What Can Clean Language Learn From Lego Serious Play?

What can Clean Language learn from Lego Serious Play? That question’s come up for me a few times recently, as I’ve met a few facilitators who use Lego in their work. It moved into sharp focus as my friend and sometime student Sean Blair launched his new book about the Lego facilitation business, Serious Work, in London on Tuesday.


Of course, the two approaches have lots in common. Both Clean Language and Lego Serious Play work explicitly with people’s metaphors. Both require a facilitative, participatory mindset to work well. Both help to improve the way people interact and communicate, and are used both in one-on-one coaching and with groups, teams and organisations.

And the two approaches combine well, as Sean and I proved at a recent MeetUp in London. Clean Language questions can be used to probe the deeper meaning of people’s Lego models, helping them to discover and share aspects that they hadn’t been aware of, resulting in greater clarity all around.

If Lego Serious Play, as Sean suggests, is “like making 3D prints of your thoughts”, then Clean Language can breathe life into the plastic, making the models as “real” as the ones you played make-believe games with as a child.

But what can Clean Language learn from Lego Serious Play – or from Sean?

One of the most useful things I’ve learned is that Lego Serious Play employs an idea of three “build levels”:

  1. Individual models. Build alone, and share for others to see. Learn enhanced communication. Express your thoughts and feelings and understand the thoughts and feelings of others
  2. Shared models. Create a mutual understanding on topics of interest. Explore how others see the same ideas differently. Then create shared understanding and common meaning.
  3. System models. Understand the forces, dynamics and impacts of/in systems. Explore risks, opportunities and unintended consequences of different scenarios and strategies on shared visions.

Clean Language can also be used at these three levels.

  1. Individual models. In coaching, therapy, self-application and one-to-one scenarios of all kinds.
  2. Shared models. Activities which introduce groups to the Clean Language questions, such as “X-ing at your best”. Most interviewing using Clean Language.
  3. System models. Intense team-building and organisational-development work using Clean Language.

For those of us who’ve been working with Clean for years, it tends to be all “just modelling”, but this system introduces helpful distinctions within that.

For example Caitlin Walker’s concept of Systemic Modelling, may straddle levels two and three. Her strong preference is to use it at level three. I suspect that many people perceive it as working primarily at level two. Using this system, we can have a new conversation about that.

I’ve noticed that Clean Language learners often get confused about how to apply their skills at a different level from the one they had in mind when they were learning.Its easy to forget that a skill learned as a one-on-one activity doesn’t automatically translate into group work (or vice versa) for everybody.  By using this distinction, I can help my students make the shift.

Another piece that I picked up from Sean is that describing a Lego model, pointing to it as you do so, is massively more engaging than talking abstractly about it. This is made explicit in Serious Play sessions.

In Clean Language, there’s no tangible shiny plastic to play with, just imaginary thoughtforms. But the more you point directly to the metaphor, the more we all “treat our imaginary friends as real”, the more engaging the process will be. I’m making this more explicit in my training, too.

There’s another side-effect of the tangibility of Lego: I suspect it makes the Serious Play process considerably easier to sell! There are photos and videos of colourful models to share in marketing materials, on social media, or on posters on the office wall.

That’s going to be a whole lot easier for someone to pitch to the boss than pictures of people staring into the middle-distance using pure imagination – no matter how powerful the emotional effects.

  • What have you learned from Lego? Please comment below.

5 thoughts on “What Can Clean Language Learn From Lego Serious Play?”

  1. Jon McNestrie

    Really interesting stuff, thanks Judy.

    I run Lego Serious Play sessions and Sean’s “3d prints of your thoughts” is something I’ve thought of as a good way of describing some of the power that lies in them.

    The thing I struggle with with most is not getting people to come up with the models that answer the important questions for them but helping them to explain their thoughts to others… I think Clean Language is worth a little more exploration for me.

  2. Thanks Jon. If you need any links etc to follow up, give me a shout. A reasonable place to start is my free ebook!

  3. I have heard about Lego Serious Play but I know hardly anything about it. What exactly are they doing when they make 3d prints of thoughts? Can you maybe give some short example?

  4. Hi Judy,

    Really interesting post – I’ve come across Lego Serious Play in the context of systemic working in Organisations; people using it alongside approaches like soft systems methodology and complexity-based Organisational Development. What is great here is the connection with a process like clean for that moment to moment working as well – models within models!

    I also like the really nice distinction made between levels 2 and 3 – especially around level 3 being to do with (from my reading) working with the processes that shape and constrain what happens at level 2 so that people can further develop their ability to be ‘observers to their own process’…

    Do you think clean and processes like symbolic modelling help a person to develop skills (and a language) for moving fluently between and amongst these different levels – from the specific detail of here and now interactions to the bigger picture view of the system-as-a-whole over times and across spaces?



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