Interview with Michel Cloosterman, International Trainer and Facilitator of the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method, founder of Bricks and Business Training Institute
Michel, what is your original profession and how did you start your career with LEGO® Serious Play®?
So, my original profession is in Human Resources. I was a Team Leader and division leader in one of the universities in the Netherlands. And I could say that during my career I focused on development programs. Thus developing is a kind of red wire that goes through my whole career. I was for 10 years in HR and then decided to leave the organization, the university. I applied for a new job and during that process a thought came to my mind: why don’t I start my own business?
So I took that decision and started my own company in training and consulting in HR. During that time, I followed a few courses to keep developing myself. One of those courses took me to Copenhagen, where I got to know the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® (LSP) method. I liked that experience that much that I followed a training of becoming a facilitator, I started doing workshops with lots of enthusiastic responses, and I just loved doing it. It was a whole new method for me, it was a whole new method in the Netherlands and I kind of grew into using this method for workshops and trainings.
What year are we talking about?
I started my company in 2008. In 2009 I was in Copenhagen and in 2011 we started to introduce the LSP method in the Netherlands.
And what kept you in this domain? We all know there are a lot of professionals who attend different trainings and they love them and then for different reasons they quit the area. I mean they simply leave it. So what kept you with LEGO® Serious Play®?
Well, I think the answer is in the method itself. What I like about LEGO® Serious Play® and probably about the role of a facilitator is that you constantly encourage people to come up with their own ideas, their own insights, their own meanings. What I liked about LEGO® Serious Play® is that people kind of invented things themselves. And as a facilitator you have to support that, stimulate that, encourage people and that dynamic really grew onto me and became a kind of home coming. If I can encourage people to learn in this way, that they discover things by themselves, that they create things themselves, that they can be proud of the things that they do instead of what I think is good, that is what kept me going now for more than 10 years.
What did you learn on a personal and/or professional level from these workshops that you kept with the LEGO® Serious Play® method?
Well, we, that is me and my wife, have a small company. So professional and personal is not that much divided from each other. If I stick to the method, it’s kind of a tough question but what it brought me or what I gained from it is that it gave me the possibility to work internationally, to visit countries, to meet people, to create network, to get a taste of other cultures. We are now in Hungary. I was never in Hungary. If I wouldn’t have done LEGO® Serious Play® I don’t know if I would have ever come to Hungary. So, working with the method created opportunities. Maybe also an answer is that it gave me lots of energy.
How is this method different from other collaborative methods? What is the added value to it?
As I already mentioned in the other question, people create insights, solutions themselves. The method essentially is that, as a facilitator, you prepare the workshop, you prepare the questions and then the participants create for themselves. Furthermore, whatever they create during the day, what they do together, it is their achievement. They own it, they made it, they created it, it’s completely theirs. And that’s something I have never experienced with any other method before, and that’s what I love. It’s theirs. It’s not me the teacher, it’s not me the learner, it’s not me the consultant, it is theirs.
“Whatever (participants) create during the day, whatever they do together, it is their achievement. They own it, they made it, they created it, it’s completely theirs.”
Why is LEGO® Serious Play® still a state of the art method? In some countries the method is widespread and regularly used, while in other countries it has never been used to this day. In general, we can say that this is a new method still spreading on the market, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Well, if you look at the method, one of the elements that is very specific is the fact that it involves play. The aspect of play stimulates very specific dynamics in groups and at the same time, the method provides the group with a very clear structure of how to play. The element of play stimulates for instance the interactions between participants. At the same time, we use a 4-step process where we facilitate people in the process of listening and understanding. That might sound like two opposite things, but actually it creates new insights and knowledge and breaks the habitual way of thinking.
While explaining what LEGO® Serious Play® is, we also focus on the fact that we use our hands to create. So, while dealing with real issues of business, where often we use meetings to talk about, we now say: do a workshop, let your hands guide you and build together towards a solution that is understood and accepted by everyone involved.
“Let your hands guide you and build together towards a solution that is understood and accepted by everyone involved.”
Going back to your question, I can say from my experience, that people need time to experience that the dynamics that come out of a playful approach can bring really serious result and insights and are embedded much easier.
LEGO® Serious Play® is still very much a state of the art method. Facilitators of LSP get questions from all kinds of organizations asking for something different or something new. And although the old methods are still very valid, companies want to try something new. I think we are moving into an era where creativity and playfulness become important along with self-responsibility of people. And nothing comes by itself. So, people are in search of other methods. And if the LEGO® Serious Play® approach helps to create new insights, to create new ways, I think that is what organizations and their people are looking for. I think that makes the method very valid for the next, I don’t know, 10, 20, 30 years.
What can companies who invest in these workshops or who get engaged with LEGO® Serious Play® benefit from. What is their gain?
I think one of the strong things about the method is the process of working together and listening to all the people who are there. You have to sit down. You have to listen to each other. You have to slow down. You have to take time for reflection. That is a learning process for a lot of people because we are always in a hurry. But from slowing down, the results of what you are aiming for, solving a problem, the result comes a lot faster. And I think that is what organizations will get from this method. And that’s a lot of the remarks I’m getting are: “If only we had known before. You now, we’ve talked about this issue for two or three months or even half a year, and now in one or two days, we have the solution on the table”.
So you have to slow down first in order to be able to speed up afterwards…
Absolutely. That’s it!
How can LEGO® Serious Play® help companies in these changed environments: COVID, economic losses and the general turmoil that surrounds us?
Well, in terms of the slowing down, one of the things that we learnt from this method is, and of course, we know that already for many years, that we have to do it together. There’s nothing new there. You have to do it together. We have so much things to think about, so much demands coming from outside, from suppliers, from clients, from colleagues. So much is going on. Dealing with all these challenges works best, when you work together.
“…this method brings new insights from people on the table, you literally can see what you’re talking about…”
Now, this method brings the insights from people on the table, you literally can see what you’re talking about. You literally understand each other better. And from that you get quick and fast results. And that is the power. The message of LEGO® Serious Play® is stop the talk, but first build it and then talk about it. And that’s stimulates a change in behavior, although for us as people, this is very hard.
Could you tell me whether LEGO® Serious Play® contributes to the well-being of the employees within the company? Does it contribute to it? Or is it specifically oriented towards strategic or other company issues?
One word that immediately comes to my mind is recognition. One of the essentials of LEGO® Serious Play® is that you invite people to become involved. You ask them about their opinion or their insight. Whatever your role is in the company of the team, you get the possibility to build and get recognized for the fact that you bring an insight to the table. And I think recognition creates for every person on earth a feeling of well-being and a bit of happiness. I believe it is nice if you are not only seen, but also heard for the fact that you had an idea that helped solving a serious issue.
What would you say to the managers who say, well, we have no time to listen to everyone’s ideas, we have to speed up, there’s no time for such things?
Learn the lesson that we mentioned before, you have to slow down before you speed up.
“You have to slow down before you speed up.”
How is LEGO® Serious Play® method adapted to the new challenges? Do you have an online methodology?
The methodology is developed in a period where online meetings did not happen. The playful dynamics of a workshop were not COVID proof. So COVID was for LEGO® Serious Play® a very big challenge and still is. But we learned a couple of lessons.
One is that in terms of the group dynamics you have to adapt your facilitation in a way that hygiene, social distancing and feeling safe become part of the process, instead of a barrier.
Another question that came up was: Can you do LEGO® Serious Play® online? And although the first response was, no, you can’t, the challenge couldn’t be ignored by just saying “no”. So, after a while, the insight grew of: yes, you can do LSP online but not everything.
Let me just give you one example: if you’re in the same room with each other, you can actually see the other person as a whole, the clothing, the hands, the legs, the moving around, the walking, everything. And that is just not possible online. That’s a different experience from working together with a group of people in one room and missing that dynamic and missing all the elements that you can have in working together, that’s not possible online. But like I said, the positive thing is that we were challenged a lot and we developed skills to do workshops online with the bricks and with the method as well. And that’s the good part that came out of it.
What was your best experience with this method?
I’ll give you an example but not the example of a wonderful team development workshop or strategy workshop or other wonderful successes. Because sometimes the success is in the small things.
I remember this time when I did a workshop with students and they didn’t have so much success in life until now. And one of those students was actually a refugee from Afghanistan. That young man was probably something like 18 or 19 years old. He didn’t speak the language only his native language and he was in the workshop. And we could explain the task and the question to him so he started to create a model. Now his teacher was in that workshop as well. And the teacher told me that he already knew this young man for almost a year. And they tried to teach him all kinds of skills so that he could have a job after school and start working and becoming happy in his life. But he also said to me that this young man was a very-very closed person and they couldn’t really reach out to him.
During the workshop that young man created a model and he tried to explain in the few words that he knew what he created. And when he explained that model, I looked at the teacher who had tears in his eyes. So I asked him, “what’s happening with you?”. And the teacher said this is the first time that he is telling something about himself and his story. And his story in Afghanistan was a lot about violence, guns, war and he told us the story about his life and his family in war. I think his parents died there and he shared his personal story using the Lego model he built for the first time since he was in that class.
With this example in mind it becomes clear that the bricks and the model people built are an instrument that creates breakthroughs. The story of that young men will stick with me for the rest of my life.
…the bricks and the model people built are an instrument that creates breakthroughs.”
If someone gets interested in becoming LEGO® Serious Play® facilitator thanks to this discussion, where can they learn this method?
Are you planning to come back to Budapest anytime soon?
Yes, next year. My plan is to come at least once a year and we are planning for June 2022.
Thanks for the interview Michel and see you soon in Budapest in 2022!