sea of Lego people
Lessons from Lego to inspire everyone, from IT to marketing PHOTO: eak on pixabay

Lego, my childhood obsession, has become my professional icon. I recently “won” a Women of NASA Lego signature set through a social media program, and all the great memories came rushing back when I received it. I remember how Lego provided an exciting feeling of anticipation, followed by an intense work focus and then, ultimately, an exhilarating sense of accomplishment.

As we close out this work year and look ahead to success in the next, here’s my take on why we should all strive to be more like Lego.

The Birth of an Icon

It all began in 1932 in a carpentry workshop in Billund, Denmark. That’s where the Lego company and its iconic product started on what would become the Lego journey. Lego sprang from the minds of Ole Kirk Christiansen and his son Godtfred as they worked diligently to at first create high-quality wooden toys and then to build a successful global company.

The earliest Lego plastic bricks were sold under the name Automatic Binding Bricks beginning in 1949. Then, in 1953, the product was renamed Lego Mursten (i.e. Lego Bricks). Five years later, the familiar hollow tube brick design was officially “born” at 1:58 p.m., Jan. 28, 1958, when it was patented.

This famous birthday might never have happened if the Christiansens had not faced, and overcome, the challenge of being out-of-work carpenters looking for a new avenue of gainful employment.

Leverage the Power of the Pivot

Each time the Christiansens faced adversity, they would follow their market sense and pivot to create opportunity. Their first pivot, when they could not find work as carpenters, was to turn from carpentry to crafting wooden toys. That change was natural, because their work continued to focus on the common factor of quality woodworking.

The next pivot occurred after their workshop burned down in 1942. Ole rebuilt the workshop but then turned to what would become a transformational element for Lego: plastic. The Christiansens began to build toys made of plastic, a new material whose emergence had been fueled by the dramatic pace of research, development and manufacturing that occurred as part of the war effort.

The third pivot was a move to focus on the essence of what toys are for — play. That was followed by an expansion from production to distribution. When his wholesaler went out of business, Ole became a salesman. He later became a marketer, branding his creation with inspiration from the Danish phrase “let godt,” which means “play well” in English.

Ironically, what Ole didn’t realize at first was that in Latin “lego” means “I put together.” Perfect branding. [Disclaimer: I am not saying this is how the best branding works, but you can draw your own conclusions.]

Related Reading: Digital Customer Experience Isn't Child's Play. Just Ask Lego

Let Discipline Enable Creativity

One of the critical characteristics of Legos is they have a uniform interlocking mechanism to ensure dependable construction. The famous stud and tube standard design was the brainchild of Godtfred who wanted to “put system into play.” He felt that, in the past, children had only been offered ready-made solutions for toys and he thought they needed something different that would spark their imaginations.

The standard interlock design means that all Lego bricks created since 1958 can fit together with other Lego bricks. And because quality was Ole’s top concern — “only the best is good enough,” was said to be his mantra — to this day you can always count on Lego quality.

The result? Built upon a standard, the Lego “system of play” provides the ability to combine bricks in new and fascinating ways limited only by your imagination.

This dependability appeals to both my analytic and creative sides. It proves important both to engineers who are creating the latest technologies and to marketers who know that consumers are influenced by the consistency and dependability of a company’s brand promise.

With a dependable foundation, creativity can run free. Consider for example the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, which was named one of the top 25 most creative companies a few years ago. While Sanofi does business in one of the most regulated industries in the world — and therefore must adopt tight process disciplines and adhere to numerous standards — it has been cited as having some of the most creative employees in the world.

Attack Each Project With a Sense of Wonder

After Ole passed away and another fire ravaged the workshop, Godtfred did not waver but rather rededicated himself to making the company a success. He pushed to build an airport for Billund that would enable Lego to expand its sales globally. The construction of the airport and the global expansion proved so successful that visitors started to flood into the Lego factory design room.

So in 1968, with a child’s sense of wonder, Godtfred created a visitors attraction called LegoLand. There are now more than 10 LegoLand theme parks around the world.

Much as Godtfred attacked the first and subsequent LegoLand projects, children (and adults) over the decades have attacked each Lego project with new wonder and enthusiasm. This is a lesson we can all take to heart for our own projects at work.

These days, I am very much concerned with large digital transformation projects, and I feel that in today’s ever-evolving discipline of project management — with methodologies that include agile, scrum, kanban, lean and waterfall — passion and purpose still may be the elements that are most important to success. A Forbes article titled “Four Major Success Factors in Large-Scale Transformation” supports that viewpoint, saying, “When major stakeholders agree on a deeper shared purpose for a transformation and see the value, they are more likely to endure the challenges that the change will present.”

Celebrate the Wins

This October, Lego announced a celebration of the “Women of NASA” with a signature collection — yes, the very one I was lucky enough to be awarded. My set was delivered right after Thanksgiving. When it arrived, you would have thought I had won a new car or a trip around the world. But somehow it represented much more than that to me: it was a wonderful tribute to everyone involved in STEM fields. The set can be used to build models of the Hubble space telescope and a space shuttle, as well as Lego versions of Sally Ride, Nancy Grace Roman, Margaret Hamilton and Mae Jemison. My set is signed by Nancy Grace Roman.

Lego, my childhood favorite, truly continues to embody striving for the endless possibilities of a “world without limits.” Lego’s lessons of market acumen, quality, discipline, passion, wonder and a shared sense of purpose should inform all of our initiatives — work projects as well as personal projects — just as they have inspired the Lego journey.

And as we succeed in the coming year, let’s all remember to celebrate.