Lessons from LEGO To Drive “Out-of-the-Box” Thinking
Are your Master Builders free to create? Are your Ordinary Builders helping them to execute? And more to the point, are you acting like the evil President Business, hindering innovation, placing talent in silos, and keeping your organization frozen in the past?
If so, you may find an unlikely role model in Emmet Brickowski.
OK, Emmet may be an animated character made of plastic blocks, but don’t dismiss him so easily. If you are a manager looking to ensure your team is the best it can be, you may want to check out Emmet’s starring role in “The LEGO Movie.” I believe there is deep wisdom in what this little character has to say.
One of the key themes of the film is that many organizations adhere too strongly to their legacy traditions. Though such traditions may have served them well in the past, they can also sow stagnation and put a brake on agility and adaptability. This is especially true in the Internet of Everything (IoE) era, as a massive wave of network connectivity and innovation upends organizations, business models, and entire industries. In the process, longstanding assumptions around strategy and success are falling by the wayside.
Emmet lives in a world run by President Business, the head of a successful corporation that fears any change to the status quo. President Business will even resort to supergluing LEGO pieces to keep them in their rightful places. President Business divides the world into two kinds of people: Ordinary Builders and Master Builders. He rewards Ordinary Builders who follow the rules, building from their LEGO Kits; he disapproves of the “anarchic” creativity of the Master Builders, who like to improvise from a pile of blocks, and he is determined to capture all of them.
President Business may be an exaggerated “bad guy.” But we can all relate to a fear of disruption. How do we avoid slipping into behaviors that feel safe but could ultimately hold us back?
It’s a challenging time for managers. They’re rewarded for executing today’s processes, whether in the kinds of people they hire or how they allocate budgets. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the bottom line of the current business model — such as laying the creative groundwork for tomorrow’s innovations — is likely to receive less attention.
Which is where Emmet comes in.
Emmet is a perfect metaphor for a manager who, by changing his own mind-set, is able to challenge business orthodoxy and impact the larger organization. A typical Ordinary Builder, Emmet can’t function without an instruction booklet, and he’s been rewarded for adhering to the past traditions firmly established in the LEGO Kits.
That is, until he loses his instruction manual, and his worldview is disrupted. Unable to continue working, Emmet is awed by the Master Builders and their ability to create whatever their imaginations dream up, quickly and without a manual. (In reality, Master Builders are the super-inventive designers who create the official LEGO Sets.)
Emmet, once happy to follow the rules, sees the Big Picture — and the value in what Master Builders create. He puts together a team and sets off to challenge President Business’s rampant supergluing.
Emmet’s odyssey offers important lessons for driving success in the real world:
- He puts together a diverse team. Emmet realizes that for all of their creativity, the Master Builders have their own weaknesses, and can’t innovate alone. Emmet sees the power of bringing together both talent sets — with the goal of creating the perfect dynamic for creativity and execution. Do you have a mix of people who can build something from a pile of bricks, or do they all need an instruction book? If your team lacks a harmonious balance of skills spread out among creators and executors, you won’t foster a culture of fast innovation and adaptability.
- He aligns them with a common goal or shared purpose. Emmet and the Master Builders are up against time as President Business is aggressively gluing. Set up “forcing functions” that will push your team into new territories or drive toward different results. If your work environment lacks defined problems that need to be tackled, the “Master Builders” won’t be challenged and the rule followers will remain undisrupted. Get your team focused on a “challenge” that will drive alignment and serve as a catalyst for shaking up business as usual.
- He knows they will learn as they go. Problems demanding new ideas require approaches that are different from those used in the past. Emmet and his group become a high-functioning, loyal team when they collaborate to get to President Business. Provide your team with training and tools that create innovation readiness and build the kind of creativity that will enable them to learn as they go. Shared discovery yields high-quality results.
In the end, Emmet must convince President Business that the Master Builders have great value. Will he save his friends? (No spoiler alert necessary — go see the film!)
Like all superhero films, “The LEGO Movie” exaggerates real themes to make a point. I don’t see it as an argument against the evils of capitalism or Big Business. Instead, I believe it presents a model that real-life managers can apply to real-world business challenges — namely, the imperative to innovate, evolve, execute, and scale in an atmosphere of near-constant disruption.
The LEGO Movie is an intriguing metaphor for a more diverse, inclusive, and collaborative approach to product and business development. The way to do it? Bring together the “kit creators” with those who can execute those kit instructions flawlessly. And watch the synergy fly.