Monday, May 24, 2010

The Building Blocks of Creativity at LEGO

 If there was a hall of fame of household names, LEGO would have its own wing. But success is about more than just being well-known. LEGO also has some of the most dedicated customers around. That helps Cecilia Weckstrom, who heads up the Consumer Insight & Experience Innovation area, run some pretty cutting-edge efforts to customize products and involve LEGO fans in the process of developing new businesses.

I connected with Cecilia through Kursty Groves, who I interviewed for this blog and who wrote the book “I Wish I Worked There”. Cecilia and I talked about how LEGO uses culture, space, and ravenous customers to stay a household name. Here’s an edited excerpt from the conversation:

ThinkingDesign: Do you use space differently for toy designers and for corporate types?

CW: At headquarters (in Billund, Denmark), we have lots of old factory buildings that have been converted to office spaces. Being a Scandinavian company, open floor plan thinking is a big feature. I guess the common thing is that there is a lot of openness – lots of bricks and toys everywhere. It’s a very family-friendly company, so people bring their kids to work and they’re all running around and playing in corners.

You might see people in suits now and again, but it’s only because we have to meet external people and have to look remotely respectable. It’s less corporate than you might find in many places, and it’s because kids create that kind of informality.

ThinkingDesign: How do you involve your customers in the design process?

CW: If you’re totally at the front end, you’re trying to scope out the opportunity areas – looking at trends, competitors, and the like. For example, the whole social and community aspect is becoming such a large part of being into LEGO. People aren’t just interested in LEGO for building and being creative themselves anymore. People are sharing what they’ve created online. YouTube is filled with LEGO videos that people have made, and then there are lots of fan sites where people post photos of the things that they’ve built.

(Here's a funny example of LEGO on YouTube)

It’s a whole movement and almost like a language, where people build something and are so excited to share it with people who are into the same stuff. And that’s why we work a lot with our community – to do things together with them but also ways to make the types of experiences or business opportunities to be more conducive to that side of socializing and connecting to others. It gives a lot of personal meaning and is more emotionally engaging that way.

ThinkingDesign: Cool. So, once you’ve found a trend like that, how do you then start to turn it into a business?

CW: Eric Von Hippel at MIT has developed what he calls a “lead user method,” and we use that when working on products by identifying users in the community who are sort of experts in a topic and work with them all the way throughout.

We also just launched a concept store where we have master builder bars and sections where people can learn tips and tricks on how to make crazy stuff. We developed all those things through co-creation – kids, parents, teachers, and the like have sat down with us and done brainstorming to come up with ideas on what the experience could be like, prototyping it and illustrating it and trying to get to the bottom of what could be a relevant value proposition for something that we aren’t doing today.

That’s the fun part – learning what it is our customers want, and seeing how excited they get when you involve them in the creative process. It’s inspiring to do things in collaboration, rather than isolation, with the people who you intend to have as your customers.

ThinkingDesign: How else do you co-create with your customers?

CW: We have an internal incubator team that deploys a sort of venture capital model when we develop entirely new business opportunities. We try to start small and prototype and pilot the project to gauge demand and play with the business model – but we do it live in the marketplace. That’s a technique we can use for entirely new businesses.

We’re also doing something called LEGO Cuusoo. It’s a Japanese platform (it means “I wish” in Japanese), where people can sort of wish for what they’d want out of a LEGO product and vote on other people’s ideas. When something gets 1000 wishes or votes, we will manufacture it for them.

In the act of voting for something, users create a profile. That gives us a lot of insight into who these people are. Are they kids or adults, and what are their profiles? It’s a low-risk way to get really deep insights, and we’re piloting the site in English now. It’s a way of fishing for ideas and gauging demand for them.

ThinkingDesign: How does the company philosophy influence the way LEGO operates?

CW: It’s a family-owned company. The Kristiansen family – now in its third generation of LEGO leadership – is very passionate about the cause of LEGO, which is essentially equipping people around the world with the ability to give form to their ideas and improve and grow their own creativity through a platform that is open-ended and isn’t complete until you put it together.

We’re incredibly successful, but it comes as a by-product of staying true to creativity, innovation, and fun. Because we’re family owned, we can allow ourselves a long-term view, instead of the desperate short-term focus. We see turning a profit as the oxygen. We all need to breathe to stay alive, but we’re not here on this planet to breathe. Similarly, profit allows us to be here but it’s not why we’re here.

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