Over the past 2 months, I have been been organizing a weekly PLAY MEETUP in Doha where complete strangers meet there, play using LEGO®, share stories and learn something new around a theme topic. PLAY MEETUP evolved from a simple social experiment to become something bigger and richer than expected. In this article, I would like to share with you some of the lessons that I've learned from this unique experience.
We have become more disconnected in reality than any other time before. Despite the illusion of "connectedness" on various social media platforms we became lonelier! We all seek meaningful connections, engaging discussions and a sense of community. Sadly, today it's easier to reach for a smartphone than start a conversation with a stranger. While this is probably a pain experienced globally, I felt it first hand in Qatar where I live. How can we connect again on a deeper level like we once did before social media invaded our lives? I think I may have found a clue to the solution using the power of PLAY!
The LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Method is a facilitated meeting, communication and problem solving process in which participants are led through a series of questions, probing deeper and deeper into the subject. Each participant builds his or her own 3D LEGO® model in response to the facilitator's questions using specially selected LEGO® elements. These 3D models serve as a basis for group discussion, knowledge sharing, problem solving and decision making.
In my experience facilitating LEGO Serious Play (LSP) workshops I've rediscovered the power of "PLAY". I witnessed people fully engaged in a state of "FLOW" where they opened up to each other faster than anything I've ever seen. It was magical and beautiful to watch! PLAY was like a forgotten superpower that we all possessed as children, yet we hardly used as adults. As children we communicated, learned and made friends through PLAY. That's how we are naturally wired as human beings to learn from a young age. As the anthropologist George Dorsey said, “Play is the beginning of knowledge.” Carl Jung also believed that "The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct.”
The LSP methodology allows people to communicate and reflect better. It helps teams achieve better harmony, appreciate different perspectives and unlock new creative solutions. The applications and possibilities of LSP are limitless! I wanted to explore LSP outside the typical training workshops that I offered in Qatar and make it more mainstream. I wondered if I could tweak the methodology and use it to make networking easier and more natural. That's how the idea of PLAY MEETUP was born! It was about bringing strangers to play LEGO® together in a carefully designed experiential learning journey. This could potentially be a way to "disconnect to connect", the challenge mentioned earlier caused by social media. I wanted to test a simple hypothesis: can strangers become "friends" after only 1 hour of play? This was inspired by a famous quote attributed to Plato, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation".
"You Can Discover More About a Person in an Hour of Play than in a Year of Conversation" - Plato (attributed)
There was an instant interest in PLAY MEETUP when I posted it on my linked-in and instagram accounts! People loved the phrase "Play LEGO® with strangers". It was something new, innovative, fun and also outrageous. After all, how can adults who don't know each other meet and play LEGO® together?! Is that even safe?
I was very curious to see if 8 random strangers could truly connect in only 1 hour through play since LSP required a minimum of 3 hours at least. It was an experiment but I was eager to try it and learn by doing. I designed the meetup to be a short experiential journey to deliver key lessons derived from the LSP methodology. I've experimented with a wide range of complex theme topics such as emotional intelligence, beauty, travel, etiquette and even marriage. In each meetup there were new strangers. Some were engineers, entrepreneurs, students, educators, coaches, parents, kids ... etc. While every PLAY MEETUP was unique, there were some common interesting lessons worth mentioning.
LEGO® bricks are popular around the globe. They are intuitive to construct even with no prior experience or engineering skills as some may believe. It only took minutes for all participants to speak a common language, LEGO®! Building with your hands continuously through the LSP methodology enables accessing deep knowledge utilizing the fascinating hand-mind connection. The participants were surprised of how well they could communicate through the models they built using LEGO® compared to simply speaking without using their hands. When everyone speaks the same language, everyone feels at ease. This is irrespective of skill level, age, gender, ethnicity ... etc. Everyone could speak LEGO®!
At first, people gave disclaimers about their limited creativity. "I am not creative" or "I don't know if this looks right" was common to hear. However, following the LSP process made everyone realize that everyone is creative, especially when they started using metaphors in explaining their models. Using only 6 bricks in some challenges forced them to think beyond the physical appearance of the models. That's when they they get it ... it's about the story, not the bricks!
The participants appreciated the perspectives shared by their teammates as they expanded the understanding of the topic at hand. They felt liberated to express their thoughts and perspectives without being judged as right or wrong. This invited them to go deeper in their reflections, appreciate others' perspectives and motivated them to build on the ideas and perspectives as a team.
Just because people don't share or say they don't want to, it doesn't make it true! Everyone wants to share their stories and experiences but only when they are in a "safe space". People fear judgement of others or perhaps don't know how to share. That's why you don't hear from them in meetings although they may have invaluable input and creative ideas. I witnessed people start very shy and then gradually open up to become a social butterfly by the end of the meetup. When your perspective is heard and respected, you become 100% engaged as a team player.
LEGO® Serious Play® methodology have given a new way to approach and discuss complex topics. The objective isn't necessarily to solve a problem but rather to create a safe space to share perspectives and unlock deeper understanding of the subject. It's rare to have an opportunity to reflect deeply and hear your self express thoughts and emotions. However, PLAY MEETUPS provided that opportunity for strangers to meet and enjoy a rich experience unlocking a topic in only an hour!
People want to escape their work routines and all the stress that piled up during the week. Playing with LEGO® in it self seemed to be a form of therapy where you can speak and be listened to. According to Bo Stjerne the global head of research at the Lego Foundation, “Play is an essential foundation of well being. Play boosts critical understanding, relieves stress, boosts confidence, enhances critical thinking and fosters social and emotional skills.” I was told by many participants that they felt great after the session where they temporarily disconnect from their problems and some even called it color therapy.
Networking is great. However, it's not easy to have meaningful conversations that lead to a meaningful connection. Many are tired of pretending to be interested, faking enthusiasm ...etc. PLAY MEETUPS allows you and others to be your self. It's genuine and it's real. When you play with someone you get to know them on a deeper level, even if it's an hour of PLAY. Perhaps that is the best form of meaningful networking.
The biggest lesson of all was the validation of my theory of play! I witnessed total strangers bond so quickly over the different meetings in record time. They all enjoyed networking after and often stayed way pass the meetup time. In some cases they offered each other free services like coaching, training and even job connections. What amazed me the most was genuine support, compassion and empathy that looked like therapy sessions! In one meetup, one participant opened up to deep personal challenges that made her cry. The strangers whom she met just an hour ago were now friends comforting her, hugging her and empowering her. I will never forget that night! It's true ... Strangers + PLAY = Friends.
PLAY MEETUP will continue as a community driven social project to help people discover the power of PLAY. I hope that it will create a positive out look on life, create a safe space to share, reduce stress, empower self-reflection, enhance communication skills, increase emotional intelligence and create meaningful connections in the community. I'm actively listening and engaging our growing PLAY MEETUP community to co-create it into something bigger and better. I'm happy to connect and hear your thoughts and suggestions as well. If we are lucky maybe we can do it in a future PLAY MEETUP :)