4 people losing their jobs, 1 boss who isn’t: how we took on this awkward team event with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®
Our division shutting down. Me and my team losing our jobs. And our manager flying into town for a visit. These were exceptionally weird circumstances for a team building event.
Thank you for babysitting your brothers and can you please help me load all this LEGO into the car? I need to go to work.
This is how the day started. Thankfully our children are used to the unconventional nature of our day jobs. They’ve had to watch as boxes of LEGO arrive at our house, destined for offices instead of their toy boxes. So when we set off for a 9 to 5 in a minivan packed with tubs of LEGO, it was just another normal day.
My name is Nick Frühling and I have the privilege of leading the product design and research team at Staffbase North America.
But that privilege ends this week as the Canadian team is slowly closed down and the product moved over to refocus everything in the European headquarters. Our design team has had six months to prepare for this transition, and we’ve been supported to continue our growth in that time, but it presents constant challenges. How do you do team building with a team that’s being taken apart?
Before the announcement, we had been working with our global director on a transatlantic trip from his homebase in Berlin. We had met earlier and been in countless Zoom meetings together, but never gotten to sit down as a regional team and really connect. It was decided that the trip would go on despite the circumstances, but it was another curveball. How do you meaningfully connect with a team on their way out the door?
Presented with this uncomfortable scenario, it really would have been easiest to call it all off. But with a combination of some unyielding optimism and the fact that we had nothing to lose, I was determined to make the most of it.
We’ve been working as a high performing team for years. We’ve taken on complicated projects, tackled fascinating design challenges, shipped vital features our customers depend on, and celebrated so many successes. We’ve also lived life together through everything from family deaths to babies being born, moving houses to pandemic shutdowns, lost dogs to dream weddings, and everything in between. We still had time together and support from Staffbase. We had to go for it.
Turning layoffs into lemonade
While we planned some fun team events too (with a healthy amount of Vancouver sightseeing for our visiting tourist), we set aside this one day for a workshop. My main requirement was that everyone should benefit from it, no matter their stage of career development or employment status with the company. We had designers on both the craft and leadership paths represented, and levels all the way up to global senior director, too. While we still could, I also wanted to draw from our unique experiences with each other, and make use of the perspectives we’ve gained from working so closely.
So I had an idea. In addition to my role as director, I’m also a trained facilitator in the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method and materials. Uniting these two is something I’ve always wanted to do, and it felt like a perfect time to bring it to the team. But to fully engage in a workshop with the team, I knew I also wanted to take part as a participant. This meant bringing in an external facilitator.
Thankfully, I’m married to one.
Andrea Fruhling is a certified organizational coach and instructor. She’s also a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator, which she combines with an extensive background in career development for a unique approach to this training. Together we conceptualized a day of workshopping for our team that was customized, creative, built on all our strengths, and focused on personalized professional development. And fun.
LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® started as a facilitation method developed by the very same LEGO Group you know and love. They put a lot of resources into studying play, and their research showed this type of hands-on learning produces deeper and more meaningful understanding, with particular applications in enhancing innovation and business performance.
They’ve since open-sourced it to the community under a Creative Commons License, but still own the trademark and enforce their brand guidelines (hence the serious way I keep writing out the trademarks).
While using toys in a business setting can sound silly at first, the results speak for themselves, and it’s now recognized around the world for its application in all kinds of industries. It’s not exclusive to the tech world either, and Staffbase is in good company when companies like Coca Cola, Google, Mercedes, Microsoft, IKEA, and even NASA are utilizing it too.
Some teams can definitely be wary of “playing with toys”, and there are ways to get past that, but designers tend to adapt quickly to the experience and jump right in. After all, we’re paid for innovation, and creative collaboration is part of our everyday job. For our team it also became the perfect opportunity to get out from behind our virtual Zoom screens, make a special excursion to the office, and take advantage of an IRL experience with tactile play (and snacks).
Putting the pieces together
It’s not an exaggeration to say it involved buckets and buckets of LEGO. Just getting them up the elevator and into the office was a team event. But even this part set the tone for the day, providing a spirit of working together that would infuse all our interactions.
While people came with open minds, we still had to overcome some skepticism. Thankfully one of the first activities is the duck exercise.
I won’t spoil the fun, but through the creation of simple 7-piece ducks, the power of the SERIOUS PLAY® process becomes crystal clear. In fact, the person who was the least convinced has since brought that duck exercise back to their individual team, hired a local facilitator, and convinced them to do their own training.
Skepticism was my initial feeling – how could childhood bricks work in a business context? The answer clicked, as easily as two LEGO pieces—post warm-up, the bricks became a language of their own.
— Ahmed Ali, Senior Global Director of Product Design
This opened the doors for more honest communication and idea sharing that continued to evolve through the day and the rest of the activities. We soon realized how talking through our decisions in making our own models, sometimes intentional, sometimes subconscious, actually illuminated our interactions with each other even more.
We learned to ask each other good questions, focusing on the choices made and pieces people used in their models, while resisting inferring or assigning our own meaning. And when we took a break for lunch, everyone expressed how refreshing it was to forget about checking emails and Slack messages and just be present, away from our computers without even missing them.
Clicking, connecting, concluding
Ultimately, the team found the most value in relating the discoveries of the day to their careers. Even though each of us are imminently going our own way, we were able to use LEGO to visualize career journeys up to now and into the future. Andrea then introduced a component where we could chose a single LEGO piece to share with each other, representing some aspect that we see in the way that person shows up at work.
From that, a grassroots theme emerged when we attempted to integrate the piece with our models (sometimes with hilarious results). It gave each of us the tools to talk about our work, whether that was doubts, fears, hopes, or dreams. Getting to share those insights let us explore thoughts about where we can take that next, and discover strengths others see that we may not always fully appreciate ourselves. When asked at the end, everyone identified the collective experience of adding to each other’s models as the most powerful part of the day.
Even though we are following different paths soon, this workshop brought us closer together in a moment where this reunion was very important. We learned about different perspectives of work and our own strengths as designers. I really appreciated the chance to go through this journey with my designer friends for the past 4 years!”
— Tai Civita, Staff Product Designer
The drive home was the perfect time to for Andrea and me to debrief on the day. We had some immediate ideas on how to iterate on facilitation next time, as well as identifying which LEGO pieces we need to add to our collection to enable greater expression for participants (way more window pieces!).
But both of us agreed that it was a big success, a great use of our remaining time, and a worthy way of unifying the team before taking on an uncertain future. Since the workshop, the team has been reviewing each other’s portfolios, writing recommendations, and transferring what we learned into cover letters, resumes, and professional profiles. In the end, these exceptionally weird circumstances couldn’t have come at a better time.
And when we got home that day, exhausted but excited about what we accomplished, our kids were there to help unload the buckets of bricks back into the house. And before we put everything away, we made sure to pull some pieces out and just play.
Nick and Andrea Fruhling are now more available than ever to bring LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® to your organization 😉
For more info on how we connect it with career development and team building through interactive workshops and coaching sessions, visit doubleknot.works/serious-play