We Gave 20 Provosts a Set of LEGO® Bricks to Play with. Here’s What Happened.  

Lego blocks

Last fall, Academic Impressions launched our inaugural summit for Provosts. Held for 20 participating Provosts, the summit’s focus was on how Provosts can lead in the face of increasing ambiguity and complexity, a topic for which there is a lot more “talk” than “walk.” We wanted to show Provosts that there are proven strategies for doing so, and in particular, for engaging their teams in hard conversations when stakes are high.  

This is even more important because most senior teams avoid talking about the really hard topics—like allocating scarce resources, cutting programs, etc. At many of the institutions we work with, Deans are more likely to lobby the Provost privately rather than to voice candid opinions in team meetings. But not only does this pattern make it much harder for the Provost to make effective decisions, it also isolates decisions with the Provost and ensures that Deans can easily absolve themselves of any responsibility. 

What’s more, when the hard issues are only raised in one-on-one meetings, Deans and Vice Provosts don’t get to see the whole picture. The underlying mental models and assumptions that drive decisions can’t be challenged. And it reinforces a zero-sum mindset where there are only winners and losers.  

So how did we show the Provosts a new approach? Naturally, we gave them LEGO® bricks.  


Building Blocks 

LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is a proven methodology, developed by organizational and leadership development experts, that uses LEGO® bricks to encourage creative thinking and problem solving.  

We first asked the Provosts to do some simple builds to get them used to using the blocks. Participants took quickly to the idea, and after just a few minutes, group members were already showing off their creations and having quite a bit of fun.  

The next exercise was for each of them to modify the design in a particular way. Despite having only created their first builds minutes beforehand, most of the Provosts in the room didn’t want to modify them. So within the first five minutes of opening the LEGO® kits, everyone got the point: If such a simple change is hard in a simulation, what are the implications for how we navigate the really hard changes at our institutions? 

In the next exercise, we asked Provosts to build an opportunity for their institutions. In only five minutes, the Provosts came up with amazing builds that represented multiple different pathways to higher education, flexibility in how education can be delivered, common obstacles facing different types of students, the relationships between their institutions and surrounding communities, and so on.  


Lessons in 3D 

The discussion that ensued after these initial exercises was even more powerful. When you represent ideas in 3D form, you are able to detach the idea from the person. You can talk about the merits and challenges of an idea without people getting defensive, you can examine an issue from multiple sides, and you can more easily build and enhance each other’s ideas. High-stakes issues are still high stakes, but conversations can flow more easily, everyone’s voice is heard, and discussions are generative. 

Provosts face daunting challenges today, and they need their Deans and other senior leaders to operate as a team. That means adopting an institutional mindset rather than a divisional one; it means operating in ways that cultivate trust and psychological safety; and perhaps most importantly, it means that everyone fully commits to the work rather than playing politics or protecting their turf. 

This is a high standard, and it’s not easy to reach. But if the challenges we face are new and novel, then so too must be the ways we confront them. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is only one method. Academic Impressions has pioneered multiple new approaches that both facilitate meaningful dialogue on important issues and at the same time build team cohesion.  

If you think your team could benefit from some new ways of working together, we invite you to have a conversation with us and let us facilitate your next leadership team retreat. Sometimes all it takes is a little creativity to change things for the better.