With humble origins as a carpentry project in 1932, Danish toy giant LEGO has innovated its way to success for the past eight decades. Not just a supplier of fantastic plastic play things, the “world’s most powerful brand” has numerous theme parks, retail outlets and an array of successful video games – and we spoke to the company’s new senior innovation director, William Thorogood, to find out more.
Engage Me: When it comes to innovation, how do you kick start the creative process? Besides coffee.
William Thorogood: There is no one way to kick start innovation in Creative Play Lab, where I work – although of course coffee helps! Concepts can emerge from any number of activities. It may be a Boost week, where we gather as a team to generate and explore a large volume of different ideas or Hackathon, it may be skunk work that an individual has a passion for, it may be an interesting technological development or a partnership opportunity. None is better than another at kick-starting an innovation project but for me personally, I believe the creative process must be continuous.
If we are able to create an environment where people can be in flow and are able to not just deliver on their existing project work but also have the space to be energized and inspire each other across the team then collectively we will continue to raise the creative power of the group and the level of innovation across all projects.
EM: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” – supposedly a Picasso quote. Is the same true with innovation?
WT: New ideas must get adopted quickly by other businesses, including your competition.
As I mentioned before, Inspiration can come from any number of sources. At the LEGO Group our innovation is founded in the LEGO brick and in LEGO system in play, allowing children to experience the joy of building and pride of creation. By constantly innovating on this core idea we believe we are able to stay at the forefront and create compelling play experiences for children and if what we do inspires them as well as others to build more, play more, be more creative then I feel like we are doing the right thing.
EM: What’s your best advice for “bringing people along with you”? I.e. communicating and implementing constant changes and keeping people agile to new products and practices.
WT: In the LEGO Group’s Creative Play Lab, we believe that in a world where children, trends and play behaviors change constantly then we must be agile and highly adaptable in order to remain relevant to their needs. I believe that the best way to help others see the strength of an idea, especially something new, be that a product or practice, is to show them. Build it, live it, demonstrate it and help them see what you do. As we focus on developing concepts for children, it is essential that we show them too and they are an integral part of our concept development process.
EM: How can you encourage or nurture employee innovation? Does it work best as a top-down process or can ideas sprout from throughout the organisation?
WT: Anyone can have a great idea. My role as an innovation leader is to spot the great ideas, join the dots and help passionate and creative people make the absolute most out of the ideas that they have. Encouraging these ideas and building upon them whilst supporting the team to make them all they can possibly be is an essential part of motivating them, but also making sure to clear any roadblocks within the organization and being prepared to be accountable for any failed projects. If every project we propose is a success, then we are probably not pushing the boundaries far enough!
EM: Can you explain what a “diplomatic rebel” is in a nutshell? It’s a concept that’s been associated with LEGO for a number of years.
WT: For me, a “diplomatic rebel” is a person with the ability to disrupt the status quo but in a way that gets others excited about the same vision and brings them along for the ride.
EM: What’s your best piece of advice for Middle East enterprises to find or create a culture for diplomatic rebels to thrive?
WT: As each and every company is different and I do not believe in a one-size fits all approach to innovation it is a little difficult to be specific here. However, I would say that innovative cultures require a few things. A process that allows them to be agile and adapt to changing market situations, people that are motivated and inspired by what they do and leadership that is willing to take measured risks on the new and potentially unknown.
EM: Regarding “the future of play”… should we be encouraging our teams to “play”? How so? What’s a practical way to introduce that idea in a more stale/traditional business environment?
WT: Yes, we believe wholeheartedly in the power of play. Of course as a company developing toys for children, you will find the design teams playing a lot, but play can easily extend outside the design team to all other areas of a business. As a way of communicating ideas, solving problems or just keeping inspired, play can be hugely important.
As an example, at the LEGO Group we have developed a methodology called LEGO SERIOUS PLAY, a process designed to enhance innovation and business performance. Based on research into hands-on, minds-on learning techniques it really helps people reflect on challenges and build an effective dialogue throughout an organization.