Recent discussions about including Square Wheels into a leadership development eLearning course got me thinking that I have not really explained the underlying rationale for why these images and approaches work so well to involve and engage participants in learning and development situations. After all, they are just cartoons, right?

Well, playing with these images and ideas in 38 countries over the past 22 years has generated a bit of understanding about why these learning tools work so well. Audiences of all kinds get very involved and engaged in discussing issues and ideas about their workplace, the world at large, and even about their personal development, and there are a number of solid psychological underpinnings as to why.

My goal here is not to get into the neurophysiology and behavioral psychology * of how all this works within the brain, but to try to offer some simple thoughts on different aspects of learning and behavior.

As some people know, we first used the line-art versions of these illustrations. Here is the original Square Wheels One illustration, used back in 1993:

square wheels one 1993

More recently, I have been working to add a more colorful and interactive approach, using LEGO blocks and building on the above theme:

Square Wheels image using LEGO by Scott Simmerman

Fundamentally, the Square Wheels images work in a way similar to a Rorschach Test (or Inkblot Test), where individuals are shown images and asked to respond to them. These images are called “projective psychological tools” because people will project their beliefs onto the images, which have no reality in their construction. A typical inkblot might look something like this:

typical Rorschach inkblot imageDifferent people see different things. Their personal history comes into play.

With the Square Wheels tools, we focus more on organizational issues and opportunities, working on themes of teamwork and continuous improvement and other workplace themes.

The approach is very simple: we encourage a group of people to consider the image individually and generate their thoughts on, “How might this represent how things really work?”

After some silent contemplation, we then engage the tabletops to share their different perspectives and ideas, so we generate both an active involvement by the individual as well as a collective group consensus as to what the image represents. If there are more than 6 people in the group, we will engage them in small groups and there are approaches for actively involving and engaging even VERY large groups of 100s of people in highly interactive participative ways.

The anchor points are simple:

  • Square Wheels represent things that work, but that do not work smoothly
  • Round Wheels represent ideas for improvement that already exist and that could be implemented

Simply put, we will generate Cognitive Dissonance between the way that things are right now (as perceived by individuals or small groups) as well as potential solutions to close that gap. People are motivated to close the gap and we have developed some team / tabletop support for working to address that issue. Some of the overall impacts are as follows:

  1. We get people actively involved in generating ideas for improvement that can be anchored to organizational development or quality / process improvement.
  2. We get individual as well as collective tabletop ideas about issues and opportunities.
  3. We generate discussions about what might be done differently, giving participants an active involvement that generates engagement and ownership.
  4. We generate a collective broadly-based set of perspectives on issues impacting performance.
  5. We generate individual ideas, anchored to best practices, for what they might do differently to make improvements.
  6. We get a collective discussion and generate peer support around certain ideas that have “weight,” that are substantially impactful and the deserve to be addressed and implemented.
  7. People LIKE being involved and engaged in generating team-based ideas for improvement, much more so than they like being simply told what to do. Change is often resisted when forced on people, while active involvement generates motivation and engagement.

We can readily link the issues of Square Wheels back to the organizational or work group mission and vision, helping to readily impact the peer support for alignment and generating discussions as to where expectations and measurement / feedback systems do not align. You can read a short article on assessing feedback systems by clicking here.

We can open up discussions of best practices by sharing ideas for Round Wheels. And by requesting that 3 Round Wheel ideas be generated for each selected Square Wheel to be addressed, we can force more creative thinking for solutions to common problems.

Are these illustrations too silly or too simple? My thought is that they ARE simple and that is one of the reasons that they are so engaging. You will look at the illustration and have only a few thoughts, but once the ideas begin to be shared with others at the tabletops, the ideas will flow and the perspectives will shift significantly.

At that point, the general cartoon of issues is often transitioned back to the actual workplace, as people begin to see the issues they face in the context of the image. Problems take on a Square Wheels label, and once something is labeled a Square Wheel, it will always exist as something that NEEDS to be addressed and solved; after all, the Round Wheels already exist.

The simple concept and image is a powerful tool for brainstorming and creative problem solving, also, since it detaches the issues of ownership and politics from the issues of performance. Calling something a Square Wheel is not viewed as a personal attack on the person or originating department; it is merely something to address and improve.

It also links beautifully to ownership engagement for problem resolution. A reality is that:

Nobody ever washes a rental car

and that active involvement generated by the process links neatly to the issues of active workplace engagement.

Square Wheels Poster Image Improvement

Let this blog represent a starting point for addressing why Square Wheels images work so well in situations to generate active learning, active involvement, teamwork and pragmatic ideas for organizational improvement. Performance improvement is a difficult thing to accomplish, in so many situations, and these very simple tools and a simple approach to involving and engaging people works seamlessly and elegantly.

What are YOUR thoughts on why this works or some thinking
about the issues that using it might generate?

You can find out more if you purchase my simple “Icebreaker” toolkit. Cheap! And I am completing a full-blown Facilitator’s Toolkit focused on sharing more of the tools and approach for workplace performance improvement.

Square Wheels image Icebreaker icon

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

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Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

Square Wheels® is a registered trademark of Performance Management Co.
LEGO® is a trademark of The LEGO Group

 * Please note that I actually have a doctorate in behavioral neuropsychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and have completed NLP Master Practitioner certification, along with being a Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) from the International Association of Facilitators and a Certified Professional Trainer (CPT) from the International Association for People and Performance. So, I do have both an educational background for understanding the neurophysiology of learning as well as the professional experienced in changing organizational behavior.