Learning with Legos
By Marita Fernandez and Terri Petmezas
Kellogg’s Leadership in Organizations course prepares students to solve problems and influence the actions of individuals, groups and organizations. Earlier this quarter, students in the class learned valuable lessons in leadership thanks to an unlikely source: Legos. Marita Fernandez and Terri Petmezas, both One-Year students in the class, wrote about the assignment and what they learned from the hands-on experience.
This course is part of the basic curriculum that will train us as students to develop our skills to inspire growth in organizations through our behaviors. One of the main goals of this course is to understand that a key capability of successful leaders is to forge and drive high performance teams.
The gist of the exercise is that in a team of five, you have to replicate a Lego figurine. Each team gets 20 minutes to plan their design, then the team to build it correctly the fastest wins.
There are a few catches, though:
- Only one team member is allowed to look at LegoMan at a time.
- You cannot bring any writing materials with you while you look at him.
- You cannot touch him.
- Each team has an enforcer to make sure that rules are followed (each team chose an enforcer from their group who would go to another team and be their third-party enforcer).
- When completed, the enforcer delivers your LegoMan to the professor who simply says “Correct” or “Incorrect” with no additional help or directions. If yours was incorrect, you had to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it.
During the planning period, each team established its own goals and strategies to achieve the objective and split the work so every member had a specific role. I volunteered to be an enforcer. After that decision I thought that maybe I would not experience the fun and challenges involved with the project, but my role as an observer actually was a great place for some interesting learnings.
We put together our strategy, fully utilizing our 20 planning minutes. We saw some teams finish their 20 minutes and start building early, and I got nervous that we were behind. But then I remembered that the 20 minutes were irrelevant; all that mattered was who had the shortest time in production, from the second you started building after planning was over until LegoMan was completed correctly.
Once we got started, we quickly built our first version, feeling pretty confident in the results. So we sent our enforcer to the professor, but the verdict came back: Incorrect. One team member knew of a not-visible part that was built either “like this” or “like that,” but he wasn’t sure. So after hearing that the LegoMan we built “like this” was incorrect, he quickly grabbed our LegoMan and changed a few pieces around so that it was “like that.” We sent the enforcer up again, and we were done!
We looked around, and everyone else was still working frantically, even the team who started building before us. As the minutes wore on, we saw the other teams’ energy slowly wane.
Coordination and focus among team members was important during the whole activity to achieve effective results. As an observer of the winning group, I witnessed the concentration and commitment the team had during the process.
Afterward, we met back in the classroom and the results were in. Our team finished in 3 minutes 38 seconds. The next closest team finished in 5 minutes 43 seconds, and the last team in just under 20 minutes. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves until Professor Nordgren told us the fastest team ever … 16 seconds! Sheer insanity. But our team was quite happy with our 3:38.
The activity was followed by a debriefing session in which highlights of the process and learnings were identified. Careful observation and detailed sketches of the model were fundamental for a successful planning process. However, what made the difference in the teams’ production timing was whether each team member knew how their portion of the work interconnected with the whole figure.
As in real life, the first important steps for effective teamwork involve sharing a common view of the ultimate goal (the sketching). To do that, you need to see that everyone’s responsibilities are interdependent with the other contributors. It is key to be aware of those interconnections and realize the impact of our tasks in the overall team’s results.
The exercise was more than just an excuse to play with Legos. It taught us how we work in a team under pressure, how we respond to critiques and that there is a benefit to taking creative approaches. It also showed that team projects can be fun.
Learn more about Kellogg’s One-Year MBA program.
Marita Fernandez is a student in Kellogg’s One-Year MBA Program. Prior to Kellogg she worked in brand management in Mondelez International, a consumer product goods company. She is from Lima, Peru.
Terri Petmezas is a Chicago-area native and former UW Badger in Kellogg’s One-Year Program. She lives in Vernon Hills with her husband, 4-month old daughter, and 18-month old Rhodesian Ridgeback “puppy.” Prior to Kellogg, she worked at ZS Associates in Evanston doing Sales and Marketing consulting for Med Device companies, and is exploring a variety of post-graduate opportunities.