A Lausanne research foundation is seeking to turn accepted management wisdom on its head, by getting executives to play with Lego.
The Imagination Lab, which is staffed by experts in a wide range of disciplines, is promoting its concept of "Serious Play". It believes that by getting bosses to see their companies in a different light, they will come up with more effective business strategies.
"We use Serious Play to come up with a different kind of discourse. It allows them to devise strategy, but not in a conventional way," says the founder of Imagination Lab, Johan Roos.
Roos believes that traditional management practices, such as hierarchical structures and mission statements, have become less and less relevant in today's fast-changing business world.
Business strategies become obsolete in a matter of weeks, and the problems that managers face are less objective and analysable. Roos believes most companies have the means to find a solution, they just need to unlock them.
"We are not like consultants, giving advice. We assume that the answers are already there. It's just that they are not being shared. The idea is to create a safe, fun environment in which people will contribute in an entirely different way to what they are used to," he told swissinfo.
And that requires imagination: "Ask yourself when you were most imaginative, and you'll probably say: 'when I was a kid'. What do children do that adults - and especially executives - don't do very well? They play," Roos suggests.
Which is where those colourful Danish plastic building bricks come in. A number of firms have already benefited from Serious Play workshops. Over the course of a day, managers will be asked to use Lego to construct their own vision of the company.
Later they will try to reconcile their often wildly differing ideas to create a single unified concept. They are, almost literally, holding the company in their hands, adapting it to fit their vision.
"They spend a day using their hands and their imagination, and typically, they come up with new solutions to problems," says Roos, a former professor of business strategy at Lausanne's IMD business school.
Another important aspect is that the play helps the team get away from its usual hierarchy. They are encouraged to draw up common guiding principles.
The Imagination Lab was born around six months ago, with the aim of reassessing existing business concepts and coming up with new ones. It is a non-profit research foundation, the bulk of whose funding comes, not surprisingly, from Lego.
"The Lego chief executive, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, is very keen on some of the underlying concepts, such as constructionism, which, incidentally is one of the underlying ideas of Lego," Roos says. "
The ease with which Lego can be built, remodelled and destroyed is perhaps an apt metaphor for the nature of business, and in particular the speed with which many new high-tech companies are having to adapt.
"Serious play is aimed at those companies who feel they are living in a turbulent, ever-changing landscape. They have to be adaptable," Roos says.
This would appear to mean high-tech start-ups, who need to be dynamic to survive in a fast-evolving world and who are used to a more non-traditional approach. But Imagination Lab believes it can help all companies.
"Increasingly large traditional companies are moving into this new business world. There are fewer and fewer industries where the traditional approach is going to be as effective as they were in the past," says research fellow, David Linder.
Already word is spreading, and a number of companies are queuing up to indulge in some serious play. But barriers have to be overcome first.
"There's still a big dichotomy between work and play in our society," says researcher, Marc-Olivier Linder. "Work can be fun. We have to make the link obvious, and we use Lego as a kind of free language to make that link."
But enough companies have already had positive experiences to give the Lab some good publicity: "The concept is viral. The people we've done this for have started to preach it."
How long before Lego becomes the must-have accessory for every boardroom?
by Roy Probert
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