Monday, January 30, 2012

Build like LEGOs.

Everywhere I look right now, there's our future. Nascent innovators who'll someday alter what's possible. Already formidable intellects who'll uncover the unknown and take part in the invention of our tomorrow. Highly skilled technologists whose genius will only grow through puberty. Maybe even the next Tim Berners-Lee is here, playing with LEGOs.

Actually, not playing. Competing with them. Thinking about how to address real-life issues with them. Out-thinking unexpected hurdles in real-time. Programming them to perform autonomously and intelligently.

I'm at the state LEGO Robotics championship. With its history of innovation, the University of Utah is an apropos location to hold this crazy-energy, celebrate-the-geek event. It was an original ARPANET node, after all, not to mention ground zero for modern computer graphics.  Right now, my son's team is in seventh place in the head-to-head competition. Not the best showing, considering how talented they are. I heard that they had to replace a motor last night, which resulted in some off-timing.

But what certainly isn't off, I just realized, is LEGO.

With this event, they've created meaningful engagement with every one of the five hundred boys and girls here. This is no one-off, trivial "customer conversation," either. It's a year-round exploration of, and immersion in, LEGO. It's not really branding at this point. It's an integrated part of their existence--so integrated that it's easy to forget LEGO is involved. And as a parent of one of those kids, I can confirm that the connection's impact extends beyond the teams.

The recent "is capitalism good or bad?" conversation led me to an HBR article by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer on "shared value." This is as close to a summary paragraph as I could find:
The solution [to bringing business and society back together] lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.
This LEGO championship, under the banner of FIRST LEGO League, provides a top-notch example of how an organization can extend benefits beyond shareholder profits to tangible human benefits. Perhaps that's because LEGO is a private family-owned business--and because FLL was co-created in 1998 by the then-CEO of LEGO, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, who also happens to be the grandson of the company's founder. 

So what can an organization learn from a LEGO tournament?

  • Play a long game. You hear lots of talk about long-term vision and investment, but little action. This tournament, and the swirl of community and involvement around it, is an exception. These kids will have a life-long bond with LEGOs, a bond far beyond a transitory brand "like." It's a deep and nearly irrevocable psychological link between LEGO and smart thinking. Even decades from now it'll reverberate positively--for the individual, the company, and society.
  • Embed innovation. Innovation is not a trend. And LEGO demonstrates that even simple plastic toys depend on continual and occasionally radical change to stay relevant. When LEGO came up with LEGO Mindstorm, they literally embedded innovation into their product. And I just read that LEGO Minecraft is on its way. The marriage of the hottest pixelated virtual world and LEGO's blocky real world is both ingenious and right on the money.
  • Don't brag. It can be surprising how little LEGO markets and sells its product at this event. It had a logo on sponsorship lists, but it was certainly not highlighted. Nobody gratuitously thanked LEGO from the podium. But then again, LEGO was everywhere. My son's team name? The LEGO Geeks. The trophies? All made from LEGOs. Even though they clearly played a critical role in enabling this wonderful event, they made no overt attempts to take credit. My belief is that this subtlety keeps their credibility ratings much higher, and prevents the event from feeling like a mere marketing ploy.
  • Be real. This is flesh-and-blood community. Not to knock social networking, but this event brought together kids, from the greasy-haired to the perfectly coiffed, not avatars and screen names. You heard them laugh, yell, scream. You could see their big smiles and grimaces. Even the mission framing the competition--food safety this year, senior citizen care next--speaks to "real." And these kids have thought long and hard about how to solve these real-life challenges in real ways.
  • Good is good. It is time to alter Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" mantra to the syllogism "good is good." One of my least favorite business clich├ęs is "win/win," but is there any better way to describe this tournament, all that surrounds it, and its potential to create long-term business gains for LEGO? 

If other organizations can meet Porter's demands that "businesses must reconnect with social progress" and, through shared values, develop "a new way to achieve economic success" as well as LEGO has with this tournament, we'll be on our way to a much improved business environment--one which will have wide-ranging benefits, for both people and profits.



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