Laura Anderson was looking for something unconventional for an organizational retreat she was planning for about 60 loan processing, collections, and customer-service personnel and other staff at Wells Fargo & Co.'s Phoenix-based operations division. She found it in Jody Lentz, a Nashville, Tenn. — based facilitator and consultant, whose bag of tricks includes the “children's” toy Legos.

Lentz uses a process called Lego Serious Play, which he helped to develop and market before leaving Lego three years ago to start his own consultancy. Now, he is one of just 50 or so licensed purveyors of the Lego Serious Play process worldwide.

The concept is simple: Attendees use Legos to build large organizational models with an eye toward improving processes or changing cultures. “It's the tool I call on when people have complex issues they are trying to untangle or are really trying to improve their communication,” says Lentz. “The Lego tool is geared toward creating stories that help people communicate on a lot deeper level than we typically do in organizations.” It also helps to make abstract ideas concrete — or in this case, plastic.

Another Brick in the Wall

The goal of Wells Fargo's two-day retreat, held in Sedona, Ariz., was to bring together two independent organizations within the operations division to break down barriers and create a new “One Team” culture, says Anderson, founder of Phoenix-based the Center for Intentional Growth, who consults with Wells Fargo on organizational strategies. “These groups had never come together before, and had never been given permission to be creative and think about the growth of the business, so we really wanted this meeting to be a catalyst for a shift.” She wanted a “powerful tool” that would allow the group to be creative and think about the business differently. That's where the little plastic blocks came in.

In Lentz's session, team members broke into groups; each group was given a Lego set and the task of building a model of what “One Team” should look like to more effectively grow the business. One model showed bridges connecting to customers (represented by Lego people); another had all the Lego people looking out of one window to depict a unified vision; and another showed people rotating into different jobs across the business, demonstrating flexibility and knowledge. Afterward, each group told the story of its model, which led to a larger discussion, facilitated by Lentz, of common challenges and issues, and a brainstorming session on solutions.

Initially, some attendees were excited about the idea, while others weren't sure what to make of it. But by the end, all were engaged, even the doubters. Some of the models were taken back to the office to share the experience with those who were not involved and to have a tangible representation of the organization's goals.

The session was the catalyst for a major change in the organization. From that meeting, says Anderson, they created a team to foster the new “One Team” culture, which focuses on leveraging the strengths and interests of team members, and they established a group to develop business metrics as a way to involve more people in decision making. Previously, top executives made those sort of big-picture decisions. “If you want to think differently, you need to use a different process,” she says.

Of Play and Plato

Of the 4,000 people who have gone through his Lego sessions, Lentz says that only a dozen or so have refused to participate because it wasn't serious enough. “Most people want to play, and the challenge is, as adults, we just kind of shut off that part of what we do once we hit the teenage years,” he says. “That's unfortunate, because thinking with your hands and being playful engages the imagination. If you interview companies, they point to innovation as one of the things they need to compete, and you don't get innovation without imagination.”

And, says Lentz, quoting the philosopher Plato: “You learn more about a person in an hour of play than you do in a year of conversation.”