On Lego and Other Matters

Many years ago, I was in charge of learning and development for a major company.  Much of the work was administrative, planning programs, staffing, course scheduling and discussing course content with line managers.  But I loved the training courses, taking part in the sessions and interacting with the participants.

Some courses were highly structured.  Having decided early in my teaching career that learning through seminars and workshops was far preferable to delivering lectures, it was something of a shock to be instructed on how to run a program on ‘Problem Solving and Decision Making’.  The ‘train the trainer’ course was delivered over two weeks up in the Blue Mountains above Sydney.  Learning how to conduct this program, along with a few others, it was obvious this was an inflexible approach.  Everything was scripted and timed, to the minute, for the five days of the course I was to run, even the brief places where I could make a joke.  We practiced and practiced, with the further threat hanging over our heads that we would be evaluated for our first live run, with one of the training staff observing us.

If that was a bizarre experience – for me – the evenings were equally fascinating.  One of the people on the course was Irish by background, with an apparently inexhaustible store of jokes and funny stories.  This was back in the days when Bailey’s Irish Cream was a popular drink, and most of the group drank happily while the jokes kept flowing.  I refused the Irish Cream and stuck with red wine, amazed that the others could consume so much of that sickly-sweet drink.  Meanwhile, our Irish story teller never stopped, with new shaggy dog stories, tall tales and short jokes each evening, never with any repeats.  However, it was around day 10 when, late one evening, he suddenly stopped.  I had noticed by then that each contribution ended with a word, somewhere in the punch line, that reminded him of the next story to tell.  This time, the trigger didn’t work:  the room went quiet, someone asked for another glass of the Irish Cream, and one word in the request was enough.  He was off again.

In due course, I ran my first 5-day program, closely watched by one of the trainers. “Good”, I was told.  (Today we would say “you’re good to go”).  I must have run that course thirty times, but I never followed the set format again.  I just couldn’t do it.  I needed conversations, suggestions, unscripted interactions.  What a responsive, flexible person – or so I thought.

Then I had to design a course on leadership and had read about an approach that sounded fascinating.  The idea was simple.  You purchased a set of Lego models, six the same (I chose a variety of space rocket).  One was left assembled, as the ‘prototype’.  The other five were broken up into component parts, a box of bricks for each one.  The course participants were assigned to one of four teams, and each team received a box of bricks.  Now came the sneaky part.  Some bricks were removed from each box, and one or two superfluous ones added.  The fifth, also incomplete, box was put in the ‘store’.  Each team was allocated roles – a team leader (CEO), several assembly workers, a quality control officer, and a purchasing officer.  The task was simple:  the teams were competing to win the contract to make the rockets in the future, and the contract would be awarded to the first group to complete a perfect model.

It sounds simple, but it wasn’t.  Time pressure, the complexity of the model, the lack of a blue print, the small size of the bricks, all conspired to ensure the assemblers quickly became frustrated.  The quality control officer was constantly criticising the work.  The CEO for each group criticised and complained (unable to actually assemble, the CEO was supposed to be ‘leading and motivating’).  As for the poor purchasing officer, each time he or she came to the store, the store manager (me) was away at lunch, didn’t have the required piece, wouldn’t be convinced that the piece being sought could be exchanged for a superfluous piece being returned, and so it went on.  Tempers frayed, assemblers often went on strike, and any attempts at good leadership were quickly reduced to impotent orders and a lot of shouting.

The exercise would run for 90 minutes, or less if things got too far out of control, and then we would discuss what happened after a coffee break.  The ‘learning’ focussed around planning, co-ordination, motivation rather than control, managing stress, and other insights.  It usually took an hour to work through the outcomes from the exercise, and everyone would nod wisely as I summarised the importance of clarity, support, and the other skills of a good manager.  I would run the exercise in the afternoon, and we broke for drinks afterwards.

What on earth was I doing?  I think the best insight I heard over the years came from a rather earthy refinery worker.  We were having a drink in the evening.  “I can tell you one thing”, he said.  “If my kids ever get any of that f*ing Lego, they can make it by themselves.  No way am I ever going to touch that f*ing stuff again!”  With the benefit of hindsight, what was I expecting to happen?  There are so many courses and facilitated learning exercises that rely on model building, asking the participants to collaborate over building a tall tower with straws, a Lego racing car out of random bricks, or creative modelling in plasticine or play-doh.  As my friend from the refinery might have said about any such activities, “that was a f*ing stupid exercise”, and he would have been correct.

Looking back, I can see how self-indulgent and how irrelevant my approach had been.  It was self-indulgent, as I controlled an exercise and chose how to manipulate it, and then how to comment on how the exercise worked out.  More to the point, as my refinery worker made clear, it was irrelevant.  What you do making Lego toys has little to do with real life.  While I happily drew conclusions about teamwork, communication and leadership, most if it was quite tangential to the work situation.  Managing obstacles in the assembly of toy rocket ships is rather peripheral to dealing with the realities of achieving organisational goals!

I enjoy facilitation, and have run many workshops since those early days, without ever resorting to Lego or any other toys.  I have come to believe that the power of learning rests in the participants themselves, and to facilitate is to help them share, explore and learn themselves, to draw on each other’s experience, ideas and concerns, not to tell what they should do (or had failed to do).  Then two other workshops taught me how to do a better job.

The first was for an opera company.  I have loved opera, both classical and modern, for years, but when I met with the whole staff of that company, I realised I didn’t know what was involved in putting on a production, except in very general terms.  We cleared a wall, covered it in butcher’s paper (what would facilitators do without butcher’s paper?!), and with a rough and ready time line along the wall, each member of staff wrote what he or she had done in relation to one of the company’s productions, and when.  As each person added their part, and the links were written in, I realised everyone was as fascinated as I was.  Many had no idea what others did, except at the very superficial level, and as they added the details of their role, so, for example, the person who wrote text for the audience programme discovered how the wardrobe people worked, the props team found out what those marketing people did, etc!

Almost without my needing to ask, problems and miscommunications were soon being discussed.  The life of an opera which appears on stage for a couple of months starts long before, and the total production time extends for at least a year and a half, from first deciding to present an opera to filing away the costumes and sets for a repeat run at another time (and in many cases the process can be much longer).  Decisions made at an early stage were often forgotten over time, the isolation of different work teams and tasks sometimes led to serious mistakes down the track, and even the senior management often missed seeing areas where the preparations were out of kilter.  That butcher’s paper wall was all we needed.  My role was like a signal controller at a railway marshalling yard, making sure each person and issue was addressed, suggestions considered, outcomes recorded:  the facilitator as a helping hand.

Perhaps it is a little more than that.  Even with that amazing diagram on the wall, many people were still somewhat focussed on their area and how it linked with others.  I had the benefit of being able to stand back and look at the overall picture, much as the CEO tried to do before he (it was a he) got drawn into specific discussions.  By then, I had learnt a little about how organisations work in practice, and that meant I could ask useful questions, and even suggest alternatives to consider as proposals were being put forward.

The other time I learnt a more ‘person-centred’ approach was when I attended a workshop facilitated by a colleague.  One of the challenges in workshops is to make certain everyone’s voice is heard, and he had a simple but effective approach.  To begin with, each participant was asked to list responses to two or three questions.  For example, these could be: ‘what are the key outcomes to be achieved in the next 5 years?’; ‘where are we today?’; and, ‘what will we need to make sure we achieve the outcomes we have listed?’.  The order of such questions is important – starting from where you want to be, then setting the base line on where things are at present, and then determining what to do next.  It’s a sequence that ensures realism.

However, the part I liked was how the group then worked.  Each person formed a pair with another.  They shared their answers to the first question, exploring each proposal, and developing a consolidated list, bringing the two sets of ideas together, while identifying where they disagreed and why.  Then each pair linked up with another, and now the four people had to share all their ideas and seek to develop an overall account of what they all agreed, as well as what each person saw as an alternative.  The process could be repeated for groups of eight, or, as is more often the case, each group of 4 spoke in a plenary session, and the facilitator’s role was to consolidate all the agreed ideas, and all the other proposals.  By this means, each person could see his or her views had been heard, understood, and recorded.

The same 1,2,4 process could be repeated for a second time, in this case seeking agreement on where the group or organisation was at present.  This tends to be a quicker process.  It can even be used a third time, for planned actions, although I have found that allowing each group of four to work together on this topic without the pairing beforehand is quite adequate.  Incidentally, whether or not each participant answers one, two, three or more questions is not important:  what matter does is that each spends some time thinking alone before sharing ideas, without interruptions, on whatever the topic of the day concerns.  I always make sure I given plenty of time for this first part of the exercise and may encourage people by suggesting they should identify at least eight (or ten, or twelve) ideas.

This might be read as a rather Socratic approach:  ask the right questions, and you will be able to reveal the truth that is within each person.  That is not my view.  Rather, I think good ideas emerge from dialogue, people questioning and exploring the ideas of others.  I do use some ‘tricks’, of course.  On occasion I will ask a group to work out a way of getting beyond a seeming obstacle (we can’t do X and we can’t not do X, so how can we combine the two and found a better path?).  That dialectical approach can often help.

Another trick is to stand things on their head:  if running an airline requires having access to landing slots at airports, how could you run an airline without these?  This approach is often a very fertile source of innovative ideas and alternatives, especially as the rule I employ is that there must be a solution to a problem resulting from turning current practice or a belief (or a sacred cow) on its head.  The key word here is ‘must’, of course; there always is a solution and the challenge is to find it, or even to find more than one alternative.

As this suggests, facilitation is a funny business.  You are just a ‘helping hand’, enabling an individual or a group to find their own way to resolving an issue.  It is quite unlike instructing, where there is a specific skill or process to be acquired, and the task undertaken in a prescribed fashion.  You can’t facilitate a new employee on how to ensure safe food handling techniques are followed.  There are procedures, and they must be followed.  At a later stage you might conduct a workshop on food handling and explore whether there are some better or more effective measures to be adopted.  However, on day one, this is about following instructions, ensuring the right practices to ensure safety by being instructed in the way that has been agreed as the necessary and appropriate practice at the time.

Nor is facilitation entirely participant driven.  There is an important role in identifying approaches that are not being addressed, but even here it is not helpful to tell a group “you should do Y”.  Rather, asking questions, offering analogies, or even telling a story about an experience seen before are some of the tools a facilitator uses to direct attention to a critical issue.  Underpinning any intervention must be humility:  you are suggesting ideas that ‘might’ be important to consider.  There have been many occasions when I have tentatively suggested an issue, only to learn that this is already well understood in the organisation:  it is often my ignorance that is on show!

Am I following the right approach?  I think so, and when I wonder if I should be more directive, more prescriptive, or even more like a teacher, I am reminded of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching.  In one of the observations he made, he compared two kinds of leaders.  One he likened to a shooting star, racing upwards, going towards heaven, seen as brilliant but only to run out of steam (or fuel) and fall back to earth unnoticed.  The other is the leader as facilitator, a form of leadership he explained by making use of a telling analogy:

“You are a midwife, assisting at someone else’s birth. Do good without show or fuss. Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening. If you must take the lead, lead so that the mother is helped, yet still free and in charge. When the baby is born, the mother will rightly say, “We did it ourselves!”” [i]

And there’s the real frustration.  I always know when I have done a reasonable job in working with a group.  The participants leave the room with plans, insights, and satisfaction, while I quietly keep to the side.  A few might say ‘thanks’ as they leave, but everyone knows they did the work themselves.  Then they are gone, but, unlike a midwife, I won’t see the baby delivered.  If I don’t have the opportunity to meet with that group again, were the outcomes really pursued?  Or was the enthusiasm on the day lost in the ‘busyness’ of everyday activities?  Did the boss decide they had other issues to address?  Facilitation can help identify necessary or desirable change, but it can’t deliver on implementation.  Of course, if I was to resort to Lego, I could always test outcomes by setting participants to work on another rocket building exercise … although if I did, it would still be largely irrelevant!

[i] John Heider, The Tao of Leadership, Wildwood, 1986