Whether you’ve been following us on Instagram and seen pictures of our office or have come for a visit in person, you’ll have noticed that there is an extensive collection of Rubik’s cubes and a bowl of LEGO in the centre of our meeting table. We don’t just collect these toys for fun; they serve a legitimate purpose.
We have tried many different tools, techniques and methodologies for successfully planning and managing all the discrete tasks that go into software development over the years, the in-depth merits and (downsides) to each is an entire science we leave to our in-house expert operations manager Vix.
There are only a few planning tools that have actually stuck and have proven themselves to be genuinely useful to us at Pentascape and one of these, surprisingly, is LEGO.
The LEGO brick that we know today was first launched in 1958, with its patented stud and tube coupling designed to allow unlimited building possibilities. The LEGO Group has pushed themselves to continually innovate and evolve, with current developments including eco friendly and sustainable materials, and the continued production of a range of age based STEM toys such as Boost and Mindstorm.
Being a huge fan of LEGO as a child, and still to this day as a grown up child, one of the fundamental features of LEGO is that ability to build almost anything imaginable. You have a system of interconnecting bricks, with a few simple rules dictating how they can and can’t connect, from which anything can be built and only imagination is the limit. When you draw a parallel to what we do as a business; taking libraries of code, which have their own rules dictating how they can and can’t connect, and using them to build things, it’s easy to see how LEGO can provide a tangible “language” through which we as software engineers can explore ideas.
LEGO Bricks as Blocks of Effort
We often use a tool known as Planning Poker when estimating work. Everyone has their own deck of Planning Poker cards, and each card has a number on it that closely resembles the fibonacci sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 (then we start to “smooth out” as we enter double digits) 20, 40, 100, (infinity). Each person will present the card that they feel best represents the level of effort required for the item being discussed.
The advantage of using LEGO over the Planning Poker cards is that we can visualise this effort more easily; you can see the relative size differences. Numbers are abstract representations of a quantity, and the perception of quantity is unique to an individual. By using visual mnemonics such as LEGO bricks instead, we appeal to the visual parts of our teams brains in a more consistent way, and the output becomes more reliable.
Different coloured blocks represent estimates for the relative proportion of effort required for three parts of a project
In this way, we use LEGO to illustrate what is otherwise an abstract concept, as well as engaging different parts of the brain to help with the collective problem solving effort. It’s effective, but it’s also fun!
LEGO is ultimately for building things and sometimes we use it for its intended purpose. Whether that’s building a little tower to support a monitor or a mount for an Arduino. LEGO really does have unlimited possibilities.
Fidget toys became all the rage with the launch of various spinners and cubes supposedly designed to help increase attention, soothe anxiety and even act as an antidote to ADHD. While the jury is out in terms of whether or not these toys do these things, at Pentascape we can certainly attest to the benefits of having fidget toys at arms reach.
We all experience different levels of compulsion in regards to the need to fiddle with something while thinking: but sensory input assists all of us in our ability to focus. We all do it; waiting at traffic lights and fiddling about with that annoying bit of stitching on the steering wheel, absentmindedly clicking a pen, tapping on a desk or turning over an object in our hands. It’s why prayer beads work. It’s also why extreme lack of sensory input (like that salt bath sensory deprivation) can lead to seemingly drug-induced hallucinations. Your brain makes stuff up in the absence of input, and so giving it a simple sensory input keeps it calm and clear for rational thought.
Counter intuitively, fiddling about with a Rubik’s cube or clipping together some LEGO, using the hands, enjoying the flow of sensory input helps keep the mind clear. It’s easier to listen to other people and form your own thoughts.
There is a tray of LEGO on the meeting table and usually one of the team is constructing some kind of creation. Are they ignoring you? No they are listening intently with a clear mind.
As an aside: Scott McCoskery, co-founder of MD Engineering, created the executive level fidget spinner Torqbar after realising that his co-workers were becoming irritated by his pen clicking habit during long meetings in his IT job. He set out to create something that was small and quiet that would help him indulge the habit, and through a process of careful design and the selection of high quality materials, created something quite unlike the plastic spinners you see in your local poundshop. To me, this is eerily synonymous with our own industry, where multiple solutions can be found to a single problem, but that not all are of the same quality!
What uses have you found in your business for low tech toys? Are they a genuine help or a hindrance? Let us know in the comments.