Thinking With Your Hands





Post written by Ronald Amodeo


"I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." -- Michelangelo


Organizations are repositories of knowledge encased in rock. Liberating them can be a maddening pursuit. The lessons learned, the experiences, the advice and opinions -- all are hidden or forgotten in the minds of your colleagues. Nothing so strategically critical seems so dauntingly inaccessible. What's worse is that even when you think that knowledge is within reach, those holding it seem unable to articulate it. "We don't know what we know" is the agonizing phrase that accompanies this reality.

As companies grow, their knowledge grows exponentially. As they age, they forget things exponentially (and repeat their mistakes). Like needing to describe a picture with only words to choose from, organizations know so much more than they can possibly say. Entrepreneurs have focused on solving this problem with Knowledge Management Systems (KMS), and where knowledge is explicit and stable and easily categorized into databases (like customer relationships), they've created great value.

But most knowledge is nuanced and situational and complex and personal. Two people can have the same experience, yet "know" very different things about that experience. More importantly, setting knowledge free when most timely remains a deep organizational problem, as the conditions necessary for its emergence remain illogical and serendipitous.

The philosopher Michael Polanyi in 1958 first described the knowledge above astacit knowledge (or "know-how"). Tacit knowledge is knowledge we're unaware of, knowledge we don't know is important, or knowledge that's often revealed only through execution (like driving a car). Tacit knowledge has been shown by subsequent researchers to be an organization's most valuable source of knowledge, either leading to significant breakthroughs when tapped*, or reducing innovation and competitiveness when ignored**.

Given the importance of tacit knowledge in an organization's long-term success, strong efforts have been made to create tools that reliably negotiate with its fickle character. Among them include design thinking tools (running experiments that expose hidden knowledge, like Storytelling), social media tools (using networks to unearth unknown opinions, like Yammer) and "wisdom of crowds" tools (aggregating personal knowledge into collections of less biased know-how, like Wikipedia).

Cross-project learning and after-action reviews are additional tacit knowledge capturing tools that have emerged from project management practices. But one very powerful tool remains relatively unexploited by companies: thinking with your hands.

Of the five senses, our brain devotes the most processing power to touch. The miniature human image (or homunculus, seen below) created by the Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1940s) demonstrates the remarkable disproportion of sensory and motor nerves devoted to the hand (more than 80% of brain cells are connected to the hands).

At the same time that Penfield was illustrating his ideas, the child psychologist Jean Piaget published his "Constructivist Theory of Learning," research that showed that children create meaning by engaging with the physical world, based on years of Piaget studying how children learn.

Then, in the 1960s, Seymour Papert of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, who worked with Piaget in Geneva, evolved his work into a theory of “constructionism” – that people learn most effectively when they actively build things in the real world. To prove this, Papert and colleagues created the first advanced computer network to help students learn by building things within an interactive community.

This is all to say that the brain-hand connection is significant – not only for taking in knowledge (through touch), but as a conduit to express knowledge (through building things). Using our hands opens up a pathway to a significant part of acquired know-how, tacit or explicit. Perhaps engineers and inventors and musicians and other craftsman already know this. Perhaps colleagues who play with objects or doodle while listening do as well.

Not many professional tools exist that make use of the brain-hand connection. One that has been around commercially since 2002, however, is LEGO SeriousPlay, or LSP. LSP was made open-source in 2010.


The principles behind LSP are simple:

  • That we gain knowledge by constructing something external to ourselves
  • That the use of objects makes hidden thought more discussable
  • That objects make use of other kinds of intelligences (e.g., visual-spatial, linguistic, and bodily-kinesthetic)
  • That the hands become an avenue for constructing meaning


An LSP experience begins with exercises that remind people that they do know how to build things (for some, it's been many years). Embarrassed reluctance is not uncommon. But as time passes, participants find themselves describing what they've built (like their role on the team) using examples and ideas and language that they didn't know they knew, or perhaps lacked the precise moment to express.

Over a morning or a few days, participants learn an enormous amount about themselves, their colleagues, the team, and the organization. They gain a deeper sense of the knowledge held by the people around them. More than anything, they acquire a method to constructively release acquired knowledge that was locked inside their own brain and see it advance the organization in tangible ways.

LSP was developed in principle by the Imagination Lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, a research team hailing from the European business school IMD. In the 1990s, the Imagination Lab took Papert's ideas on constructionist thinking – thinking with and through concrete objects – and applied them through collaboration with the LEGO Group (Denmark) to see if corporate strategy could be improved by releasing tacit knowledge. Multiple experiments across many organizations over years showed that the technique was quite reliable.

Though LSP was used most often for identity and strategy development, its utility in innovation and problem-solving and organizational change was equally worthwhile. For more on the theory and background of LSP, and how LSP is executed in practice, see this White Paper.

The LEGO Group created specialized LEGO's for accomplishing LSP's objectives. But that's not to say that many construction-oriented trademarked favorites from childhood might not suffice as well -- Lincoln Logs, K'Nex, Play-Doh, Erector Sets, and so on. The specific tool is perhaps secondary to the experience. What's more important is overtly reconnecting the brain-hand pathway in ways that will expose the valuable tacit knowledge hidden inside an organization. It's a method that's likely to make us considerably smarter than we thought we were.

* Wellman, J. (2009). Organizational learning: How companies and institutions manage and apply knowledge. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
** Gamble, P. R., Blackwell, J. (2001) Knowledge Management: A State of the Art Guide, Kogan Page, London.



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