Who Owns LEGO Serious Play?

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by Michael Fearne in Innovation

Short answer is no one. The LEGO group open sourced the method in 2010 through a creative commons license. That means anyone is free to use the method. But the tricky part is: what exactly does the creative commons license cover.

There’s been a simmering tension behind the scenes in the LEGO Serious Play world about what is and isn’t part of that creative commons license. And it’s bubbled up to the surface recently.

The main point of contention arises from the claims of one organisation (The Association of Master Trainers) and it’s founder (Robert Rasmussen). He has claimed to have Intellectual Property rights over quite a broad range of what people think of as the LEGO Serious Play method.

This article is about discussing that claim to see if it is valid.

Before launching into that discussion I wanted to quickly discuss Respect. There have been some comments in this debate about respecting the substantial work that Robert has done on the LEGO Serious Play method. I agree with this and have enormous respect for the work Robert did in getting the LEGO Serious Play to where it is today.

That respect can comfortably sit alongside a healthy scepticism of the current claims. It is both possible to respect the past and challenge the present. It is in that spirit that I take on this discussion.

The Claim

The IP claim has been made in numerous places, in articles and comments: Here at his website,  Here in the comment to an article, Here in another comment (written with his colleague Per) and Here in a timeline. (NB: sadly comments on one of those articles was disabled recently)

The claim is that Robert created and developed the 4 step “Core Process” and the “7 Application Techniques”. I’ll go into what they are shortly, but they form a foundational part of what people think of when they say LEGO Serious Play.

The claim is that Robert developed them independently and that they are NOT included in the LSP Open Source document (and so aren’t apart of the creative commons license) that LEGO released in 2010. This document is seen as the key document to decide what is free under the method. To be clear if it’s in the LSP Open Source document anyone can use it freely.

The history behind all of this muddies the waters a little. LEGO Serious Play was developed at both a company called Executive Discovery and later in house at the LEGO Group.  Robert was an employee at Executive Discovery and the LEGO Group who was heavily involved in the development of the method.

The story goes that at one point in the development of the method Robert was outside of the Executive Discovery / the LEGO Group (i.e. not an employee) and that he continued the development of the method independently. Coming up with the “Core Process” and “7 Application Techniques” at that time. He therefore owns the Intellectual Property rights to the material he developed outside of the LEGO Group. Robert says that this newer material hasn’t been included in the LSP Open Source document and so isn’t part of the creative commons license and so there is a restriction on its use.

If this claim is true and Robert chooses to enforce this IP claim, it will significantly restrict the use of what many people think of as LEGO Serious Play.

How to Weigh Up These Claims?

Before we launch into a detailed analysis, I first wanted to discuss how you go about weighing up these types of disagreements.

The discussion so far has centred on appeals to history and historical documents.

Robert appeals to his memory of actually being there.  He is backed up in this recollection by colleague Per Kristiansen.

On the other side are people such as Marko Rillo and some other facilitators trained before 2010. They suggest that some of those elements (core process and 7 application techniques) were part of the LEGO Group IP when they were trained in the method prior to 2010. And not the IP of Robert.

Marko wrote an article on this topic titled: “Copyright of Application Techniques and 4 core steps of the LEGO Serious Play process“. I encourage you to read it.

It documents the training materials delivered by the LEGO Group which cover the core process and 7 application steps and shows LEGO owning the IP to it. That seems pretty compelling evidence, although Robert provides a counter argument to that in a comment below the article.

I find it hard to weigh up conflicting historical accounts because I wasn’t there.

So rather than appeal to historical accounts, I want to add a different angle to this debate. I’m going to look at the actual “core process” and “application techniques” and compare them to the open source document that LEGO produced.

This is by no means the only way to approach this discussion, but merely an interesting angle that I want to explore.

The open source document is the one thing that is solid in this discussion. No one disputes that what is in that document is free for everyone to use. It’s the point of agreement.

What I found through a careful comparison of the material is that, at a high level, a substantial part of Robert’s “core process” and “7 application techniques” is referenced in the LSP Open Source document. It isn’t highly detailed, but it is there.

So the conclusion I came to was that Robert Rasmussen’s claim of exclusive IP rights and restricted use of many of those techniques is highly doubtful.

Let’s look at the evidence in more detail:

Detailed Analysis

I’ll be referencing the LSP Open Source document throughout this. If you want to follow along at home you can download it here.

We’ll start with Robert’s core process.

“Core Process”

The core process consists of 4 steps:

  1. Posing the question
  2. Construction
  3. Sharing
  4. Reflection

In comparison the LSP Open Source document outlines a 3 step process:

  1. The Challenge
  2. Building
  3. Sharing

While the wording is different, those first three steps match up very closely to the first three of Robert’s steps. The fourth step “reflection” is an interesting one. It’s not called out as a fourth step in the LSP Open Source document but is mentioned in numerous places as a key to LSP.

  • On page 12 it says “…third step is to help people reflect on what they have created”.
  • On page 16 under Phase 3: Sharing it says: “getting participants to reflect more and share more about their thoughts and ideas with each other”.
  • Page 26 is titled “Reflection, ownership and collaboration”.
  • Page 32 is called “Reflection and Dialogue”

So on the evidence 3 out 4 steps are very similar. With the fourth step in dispute.

From this it’s clear that the high level steps of Robert’s core process are there in the LSP Open Source document. The conclusion I draw then is that there is no external IP claim over them and anyone can use them.

Just as a further piece of evidence… there is another interesting document called the “Imaginopedia for Core Process”. It is a booklet that is included with the official LEGO Serious Play Starter Kit sold by LEGO. Within the booklet there is a description of the four core steps of LSP:

  1. Facilitator poses the question.
  2. Individuals build a model
  3. Indviduals tell their story
  4. Questions and Reflections

That’s an official LEGO booklet inside an official LSP kit. If it is in fact Robert’s IP I find it strange that the booklet is still produced by LEGO.

On to the other main IP claim, the 7 application techniques.

” 7 Application Techniques”

The 7 application techniques consist of:

  1. Building Individual Models and Stories
  2. Building Shared Models and Stories
  3. Creating a Landscape
  4. Making Connections
  5. Building a System
  6. Playing Emergence and Decisions
  7. Extracting Simple Guiding Principles

These techniques form the core activities facilitators use during a LSP workshop.

Page 28-29 of the LSP Open Source document references, at a high level, techniques 1-4. It says:

  • “A LEGO Serious Play process typically begins with participants building individual models.” (Technique 1)
  • “Shared models are built by combining individual models into one model, through a process of dialogue and negotiation. ” (Technique 2)
  • “Connections are built between two or more models, and they can be shown with placement – by placing the models at a certain distance and in a certain direction towards each other – or by physically building the relation between two models in a manner which represents the kind of relationship.” (Techniques 3 & 4) (Although not referred to as landscapes, placing models in relation to each other in space is how you do a landscape model).

There are other places in the document where they are referenced too (for example the workshop outline on page 37).

So that’s 4 of the 7 application techniques that are clearly referred to in the LSP Open Source document. Now admittedly they are only references to those techniques and short descriptions. The document doesn’t go into much detail on them. But I would argue that those techniques still clearly fall under the banner of Open Source.

Technique 5  Systems, is an extension of Technique 4. So Technique 5 while not explicitly called out in the Open Source document does seem to fall in the  Open Source category.

Those first 5 techniques are all the LEGO building techniques. And I believe the most important as they are used more often than the last two techniques. Technique 6 & 7 are additional facilitation activities to get more information out of the models built.

Technique 6 is a form of scenario planning / war-gaming type activity.

Technique 7 looks to extract information out of the models and discussion to form principles that a group can use to guide future action.

Techniques 6 & 7 are NOT referred to in the LSP Open Source document.

As an aside, my feeling is that techniques 6 & 7 are not unique to LSP. I’ve seen them referred to in other facilitation techniques. But in this article I’m going to stick to what’s in (or not in) the LSP Open Source document.

This may be an unpopular view but I see techniques 6 & 7 as highly specialised use cases of LSP. That is they are endings to very specific workshops (i.e. strategy, vision) and not used in the majority of LSP sessions. I view LSP much more broadly than that and don’t see techniques 6 & 7 as all that broadly applicable.

It Techniques 6 & 7 are in fact under the external IP claim, then it’s no big loss to the method. Techniques 1-5 are the important LEGO building ones that are used most often.

My Conclusions

So from my reading, at least steps 1-3 of the core process are clearly referenced in the LSP Open Source document. With step four not specifically called out as an individual step but “reflection” highlighted as an important part of this process.

Techniques 1-5 out of the “7 Application Techniques” are again clearly referenced in the LSP Open Source document.

Remembering that if it’s in the LSP Open Source document it’s free for everyone to use.

To be clear that means people are free to ask questions, get people to build it with LEGO and then share and reflect on it.

People are free to run “individual model” activities and a “shared model” activity. They are free to do a “landscape model” and do “connections” and build “Systems”. They can combine them how they want to form workshops with different objectives. All these things are referenced in the LSP Open Source document.

How you do each of those activities is a different question. The very specific, detailed steps underneath that high level activity might vary from facilitator to facilitator. But you have the right to run a landscape activity “by placing the models at a certain distance and in a certain direction towards each other” (for example). And the right to run a shared model activity by “combining individual models into one model, through a process of dialogue and negotiation.” (again for example).

One last note, there are other documents and other snippets of information around that support this reading of the situation. One really obvious sign is that one of the official LSP kits sold by LEGO is called the “Identity & Landscape Kit” referring to one of the techniques right there in the name.

The Importance of this Conversation

In this article I’ve tried to take the emotion out of the argument. Looking at the documents and comparing claims to the text.  It’s not the definitive answer to this debate we are having. But it provides another view for people to examine (and possibly agree with or possibly refute).

Some in this debate talk about “getting on with it” and “why do we need to have this conversation”. This discussion has been swept under the carpet for too long. It needs to be had for the future of the method.

When someone claims ownership over a large proportion of a method that I think about and use everyday, then it’s a conversation worth having.