Generating ideas, connections, and action

Modeling Exercise: Exploring Complex Questions While Having Fun


I am always eager to try out a different approach that will help us, as a learning community, get somewhere new in our thinking – and what better time than when dealing with a topic as big as “what needs to change in the way we are thinking about supporting leadership for social change”? And what better guinea pigs than the board of a learning community? I had heard a lot of buzz about modeling and as a recovering left brain person I was having trouble picturing how it would work, but with folks I respected like Otto Scharmer doing it, I decided it was time to take a leap of faith. Here is the story of how we used a modeling exercise to reach a breakthrough in our thinking about leadership.


Our board divided up into 4 teams with 3-4 people at a table. Before us on the table we each had a fun array of toys and construction tools: legos, old fashioned building blocks, modeling clay, popsicle sticks, little figures of people, animals, fish, birds and the surreal …dragons, magicians. There were also colorful pipe cleaners, ribbon, stickers, crayons, yarn and construction paper. I was immediately intimidated but noticed others began handling the objects before we even had our assignment. Our instructions were to build a model that we felt represented current ideas about leadership. After working for a few minutes on this model we were then asked to change the model to one that represented where we thought leadership thinking needed to be.


In building our new model we were supposed to identify the things that challenge and support this change. This is where it got interesting. In our first model we had a guy up on a horse - yes, the model of the heroic leader leading the charge, surrounded by little people (mostly littler because they were not up on a horse.) As a group we were interested in exploring a more collective model. It seemed obvious to me that the guy needed to come down from his horse. I was surprised when one of the other model builders at our table resisted this, suggesting that we needed to elevate all of the other little people rather than take our horse figure down. This unfolded as an interesting discussion about whether some people will have to give something up if we move from a focus on individual to collective leadership, or what the role of the individual will still be. I was surprised that the physical dynamic of moving a little figurine evoked a strong emotional response that got us to deep feelings about change and in very little time.


The other teams marveled over similar experiences, surprised by the depth of their discussions and by the fact that it was all happening in the course of something that was fun and playful. You could tell who the kinesthetic learners were as they dove into the supplies and eventually, even the tentative got engaged. I have heard about this activity being used to unleash ideas about change, build a future vision, or for people to introduce themselves and build relationships by sharing models of their lives, families and communities. I encourage you to try it out the next time you are dealing with complex questions or situations – and are ready to have some fun!