LEGO Serious Play with Washington Mandela Fellows at VCU



Hard at work on individual builds

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to participate in a capstone event at VCU. The university had been hosting a group of young business leaders from Africa as part of the Mandela Washington Foundation. Four hundred fellows were hosted around the United States at different universities for six weeks over the summer. We wanted to build a LEGO® Serious Play session that brought together some of their experiences and set the fellows up for continued success on their return. Coming up with the guiding problem around which we would build the session was a challenge. Although part of the same program, the fellows had diverse business interests and came from all over sub-Saharan Africa. Some had their own businesses and others worked for organizations into which they were hoping to inject new ideas.




Sharing the story of the shared build

Introductory meetings were critical. We first met with the program’s main facilitator. She was able to provide us with the background and offered a new piece of information. Each fellow was to be paired with a professional coach to help them continue their learning journey. We also learned we only had four hours. We decided that rather than rush a session, we would aim for an outcome in the form of a plan the fellows could build on with their coaches.


Four of the fellows were kind enough to spend time with us going over some ideas. We through out anything to with team building or improving their business models because outside of the program they had little in common. We found that the problem of maintaining their support network resonated. Despite the differing backgrounds, it was clear the group had grown to respect each and enjoy working with each other.

We settled on the following session plan. We used explorer kits for the Skills Building section. We used a separate home collection of bricks for the rest of the challenges.

Skills Buiding

  1. Challenge 1: Build a tower
  2. Challenge 2: Build a model following a building instruction.
  3. Challenge 2.1: Take 5 bricks and modify the 2.0 model so you can use it to tell a story about something fun you have learned about America.
  4. Challenge 3.0: Build a model showing how you have overcome a personal barrier or something important you have learned about yourself during your time in the fellowship program.

Shared Build

  1. Challenge 4.0: Build a model of what are critical elements of the support network you will need to succeed when you return home.
  2. Challenge 5.0: Build a shared model capturing the critical components of the support network. The team must negotiate which elements to include. It must contain at least one element from each builder. The team must then tell a story that describes their shared model.
  3. Challenge 5.1: Teams share their stories with the other tables


  1. Challenge 6.0: Individually build as many models of barriers to establishing a support network.
  2. Challenge 6.1: Place each barrier on the urgency/importance quadrants. Negotiate the position ith the team to gain a common understanding of the problem of the barrier.
  3. Step 6.2: Capture the help you need and from whom for each barrier. Estimate when you need that help and make a personal action plan to take to you support network.
  4. 7.0 Wrap-up



Doing the hard work of build a shared story

We ended up three tables. We had four certified LSP Facilitators. We had all trained together. The “Richmond Spinners” (“The Spinners” was the name Robert picked for us at training) consisted of Joe Snyder as MC. Joan Gammon, Kelly Snavely and I served as facilitators. Sonny Gupta, Joe’s partner, documented the session allowing us to focus on facilitating.


The skills building section revealed more than we typically find. We used the moose from Mike Bowler as the “build from instructions” model. Some folks didn’t know what a moose was so there was no benefit of familiarity. Google assisted in some unexpected fun cultural exchanges over what a moose looked like. In challenge 3, one lady revealed how nervous she was about public speaking. It was a testament to the process that not only did she feel safe sharing but was the story teller for the table when we shared with the entire group. Another lady was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of sharing. She came from a culture where business ideas were often stolen. The thought of telling folks what her models were about brought her to tears with anxiety. Thanks again to LSP creating a safe place to share, she was the one to step and share the story of her table’s shared build.



Landscape: Agents of the barriers to building a support network.

At my table, the shared story was remarkably coherent and you could see the builders become aligned and engaged. Interestingly one component was the desire to protect the identity of Africa from foreign influences.


For the Landscape exercise, we knew we would be short of time. We had the builders create models of the impediments they faced to building their support network. The agents ranged from access to resources to government corruption. We asked them to sort their agents onto a grid based on urgency and importance.

By the end, the builders had a shared model of what they wanted their support network to become. They had solid ideas of what they had to overcome to share with their coaches and with the network itself which would include fellows from previous years. My favorite comment when I asked the fellows about the experience of being in the program, was that they had come to America to learn about Africa. If this group is any indication we may soon be going to Africa to see how to improve American business.


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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