Leadership Lessons From LEGO

by Ken Perlman –

As a very lucky father of two girls, I feel that many of the lessons learned in fatherhood apply to change leadership. Here I share the parallels between building a complex LEGO set with my daughters and coaching my clients through transformational change.

As my daughters and I tackled a three-day LEGO project, I realized that what makes these projects so fun and satisfying are the same things that help my clients love leading change in their organizations.

Now, we all know “love” and “change” don’t get used in the same sentence very often, but some of the same principles that made for a wonderful, LEGO-filled weekend with my girls are also at work with my clients. These principles are present with my larger clients (thousands of employees around the globe) as well as my smaller ones (a few hundred employees in one location).

So here they are – lessons in leadership courtesy of LEGO.

Lesson #1: Start with what success looks like. LEGO provides a complete – and exciting – picture of the final product right there on the box. It always looks AWESOME. There is little mention of the number of bags, number of pieces, number of steps, and so on (which would only deflate your excitement). You fall in love with the end result before you even buy. After buying the set, you feel that the finished project is just a few steps away because you already know what success looks like – and it looks AWESOME. Many times, executives outline the daunting and time-consuming strategies required to get from today to tomorrow – deflating excitement – rather than building momentum around the picture of the finished product. Most fail to paint or show a clear (AWESOME) picture of what success looks like. It’s this picture that makes people fall in love with the idea; that makes them eager to spend their time putting all the pieces together to make it a happen.

Lesson #2: Consider interchangeable parts. It’s rare, but occasionally, there are missing LEGO blocks. Instead of stop-mode, these challenges put my daughters into innovation-mode – they pull out their bucket of spare parts to find what we need and we keep building away. How many times have our colleagues said, “That won’t work because …” or “We’ve already tried that”?  Although these excuses occasionally save us some time not repeating old mistakes, it’s unusual that we go back to see what pieces (lessons, learning, accomplishments, etc.) can be reapplied. Often times people, tools, resources, and lessons are there for the picking, it’s just rare that we go back to those buckets to get them.

Lesson #3: Instructions are only so helpful. The instructions are great, usually. But there are cases where you simply cannot tell which round peg goes into which square hole (with LEGOS, literally). Whereas I turn the instructions round-and-round, flipping ahead to get another view, my daughters simply put things together as best they can. They say, “Let’s try it and see if it works.” This fearless experimentation is a critical element to accelerating innovation. What’s the worst thing that could happen? With LEGOS, the consequences are nil. In many business or organizations there are real risks. But, more often than not, the main risk is not the unforeseen consequences, but in the risk of being seen as wrong. By eliminating that fear, we increase our ability to iterate in fast cycles. It is key for leadership to encourage and reward those who experiment, learn, and build.

Lesson #4: It’s more fun when more people are working together. Working on a LEGO project on your own is great. But sharing the experience with my daughters (or more specifically them sharing it with me) is so much more fun. My clients find it easier to get 100 people to volunteer one hour each than to get any one person to find 100 free hours. The different people, perspectives, and experiences make for open collaboration. Each volunteer brings different strengths, allowing the innovation to go faster, further, and freer.

Lesson #5: The quality of the final product relies upon the input of imagination. When I was growing up there were few custom LEGO parts, perhaps a wheel or a windshield. Today, there are a huge number of set-specific parts (e.g., tools, flip-up cockpits, weapon launchers, etc.). Yet my daughters still make modifications or, in their words, “improvements.” One daughter built a LEGO motorcycle which was destroyed when she sent it down hardwood stairs. Instead of being bummed out, she saw an opportunity. “Now I can make it better,” she said. “It was too heavy to go as fast as I want it to.” She stripped it down, leaned it out, and launched it again. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the builder’s imagination.

Look, as a leader, you set the tone for how your employees experience large-scale change. You could be the one that enables fearless (but informed) innovation and experimentation – or you can be the one holding up the instruction book saying, “That’s not how we do it.” The choice is yours.

By the way, friends at LEGO, Star Wars X-Wing … Best. LEGO. Ever.

Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkotter/2013/09/24/leadership-lessons-from-lego/