ state is likely to pay high dividends. At the most human level, as pressure intensifies, leaders and their teams are already fraying under the toxic pressure to deliver and to go beyond. Performing teams will need to go beyond, without burning out. Relational capital is the currency to shore up when chasing broader, transformative or game changing ambitions.

Thanks to the work of people such as Margaret Heffernan and Daniel Colye, we have a much richer understanding of the principles at play. The skills of highly successful groups are not predestined, they can be built, and many of them are ready to apply in our work with groups.

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‘Balance is becoming increasingly rare and perceivably impossible to achieve in today’s world. Despite technology making our lives easier, we appear to have far less time.’ – Richard Sutton

The highly energetic biological state of stress is an adaptation that has served us well. It has provided humans with possibilities to flourish through shifting and disruptive times. The intricate stress system with its delicate balance of hormones has protected us for the buffer up lessons in thriving from the Stress codelongest time. Short bouts of stress serve to strengthen and enhance our abilities, and provide us with remarkable openings to develop, invent and transform. Ironically, this same system of resilience and growth now poses a threat to our fullest functioning. How is this the case?

The stress axis works best when sporadically activated. Increasingly we are getting ‘stuck’ in the stress state, with potentially disastrous implications. Constant activation causes systemic exhaustion, promoting both disease and pain, and accelerating ageing. Prolonged stress has been shown to negatively impact our memory, focus, attention, cognitive potential and levels of motivation. It also destabilises our DNA, compromising our genetic integrity. This damage could impact future generations. Continued stress puts a final spoke in a constellation of already undesirable outcomes, and it is this: a compromised ability to deal with change. If you are stuck in your own cocktail of stress hormones, take heed: you’re choosing an injurious path for your physical, mental and future self.

The Whitehall studies, which evaluated over 28000 people over 40 years, showed a primary driver of stress to be the feeling of having no authority over decisions. A lack of control can increase risk of dying prematurely by a staggering 40%. Responsibility and high demands don’t seem to be the cause of stress, but injustice, lack of social support, isolation and effort-reward imbalance certainly do cause it.

Should stress be avoided at all costs? Certainly not, says stress resilience expert Richard Sutton. Stress is an essential part of activating our rich human potential for growth. But we should think more carefully about the choices we make, and how we increase the tools and skills at our disposal to buffer the adverse effects of stress. Armed with more knowledge, leaders and people-enablers in the workplace can start to unpick the impact they have on others.

How can we manage our own stress footprints, and create better conditions for others at work?

  • Aim to give more control to those around us. This starts out hard at first, but rewards in multiple ways over the longer term as skills, experience and confidence build.
  • Support skills development (partly through experimenting with bullet point number one!)
  • Reward positive behaviours, this is more effective than reducing demands.
  • Allow for more participation in decision-making, practically. Think about the small ways in which you can start to signal and to do this.
  • Be fair, champion justice, call out antisocial behaviour. Facilitate mutual engagement.
  • Provide support where it is needed.

Showing compassion and support in and of itself is a worthwhile exercise in stress management. Caring for others and acts of charity elevate levels of oxytocin, which lowers fear responses, promotes calm, connectedness and optimism (as well as lowers blood pressure, protects our nervous and circulatory systems, and is a trigger for growth and repair in the body). Pro-social behaviour dramatically negates the negative impact of stress on health.

Creating buffers against stress is less complicated than trying to shift whole systems. We cannot control everything in our midst. But some relatively small changes can have a positive impact.

For more ideas, read The Stress Code, by Richard Sutton. It provides a deeper dive into the scientific research, as well as a repository of insights and tools that promote human thriving.

Follow Gaylin on Twitter: @gaylinjee

The more we compete, the less we gain. In business we call this the race to the bottom.

Chan Kim and Mauborgne popularised the term Red Oceans to indicate markets that are saturated markets, bloody with cutthroat competition. In Red Oceans, ‘match and beat’ strategies lead to competitive convergence where products and services are largely similar. Competing happens at best through marginal improvements in cost, quality, or both. Products become commoditised as competitors strive to outperform their each other and sustain a share of market. With many rivals competing for limited attention in crowded market spaces, prospects for growth are slim.

Blue Oceans are new market spaces. They are unknown, uncontested and thus naturally desirable. You move into Blue Oceans through following paths that are untested. A new hotel chain would compete in a Red Ocean (as there are already many successful hotel chains out there). When AirBnB was created, it played in a new Blue Ocean.

Doing more of the same becomes a formula that delivers diminishing returns. If you are copying the most successful companies you can think of, you are not learning from them, says Peter Thiel, author of  Zero to One. Shane Parrish, from Farnam Street Blog, reinforces the same message with his statement: “There simply is no formula for success. Giving up that notion might be the most helpful thing you can do today.”

Creativity is however, by its very nature, disturbing. Both at school and at work, we are conditioned to apply logic, solve puzzles, to find and give the right answer. We are less inducted into generating possibilities, ‘seeing’ the possible magic. We look for formulas that are ready to run and reliable. Yet as the pace of our world increases, exposure to unknowns amplify. And when situations are unfamiliar it is best to approach them as curious mysteries, rather than attempt to solve them as puzzles based on a logic that worked before. A new set of muscles must be built.


Paradoxically, humans by their very nature are designed to create, to make meaning. We are the only animals that can invent new things and better ways of making them. And yet the experience of work for most people is mired in tasks that machines can already complete much better than us – repetitive, monotonous tasks. In the future, increased automation can free us up for safer, interesting and more purposeful work. We will need to build and flex our creative muscles, rediscovering and refining our human contribution at work.

The good news is that we have plenty of tools at our disposal to explore the magic that humans bring. Take Lego® Serious Play® as one such method. It invokes the Flow states described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known as being ‘in the zone’, a mental state of operation where a person is immersed in energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity. Research shows that people who have experiencedthis state of mind report higher levels of productivity, creativity and happiness for up to three days after experiencing flow state. A facilitated Lego® Serious Play® session opens the mind to new ideas, helps to solve complex challenges, and secures alignment and commitment. By ensuring everyone participates and contributes, the quality of time spent together is measurably enhanced. It secures 100% participation (useful in our distracted age), breaks habitual thinking and sets constructive, insight-rich spaces for teams to model and align the present and the future.

Another tool is the The GC Index®, an organimetric that employs a strengths-based approach. It identifies and nourishes the naturally different inclinations for individual leaders to contribute at work. This instrument is scalable to whole organisations and provides a common language of innovation, mapping out the role everyone plays in game changing teams and outputs. There is no perfect leader within this model, but rather many leadership styles, offering diverse insights and co-ordinated action.

These are two examples of work-based tools that enable humans to face the future in positive and creative ways. They are just the tip of the iceberg.

A robotic future working alongside machines will force us to learn how to be better at being human. Creativity will become a business-essential for securing the game changing outputs needed for a Fourth Industrial Revolution future. We need people in Flow at work, creating amazing things to make the shift from ‘compete’ to create, from Red to Blue Ocean. It is time to step out of the race to the bottom, as humans, as businesses, to move beyond the relentless clamber for competitive advantage and growth at all costs, suited and glamorized on countless cover pages of business magazines across the globe.

Are you ready to create?

Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. – James Clear, Atomic Habits.


A significant chunk of our waking time is spent on autopilot, up to 45% according to Duke University research. In this state we are barely aware of the many, minute behaviours that make up each day.

There is good reason for this habitual repetition. Our brain, the ultra-efficient processor, is adept at saving energy. It would be impossible for the brain to plan, guide and monitor every action of every day. Rather, it focuses selectively (remember the selective attention test where you had to count the number of times players pass a ball? Watch a version of it here), defaulting to preferred and established pathways where possible, saving power for other needs. Default responses are activated by cues in the environment, initiated without intention and run to completion with minimal conscious control. We call them habits. They take around 90 days to establish and are notoriously difficult to shift.

Habits built on past experience may have been useful at some point, but not all of them are necessarily desirable. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg spent 120 weeks on various New York Times bestseller lists, suggesting that there is fair appetite for changing our less wanted habits.

Changing our habits

Habits work in a 3-step loop: cue, routine, reward. We can change our habits by changing the ‘routine’ part of the loop. Experimenting with identifying the cues, changing the routine and ascertaining whether we are still experiencing the same reward is the method proposed by Duhigg for changing a habit.

To give an example, Duhigg explains how he was in the habit of eating a chocolate biscuit each afternoon at around 3 o clock. He tried going for a walk instead of heading to the restaurant for the biscuit – changing the routine – but his craving for the sweet treat persisted. A little more experimentation with alternative routines led him to discover that a 5-10 minute chat with colleagues seemed to produce the same reward, that is, he had forgotten all about the chocolate biscuit. The ‘social interaction’ routine is replacing the ‘biscuit-eating’ routine. Over time this change of habit will stem a steady weight gain and leave a few more pennies in the pocket.

Getting started 

If you are struggling to get started, the trick according to habits expert James Clear is to start small, aim to improve one thing by one percent, do it in less than two minutes and do it again tomorrow.

The most critical habit to build, perhaps we can see it as a super-habit, is the habit of willpower. Willpower spills over into all aspects of life. It is strengthened by making conscious efforts: factor one activity into each day that requires a lot of discipline, delay gratification in small amounts.

Willpower is also positively impacted through preserving a degree of autonomy, where you have latitude to decide on and complete your own tasks. A lack of autonomy can be a profound stressor, as noted by Richard Sutton in his work “The Stress Code” (the likely topic of a future blog).

The sum of our autopilots

We hope for complex organizational challenges to be solved through a revised strategy, a new leadership mandate, a restructuring or the digital transformation. And yet it is the sum of all the little habits, the organisational autopilot, that makes the organisation what it is and directs what it achieves.

In a world where trust is reported as low – a condition negatively impacting relationships, engagement, voluntary effort, innovation, organisational alignment, stakeholder confidence and overall business results – raising our awareness of the autopilot, all those minute actions that build trust or deplete it, is a useful undertaking.

As leaders, we can go way beyond just ‘doing what we say we will do’. We can build the habits that build trust, and aim to change the ones that diminish it.

I have selected two (of a total of nine) habits that build trust, outlined by John Blakely:

  1. Go beyond the profit motive to deliver random acts of kindness to your stakeholders.
  2. Help others to deliver on their promises, through coaching and mentoring.


What do you repeatedly do, that makes you the leader you are? What can you do right now to establish habits that build trust?


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