Play Well: A lesson for leaders when it comes to serious play

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Who is the biggest tyre company in the world? You might be tempted to say Goodyear or Bridgestone but you would be wrong. In fact the biggest (or maybe the smallest) tyre company in the world is LEGO. Today, LEGO produces some three hundred million tyres per year more than either Goodyear or Bridgestone.

LEGO blocksBrick by Brick written by David C. Robertson, is the amazing story of how LEGO rewrote the rules of innovation and conquered the global toy industry. It is a gripping account of how this company, confronted with the growing rage for electronic toys, globalization and changing rules making it easier for competitors to enter the market, not only survived but learnt how to thrive. Not to mention their demanding and fickle customer base -10 year old boys!

The respective leaders of LEGO repeatedly made brave decisions in order to keep on the cusp of the innovation wave. One that stood out was when Godtfred Kirk (son of LEGO founder Ole Kirk) bet on the brick and the future of plastic toys. In order to ensure focus on what he considered to be the future of toys, he stopped the production of wooden toys altogether. At the time wooden toys accounted for 90 percent of LEGO’s product assortment. That was a very brave decision; especially as the prevailing ‘wisdom’ at the time did not believe that plastic toys would ever be a success.

LEGO has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to see the future and get there first. This is what has ensured their amazing durability and success.

LEGO understood that winning repeat sales depended on becoming a favourite with the kids who used their product, but that winning the first sale depended on supporting the retailers. This sounds simple enough but I have encountered situations where wholesalers seemingly forget who are the most important people in the chain – the retailers. Prioritizing the retailer was one of six principles that have guided LEGO throughout their existence. These six principles that LEGO have used to steer the growth and success, whilst hardly ‘new’, serve as a good reminder for any leader today. The other five are:

1.    Aspirational mission. Never underestimate the importance of giving your people a reason to come to work in the morning; a reason beyond receiving a paycheque.
2.    Relentless experimentation. Innovation is a popular ‘buzz-word’ in today’s business lexicon, yet few seem to fully appreciate just what it is and how hard it is to truly embrace. For one thing, relentless experimentation demands the willingness to embrace failure. This is not something our current mind-sets and measures find easy to accommodate.
3.    System thinking. Peter Senge has written much about systems thinking and its importance. Yet still we often persist with a cause and effect, linear, box-by-box analysis and thinking that pervades everything from our strategy to our measurement.
4.    Discipline and focus. Two important behaviours that are widely practiced but that without the balance of relentless experimentation, can lead to an arthritic and lifeless organisation.
5.    The appeal of the real. I guess this is what happens when 10-year-old kids are your target market! Being real about who we are, what we do and how we do it are the foundations of a healthy organisational culture. The word ‘authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikos, which means ‘original’. This understanding was something LEGO embraced to the core. The very name ‘LEGO’ is derived from the first two letters of the Danish words, ‘leg godt’ which translated means, ‘play well’.
6.    Inspiring the customer. Perhaps easier when your customers are ‘little people’ fueled by imagination and quick to delight. Still, inspiring your customer goes beyond mere efficient customer service. Inspiring your customer should be the priority of very business in whatever sector or industry.

Maybe we should go back to some ‘serious play’ and take a lesson or two from LEGO. Children are their role models and today there are some 80 LEGO bricks for very person on the planet! Testimony to LEGO’s universal appeal and success.

Play well.

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