When was the last time you played with a LEGO set? How did it make you feel? The colorful set of interlocking plastic bricks connects in various ways to create countless structures, shapes, and figures, offering a medium for children (and adults) to express their imagination and bring their visions to life.
Building something. Tearing it apart. Starting all over and building something new. This playful process offers real-life lessons for leaders navigating a complex and highly dynamic business world and for futurists advising those leaders on the other.
Today’s world offers significant challenges for business leaders. The challenging dynamics they face oftentimes makes it difficult for leaders to manage present-day systems while planning for emerging ones.
But these challenges extend beyond managing the present and envisioning the future. It also involves bridging the gap between where those who make up an organization (leaders and employees) perceive where they are and where they aim to be at a selected point in the future.
LEGO has established itself as one of the leading companies in the toy industry, experiencing a rollercoaster ride of growth, decline, and resurgence as it adapts to an evolving marketplace, such as the wave of digital play options and the commitment to sustainable materials. There are several leadership takeaways from LEGO’s journey of navigating rapid changes internally and responding to external environment shifts, specifically in overcoming inertia and continuous learning and reflection. The 90-year-old toy manufacturer offers valuable lessons for leaders seeking to establish a culture of innovation and future readiness.
When the train stops
In long-term planning, a common pain point is overcoming inertia. People naturally resist change, particularly if it affects their habits, routines, and beliefs. In the absence of looming danger that threatens the livelihood of an organization, leaders often get absorbed in reacting to short-term obligations. Others recognize emerging signals on the horizon, but face resistance to implementing cross-organizational responses, especially if it requires a great deal of behavioral adaptation and a perspective shift.
However, the head of LEGO’s internal marketing and communications agency, The LEGO Agency, was aware of the value of strategic foresight in developing holistic responses to anticipated system shocks. Doing nothing or resisting, nulls these efforts. After ten years of annual double-digit growth, the company started to show signs of slowing down. While it is easier to double down on what has worked, he embraced LEGO’s core essence of being curious, experimental, and collaborative. After numerous attempts to intervene, the agency head decided to pull the emergency brakes in 2017. He paused the agency for two months to reshape the workflow before it was too late using the Design Sprint process.
If you haven’t heard of the term Design Sprint, it’s a 5-day process used by product teams to rapidly develop, prototype, and test new ideas. The process was developed and popularized by Jake Knapp and his team at Google Ventures in 2010. It has since been adopted by many companies as an effective way to quickly iterate and validate new product ideas.
Taking apart the LEGO set
Pausing LEGO’s agency operations to implement design sprints had a big impact on the organization. You can imagine the risk associated with a decision at this scale, especially if there is no urgent reason behind it. But discovering that the agency’s traditional way of working might have been the prime reason for the slowdown compelled the head of the LEGO Agency to stop when other interventions failed.
Similar to a LEGO set, when a kid takes it apart to build a new image within their imagination, the provocation in halting operations got the agency to consider new strategies for a future-ready organization. The design sprint was inspired after the company reimagined what the future of work would look like. This decision allowed nearly 200 people to step away from the demand of everyday responsibilities into a land of experimenting with new ways of working. They contributed to exploring what these findings would look like on a concrete level; having permission to participate in reshaping the organization lends support to the long-term commitment.
A Future-ready organization and Clutch Power
The Danish toy maker is not new to foresight. It has a long history of exploring the future of children, play, and work. This mindset leverages the founder's belief that play is necessary for children's healthy development. When he launched the famous brick back in 1958, it was designed to lock to each other for support, a mechanism known as clutch power. A differentiator that was embodied in reimagining the future of LEGO.
Communicating upstream and downstream through the three horizons locked the future commitment. It enabled the agency head to persuade his peers and gain the trust of his teams to break out from the inertia loop and stay ahead of the curve.
This story illustrates several lessons that leaders should consider when exploring the future of their organizations. For the futurists advising those leaders, the LEGO story offers lessons, too, such as:
Just like how disassembling the LEGO set requires confidence in knowing that we are able to build it back up (or build it back better or build something completely new), strategic foresight gives leaders the confidence to make such decisions by providing them with the necessary insights and tools to navigate uncertain futures.
Sometimes, you have to break down your creation to create the space for something new. The long view LEGO cultivated doesn’t only stop at the brick level (product and material) but far reaches the internal systems (employees and processes) in which it operates. Assisting leaders in breaking down the complexities of their organizations' uncertain futures can create space for lasting embodied change.
Sometimes, we need to stop, take a step back and rethink what we are doing. LEGO inherently promotes a culture of imaginative learning that celebrates curiosity about futures thinking which might not be the case for every organization. Reflecting on your journey as a futurist, how might you capture and communicate the essence of the organization you advise to inspire leaders to embody that advice and take the first step toward change? What tools and processes can you add to your toolbox to promote ownership of the futures you are proposing?
Could design sprints help futurists solidify their message and efforts, increasing ownership and perceived value toward futures thinking in organizations new to this way of planning? Stay tuned to find out in my next Emerging Fellows blogpost.
Courtney, J. (n.d.). Design Sprints at Scale [web log]. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.thesprintbook.com/stories/lego-design-sprints-at-scale.
IFTF Vantage. (2022, April). Toward Future Readiness: A Playbook for Building Foresight Capacity. IFTF. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.iftf.org/projects/a-playbook-for-building-foresight-capacity/
Knapp, J., & Courtney, J. (2018, March 26). Product Breakfastclub Podcast episode 17: How LEGO run Design Sprints at scale - Interview with Eik Brandsgård. Productbreakfastclub.simplecast.com. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://productbreakfastclub.simplecast.com/episodes/17-how-lego-run-design-sprints-at-scale
Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B. (2016). Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Simon & Schuster.
O’Connell, A. (2014, August 1). Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp on leading through survival and growth. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2009/01/lego-ceo-jorgen-vig-knudstorp-on-leading-through-survival-and-growth
Sharpe, B. (2020). Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope. Triarchy Press.