Lego building challenges project managers of tomorrow

Chalmers University of Technology

​Together they build a new colonization on Mars – using Lego bricks. The students’ skills in project management are put to the test as they are assigned to collaborate in different groups, without a clear description of the end goal. “We are forced to learn to communicate”, says one of the students in the Project management master’s course who has experienced the practical exercise. ​There is a loud buzz of voices in the large room. A hundred students sit in groups at different tables with a pile of Lego bricks in front of them. One can begin to imagine what the constructions will become. A residential building here, a hospital there. Some of the students wander between the tables, talk to the builders, and read post-it notes on the walls.

On the side wall there is a giant countdown clock. Tooot! One of the leaders holding the exercise blows the horn and shouts out: the time is up for the current “sprint”. It is time to move on to the next stage of the construction.

“Their mission is to build a colonization on Mars together, with all that it entails,” says Ingrid Johansson Mignon, associate professor at the Department of Technology Management and Economics, and the one who manages the course in question.

Lego build

The students come from many different master’s programs and take the joint course in Project Management. As a complement to the theoretical parts, they get to take part in an experience-based exercise. The method used is called Lego4Scrum and is a way to train agile ways of working. In short, being able to deliver large projects divided into smaller pieces.

At the different tables, various parts of the new civilization are built. The challenge is to make the parts from the different tables become a functioning whole.

“In the exercises, they get to experiment on how to manage a goal-seeking project, that is, a project where you have a vision but no clear description of what the solution or end product looks like,” says Ingrid Johansson Mignon.

As the exercise has progressed a bit further, the tables are being put together. It now becomes obvious that the participants from the different tables would have had to communicate more, or better, with each other. But in the end, there’s a finished Mars colony of Lego bricks in the middle of the room – a large, varied colony that’s far more colorful than you’ve ever seen in a science fiction movie.

Lego build

One of the participants in the exercise is Linus Hallenberg. He is in his first year of the master’s program Industrial Design Engineering. For the day, he is a product owner and responsible for four different tables.

“The good thing about the exercise is that you get to try – without anything being at stake. Here it doesn’t matter when it goes wrong. And they deliberately lure us into all the traps! They really drive us down into them.”

“This is a next step after the theory. It may be a cliché, but it’s one thing to read about something, and another thing to experience it. If you just read about it, you don’t fully understand,” says Linus Hallenberg, who also appreciates being part of such a precious exercise.

Hemanth Rangaswamy, originally from Bangalore, India, is in the final year of his master’s degree in Supply Chain Management. He believes that the exercise will be of great benefit to the students.

Lego build

“We learn the same things here that we have learned theoretically, but now in a practical way. We are forced to learn how to communicate, within our project team but also with the customer. And how to manage your time, how to develop your team, and how do you make everything align and be in line with the customer’s requests?”

“I can really recommend this way of conducting teaching. Sure, we have guest lectures from companies and such, but they are still theoretical and easier to forget. But here, when you get to experience it in practice, you will remember faster and can more easily connect it with the theories,” says Hemanth Rangaswamy.

The goal of the course in Project Management is for the students to get a foundation of basic project principles and tools – but above all, that they should immerse themselves in what makes projects complex, according to Ingrid Johansson Mignon. There are challenges linked to project methodologies, leadership, uncertainty and product complexity, politics and competition, as well as knowledge integration and transfer from project to project. In each of these themes, students are given lectures, articles to read, as well as seminars where they can practice the theories or get a hands-on experience linked to the theme.

“This particular part of the course is a practical exercise in project methods, where you discuss the pros and cons of project models such as ‘waterfalls’, ‘parallel engineering’ or iterative methods such as Agile. In my experience, students often have an image that Agile is the best method for running and implementing projects. The reality is that Agile works well in some contexts, but not in others. Agile has many advantages but is also challenging at times – both for managers and for project members. These are the very things the students get to experience during the exercise”, says Ingrid Johansson Mignon and adds:

“The workshop went really well. The students were both positive and tired – a good rating, I think! Some students were very excited, and many had eye-opening experiences.”

The exercise with Lego4Scrum was carried out in the relatively newly built premises Studion in “A working lab”, at Johanneberg Science Park in the southern part of Chalmers campus area. Project Management is a master’s level course studied at a number of master’s programs at Chalmers. The course is also open to exchange students.

Text and photo: Daniel Karlsson

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