Flow Experiences in Serious Play and Design Thinking: An Interview with Dirk Primus

Dirk Joachim Primus is  an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia He has researched design thinking and LEGO Serious Play empirically to understand the components that drive effectiveness. He has significant experience as both a facilitator and a researcher.

Both LEGO Serious Play and Design Thinking can be characterized as experiential facilitation techniques used by teams and organizations to enhance innovation, performance, and problem-solving.

  • Design thinking is a solution-focused approach that encourages problem solvers to think creatively and iterate through concepts and ideas in a user-centered way.
  • Lego Serious Play supports an effective dialogue for everyone in the organization by allowing participants to represent and explore complex ideas through physical models using LEGO bricks.

I was specifically curious about the intersection of design thinking and educational methodologies in the context of flow experiences and was eager to meet Prof. Primus. Initially, we had planned a classroom visit. Unfortunately, this was hampered by unyieldingly incompatible time zones. Instead, the design thinking students from the Master of Education program at the Asian University for Women (AUW) used a Padlet board to brainstorm questions. In the interview, we discuss how creative strategies can be implemented in academic settings to enhance learning outcomes, promote engagement, and foster an environment of collaboration and innovation.

Video Interview

Access the full video interview (52 minutes)

Edited Interview

“We sketched our ideas on the back of a napkin”

Stefanie Panke: Thank you so much for this unusual asynchronous virtual classroom visit and for agreeing to be a guest on AACE Review.

Dirk Primus: Absolutely my pleasure. Hi, everyone! I hope everybody will get something out of this interview. Thank you for having me.

Stefanie Panke: What first brought you to design thinking and Lego Serious Play? If you recall, which one came first, and how are both concepts connected in your work?

Dirk Primus: To answer this question, I need to go way back before I first heard the terms design thinking and Lego Serious Play. I was aware of Lego as a child and always loved it. My contact with design as a way of working comes from my industry career in the biopharmaceutical industry, where I worked for about 14 years. I was always connected to process design and used design thinking before I knew the term. For example, I did ethnography to understand variability in yields from a centrifuge and makeshift prototyping for purifying chromatography resin. I formally heard about design thinking in the late 2000s and Lego Serious Play in the early 2010s at conferences. I became a certified LSP facilitator and started using it in classes and with clients. The connection between the two methods was very natural for me.

Stefanie Panke: How did Lego Serious Play and design thinking become connected in your research?

Dirk Primus: I hope this does not sound too trivial, but this connection resulted from having a really good glass of wine at a conference with my colleague Stephan Sonnenburg. He’s from Germany, like you, and he’s still there, in Berlin. We meet at conferences as co-authors. We attended several sessions and workshops, some on Lego Serious Play and others on design thinking. Over drinks, we discussed why Lego Serious Play required a warm-up, but design thinking only had basic icebreakers. We wondered what it would take to integrate the two methods. We sketched our ideas on the back of a napkin just under the famous bridge in Porto, outdoors, which always helps with thinking. The next day, it still seemed like a good idea, so we decided to try it. Almost two months later, Stefan set up a workshop. We combined the Lego Serious Play warm-up with design thinking, starting very humble and simple. We both have always been fascinated by flow and are big fans of Keith Sawyer and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the flow gurus on this planet. So we thought, let’s remix those three together and do a study. That’s how it all began.

Stefanie Panke: You are both a Lego Serious Play facilitator and researcher. How do you switch between both roles?

Dirk Primus: There are two scenarios. In one, the roles are disconnected and come one after another. So let’s say I do a workshop with a commercial client, and something unexpected happens. I would take that as a phenomenon and try to translate it into a study to formally measure it, maybe with a control group. As a researcher, you need robust testing; seeing it happen once or twice is not enough. The phenomena that pop up in the workshop often inform the study. When writing papers, we scan a lot of papers, not necessarily about design thinking. We come across studies that are not mainstream in what we do, and that also triggers ideas. And there’s other ideas, for example, we might read about flow in dancing choreography or meditation techniques like Wim Hof breathing. We might build those into a workshop without people necessarily noticing, and then it comes back to the research. So that’s one scenario.

The other scenario is when you do both things together, executing a long workshop at scale for research. The whole thing is a beast. It’s very challenging to be both a facilitator and a researcher. For instance, in studies you’re referencing, with a hundred people in the room, Lego Serious Play is not made for that scale. But you need it to get the sample size, so we do very challenging things, facilitating the workshop and gathering data simultaneously. As a facilitator, you need to switch off and not interfere with the research, and vice versa. If we interfere, the study becomes compromised. It’s very challenging. I remember Stephan in 2017 after a workshop, saying, “I collected the data, handed out the forms, did the workshop, and now I’m going to bed for two days.” It’s very hard to do both roles at the scale and resolution we aim for. It looks easy on paper, but it’s very tough.

“It’s an effortless way of performing”

Stefanie Panke: You have been fascinated with the concept of flow for quite some time. Can you explain the concept of flow, why you focus on it, and what specifically happens in terms of flow in design thinking and Lego Serious Play?

Dirk Primus: So I, personally, and I think Stephan is in a similar frame of mind, as well as the people who do research with us, like it because it’s a state or way of feeling where you don’t need to put a lot of effort into a lot of output. And that’s very pleasant. For example, when climbers like Alex Honnold describe being in flow, they do a pitch and don’t even remember their leg hurt or anything. It’s an effortless way of performing.

We like it as a construct in research because it captures so many things that are important about whether a method or a workshop does its job or not. Broadly speaking, if we would do something like a service or a research project, and we would detect absolutely zero flow, then that would give us a very strong signal that whatever we did didn’t work at all. You know, it just didn’t work. Something was off. And it might not be the method, but we know for sure that people had a bad experience.

When people are in flow, and their teams are in flow, we know they have an optimal experience. That’s why we’re interested in it because it’s a very reliable indicator of how people feel and perform within an activity.

Stefanie Panke: You mentioned flow in other contexts like climbing, dancing, and meditation. Are there other creative techniques that create flow that you have looked at or are interested in?

Dirk Primus: We’ve tried meditation and dancing techniques as flow inducers and found potential in these methods. However, there isn’t much consideration for flow in other methods like Hackathons or Open Space. These methods don’t typically aim to build and maintain flow before participants start working together.

Stefanie Panke: In the article “Flow Experience in Design Thinking and Practical Synergies with Lego Serious Play” you discuss Lego Serious Play skills building as a creative warm-up technique. What alternatives could facilitators use, and how might that impact individual and group flow experiences differently?

Dirk Primus: That’s a great question. In our recent paper, “Learning Design Thinking Well,” we translate the logic of Lego skills building into design thinking without using bricks. We focus on storytelling and other tools that follow the same logic of starting simple, increasing the challenge, and establishing equal participation. If you strip the bricks away and you just use other methods, as long as you follow the logic you will get flow increase. Ton answer the question: Yes, it works. If you use the logic of LSP, it will still help you to build flow at the individual and at the group level.

“It gives people a new language”

Stefanie Panke: You have facilitated many workshop sessions. Can you share some successful projects that have incorporated Lego bricks into the design thinking process?

Dirk Primus: I can’t mention any commercial clients due to legal barriers, but using Lego bricks for skills building is very helpful. It’s the easiest thing to do for skills building, and we’ve proven it can be done with other tools as well. If you have a long workshop, changing the tool set keeps it interesting and still effective for skills building. It helps get people out of a food coma and manage flow. Lego as a quick prototyping tool is also a big success story. Expressing and articulating ideas with your hands in three dimensions gives a much broader vocabulary than business speak. People say very different things when they articulate in this way. It gives people a new language. The models help translate ideas and facilitate communication between different roles like finance, engineering, and marketing. My fellow Bostonian Paul Carlile will appreciate if I say the model acts as a boundary object in innovation settings.  It also levels the playing field when some people dominate the conversation, helping quieter individuals contribute more effectively.

Stefanie Panke: Your background is in engineering, business, and research. How can teachers learn from your research? What are the benefits of using Lego Serious Play or Legos in a classroom setting?

Dirk Primus: I actually love teaching  In an MBA setting, for example, there’s a lot of group work, which doesn’t always go smoothly. Using Lego Serious Play can level the playing field, establish a common vocabulary, and encourage equal participation. Teachers should know that Lego Serious Play is slow-moving and requires time. You might do a flip charting exercise in 50 minutes, but with Lego Serious Play, you probably need 2 hours. The benefits come at a cost; it’s slow-moving and takes time, so it should come with a warning label that you need to invest time to see the benefits.

Can I add another thing? Even though we’re teaching for application, not regurgitation, some things you need to commit to memory. When you build a model, you attach much stronger memories to what you’ve done. You remember it much better than if you were just sketching some numbers and quantitative exercises. The minute you build those Lego models, it becomes a very vivid memory. You internalize it, putting what you’re learning into your mental muscle memory much better and stronger. It gets anchored much more strongly. Teachers can use that.

Stefanie Panke: Can Lego bricks be used to design abstract concepts that don’t have a physical form, like ideas from literature, drama, history, or psychology?

Dirk Primus: I can provide a pretty strong answer to that. They they can, and they should be used to do that. in the, in the very first phases of a Lego Series Play workshop you’re asked to build a metaphor. You are asked to abstract something that cannot be physically built in the real world. For example, you might be asked to build an “angry tower” or a “happy tree.” These concepts don’t exist in the real world, so you have to find ways to represent them metaphorically.

When it comes to more complex constructs, like those in research, you can explain them more concisely using Lego Serious Play than in a paper. For instance, if you have models with many indicators and constructs, people can build a Lego model to represent an abstract concept like conscientiousness. This makes it accessible to a broader audience. Using Lego bricks to design abstract concepts helps make complex ideas more understandable and tangible.

“Creativity is beaten out of us”

Stefanie Panke: Thank you for clarifying that. Another student question is about incorporating Lego Serious Play in andragogy. Is it suitable for adult learners?

Dirk Primus: Well, everything is possible. What I will say is, it doesn’t necessarily get easier the older the people get. There’s a lot of theory about this, that creativity is beaten out of us as we grow older, transitioning from childhood into adolescence. The working world does the rest, sweeping out the remaining free and playful thinking. This might be coming back in more recent generations, but it certainly doesn’t get easier. The more loaded the business card is, the harder it is to make a case for this kind of playful learning. People get worried about being seen playing with bricks. In an MBA class, if there’s a vice president of a famous bank playing with Legos, there’s a risk people will think they’re wasting their time. There’s a lot of resistance because of misconceptions and assumptions around the method, and not many people know the in-depth idea about it.

Stefanie Panke: Can Lego Serious Play help students effectively acquire and retain knowledge from a particular lesson or course, especially in higher education?

Dirk Primus: I think so. Especially where you have complex frameworks and constructs. For example, the business model canvas. You could not fill out the canvas, but you could build it in Lego. That would make it easier to see and give connections between the elements of the business model a shape. Using bricks and sets, you can build landscapes and connections between objects, giving them a specific shape and meaning. On whiteboards, we draw bubbles and lines between A and B. In Lego Serious Play, a connection could be something rigid, so pushing one thing pushes the other. It could be a gear amplifier, where if there’s more of A, there’s four times more of B. We don’t think in those terms necessarily, but it can enrich the learning of complex frameworks. I try to use it as much as possible in that way when I’m in a classroom setting with students.

“The whole dynamic of the group changes visibly”

Stefanie Panke: How is Lego Serious Play different from other game-based learning approaches, and how can you show it’s effective?

Dirk Primus: When you mention gamification to someone in business school, they often think of HR training where you get badges or points, like an arcade game. Lego Serious Play is very different because it doesn’t involve scores, competition, or rankings. There are no right or wrong answers, no list, no comparison. The core of the method is that there is no wrong or right way to build; there’s only my model and your model. None is better or worse. The level climbing and scorekeeping are not part of Lego Serious Play. While those elements may be motivating in other contexts, they are absent here.

How do you know it’s effective? The method is designed to help people work together in small teams. You can see its effectiveness almost immediately. For example, in a typical meeting, people might lean back with crossed legs, showing disinterest. In a Lego Serious Play session, everyone leans in, shares their models, listens, and engages actively. The whole dynamic of the group changes visibly. The method makes small collectives work better, and you can see this just by walking into the room. You can also measure flow, team climate, and other metrics, but the change in dynamics is immediately apparent.

Stefanie Panke In a recent publication, you discuss the impact of discipline on creativity, arguing against a free-for-all, constant iteration and prototyping approach. Can you elaborate on this?

Dirk Primus: The idea comes from two unrelated corners. First, Teresa Amabile’s work suggests that a disciplined work style should be a component of creativity, although it’s never been formalized in her componential theory of creativity. If you look at famous creative individuals like Da Vinci, they were highly disciplined. Despite doing things that seem crazy to us, they were very consistent and didn’t let anything interfere with their creative time.

The second source is from Beckman and Barry’s design thinking learning cycle model. Their 2007 paper argues that teams often get stuck in a cycle of observing, prototyping, and changing without stopping to formulate hypotheses or translate observations into design requirements. In our study on roller coasters, we found that teams with disciplined work styles and those that used more abstraction produced more creative and embellished outputs. This structured approach to creativity leads to better results.

Don’t Clean Up!

Stefanie Panke: Some of my students are mothers and had questions about Legos as toys. What innovative features or design elements have enhanced the Lego building experience over the years?

Dirk Primus: I only have a very subjective answer to this. My friend Robert Rasmussen, who runs the Association of Master Trainers for LSP and worked work the Lego company, would probably have a different perspective. I love the connectors that allow for more complex and connected builds. However, I’m not a fan of the pre-fabricated figures with set expressions, as they limit imagination. Keeping it simple and allowing builders to create their own designs is key.

Stefanie Panke: Legos compete with other things children like to spend time on, especially online games. Children love to play Roblox, for example. Does it matter if kids play with Legos or online games? And if it matters, how can we encourage playing with Legos?

Dirk Primus: I absolutely think that it matters that they learn how to think with their hands. They need to do that and let things happen, not with a screen in front of them, but where their hands start to do things. My kids play with Legos and musical instruments. It’s similar; when you pluck on a guitar, it’s a different experience. They notice and appreciate that because that’s how they grew up. From a parent perspective, what worked well for us was not cleaning up the Legos every single time. There’s an instinct to tidy up when they’re on the floor, especially at night. In our kids’ bedroom there was a huge carpet. Some nights, it would be hazardous to walk through because stepping on a Lego brick really hurts. But we took that risk and were rewarded because sometimes we’d wake up a little later on the weekend and find our 3-year-old playing with bricks. It works because it has to be there; if it’s there, they will engage with it and use it.

Putting musical instruments, Lego bricks, and other creative tools out there, making them accessible and visible, rather than out of sight, is key. I am not an expert on this, but there is research suggesting that spending two hours in front of a gaming interface deadens your brain; it doesn’t stimulate much. We have a Nintendo Switch at home, and the kids love playing open-world games like the Zelda series, which I appreciate also, these things have their value. However, there has to be a limit. Playing in the real world, using your hands to think and engage with tangible things, is very important.

Stefanie Panke: That’s certainly creative advice that you might only get from a creativity and flow researcher: Don’t clean up!

Dirk Primus: I am in so much trouble now…

Stefanie Panke: Thank you so much for your time, wisdom, and insights. This was a wonderful conversation. Any final words or comments?

Dirk Primus: Thank you for having me. My best to your students. My advice is: Continue to play, engage in design thinking, and keep exploring these methods beyond the course!

 

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