StrategicPlay: Make Systems Thinking Tangible the Playful Way

Why do adults start playing with LEGO® at work? StrategicPlay® is a method where you model systems using LEGO® bricks and gain understanding within the team of their parts and interactions. For this understanding to actually lead to new insights and opportunities, the full creative potential of the group is included. Find out how that works with lots of colourful examples!

15 April 2011
General, StrategicPlay, Training, agile
creativity, games, lego, play, strategy

Build a tower, higher than everybody else's! Now a raptor, exactly according to specification! And now you've warmed up a bit: Model your biggest challenge for next year!


Why do adults start playing with LEGO® at work? Let's start big...

Systems—Complex, Adaptive, Hard to Understand?

Complex adaptive systems are alluring to human understanding. The world, climate, a swarm of bees... To understand them is an intellectual challenge. I can't escape them—most projects I come across develop complex adaptive (software) systems for complex adaptive (organisational) systems. Wow.

To govern them, you need to understand them. And I learned a good year ago, how to easily do that using StrategicPlay®.

Have you ever watched children play? They are 100% focused all the time. When did you last manage to do that on your job? I think 100% focus can only be sustained during play. Kids learn by playing. They explore the world. And the world is probably the most complex adaptive system we interact with in life. StrategicPlay® offers an unusual, but as well unusually reasonable way: we figure out complexity playfully.

StrategicPlay® is a method where you model systems using LEGO® bricks and gain understanding within the team of their parts and interactions. For this understanding to actually lead to new insights and opportunities, the full creative potential of the group is included.

Risk Awareness

This model shows a client who's aware of the risks he's facing. He's got a cool stance towards the future, while like Damocles' sword there's this beam threatening him. The most interesting place for him is right in the face of danger, as with the risks also come the chances for his enterprise.

StrategicPlay® are Katrin Elster (Hamburg) and Jacqueline Lloyd Smith (Vancouver). Both are LEGO SERIOUS PLAYTM trained facilitators and former lead partners of LEGO A/S. They help people, teams and organisations to become more effective at solving their problems better, cheaper and faster. They offer training in StrategicPlay® Fundamentals since 2009. I was in their first European training and became a StrategicPlay® facilitator in 2009. So if you need help focussing your strategic creativity to improve your Agile transition, just ask!

How does it work?

A StrategicPlay® workshop starts with a warm-up. Exercises like the ones mentioned above get participants acquainted with the material. Personal challenges introduce emotions and the art of Storytelling. Storytelling and the creation of tangible metaphors are the main elements of StrategicPlay®. Every participant presents her model and tells how and why she built it this way and what she wants to express. Questions of other participants like “What does this element stand for?” deepen the group's understanding of the individual models.

Command and Control

Building a Shared Model of the System

The main part of a workshop is the building of a shared model. Depending on the system in question—your organisation, your product, your team—you're interested in views and perspectives for different reasons and may have different goals with the workshop. But non-regarding the topic in question, you want everyone's view on the table for everybody to see and discuss. StrategicPlay® is special for the following reasons:

  • everybody's contribution is treated equally, independent of personality or hierarchy
  • building in three dimensions, expressing yourself with your fingers instead of your tounge, taps into creative potential that's commonly unused
  • having a model on the table, tangible, movable, three-dimensional, enables you to actually see and experience the impact of changes to the system
  • LEGO bricks are much more easily integrated or exchanged than drawings, plasticine or other modeling materials.

As an example, I'll take the vision we created for the Play4Agile conference. It was a conference on Agile Games that took place in February. I envisioned and organised it with a few other motivated coaches and friends, and we met in Hamburg where Katrin Elster facilitated the creation of our vision.
This is one of the individual models that were created, showing how attending the conference on Agile games would be a transforming experience. It later became a central part of our model, you can see it on the conference home page.


All participants build those individual models and tell their stories. The challenge then is to integrate these individual views on the system into a shared model, giving you a full picture of your system taking everyone's knowledge and feelings into account. That usually involves an intensive discussion, but you reach a deeper understanding of your situation or your aspired future faster than with any other method I know of. And it's good fun! After the integration of a dozen individual models of our new conference into one shared model, we created a video explaining the different parts. This gives you a good understanding of what types of results you can expect:

Using this shared model, you can start doing interesting things with it:

  • play through different risk or change scenarios and actually see how the system will react (according to your understanding)
  • to deepen these possibilities, you can model external agents and connect them to your system according to their interactions (a nice example: model clients and competition as external agents and play through how your competition lures away your clients and how you want to react to that)
  • if the system you modeled is your organisation/team/project in the future: devise action items for the first steps to get there

An interesting observation I have made on numerous occasions: how the metaphors you have built shape and focus the language of the group. In the Play4Agile vision, you'll notice a red bike as a symbol for a lean organisation of the conference. When ever in the preparation, e.g. during a conference call, someone made a suggestion that seemed “too big”, we only needed one of us to say “Red Bike” and everyone knew what was meant.

If you're interested in another example of a vision created using StrategicPlay®: At XPDays Benelux 2010, I facilitated the envisioning of the Agile Community with Yves Hanoulle. Michael Sahota participated and blogged about the results, with lots of pictures and another video!

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Discussion 1 Comment


This is a great summary/tour of the power of using StrategicPlay. great tie-in to complex adaptive systems.

As someone who has experienced it and also learned to be a facilitator, I am awed at how effective it is.

I think of StrategicPlay as Systems Thinking Plus. Systems thinking is great on it's own for Complicated domains (as defined by Snowden). For me, the power of StrategicPlay is that is works for Complex domains by connecting with people's emotional systems in a positive and engaging way. So for me, the title of blog post is accurate, and understates the importance of SeriousPlay.

- Michael

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