How to be a “Diplomatic Rebel”

Now here’s a topic to make my ears prick up! David Gram, an “Intrapreneur” at Lego (hello, yes please to that job) talked about “diplomatic rebels” and innovation through intrapreneurship, at last week’s Disruption Summit Europe.

Lego "Intrapreneur" David Gram speaking at Disruption Summit Europe

Gram started off with a bold statement “radical is the new incremental, radical is the new normal”. True perhaps for the lucky few who work in organisations who are ready to embrace change and have realised that the time to recoup the cost of innovation is reducing, great for those who have already evolved to support bold new leadership, but… As Gram reminded us, institutional change takes time, lots of time. The average time to change the way a big organisation works is eight years he says.

Progress happens whether you’re ready for it or not, companies need to be agile and nimble in order to explore, experiment, and survive. So why aren’t large companies good at experimenting?

The bigger and more successful the company, the more that they feel they have something to lose. They don’t want to risk their reputation or look stupid by backing the wrong horse, and it’s this fear of getting it wrong, or not being “perfect”, that is holding them back.

Echoing the Summit keynote from Fraser Bennett, Gram promotes the mindset we have in early life, that of curiosity, questioning and exploring without fear. “Kids experiment all the time, it’s how they learn” says Gram. “When a kid tries to stand for the first time, and falls over, the parents don’t say ‘well, that’s a failure right there’”. We need to be ready to take risks, to fail fast and fail better.

“Intrapreneurship is for the brave” says Gram, “most either end up conforming, or burning out”.

It is important to understand the different elements of a business and know where your works fits within them. Simply put, activity can be split into three different levels of innovation:

  • Core Business – continuous improvement and upgrades to your product or service
  • Core Exploration – incremental innovation – Lego has multiple innovation labs across the organisation
  • Radical Exploration – this is agile and radical, and involves radically different ways of working, with different processes.

At the core business end the levels of risk, and levels of innovation, are low, and these increase through the other levels, up to radical exploration, which has both the highest level of innovation, and the highest level of risk.

In order to really unlock the potential of radical exploration, Gram advises that it is better to take this innovation process out of the existing business, having several entities working together and making the most of the synergies between them.

People need to think about how to “de-risk” innovation. It’s all too easy to identify a lack of innovation as a big problem, throw a large amount of money at it, leading to the hiring of a big team, which then requires structure and steering groups. Very quickly you find the project has become too big to fail. Projects like this can be hard to cancel and may damage the appetite for innovation in future. With this in mind, the mantra: “Think big, start small” takes on a new importance.

Simple Steps for Speedy Innovation

Fast learning through multiple iterations
  • Develop empathy for your customers and the world
  • Develop your hypothesis
  • Create “pretotypes” – ideas that can be tested quickly. Important that “pretotypes” are not “prototypes” – they don’t have to work they are just a way to communicate and test the concept. The reason to take this step before creating a full prototype is that it saves you time and it stops engineers falling in love with a specific product too early.
  • Learn from pretotypes and when you have a positive response to a concept, move on to the prototyping stage

“This is not an excuse to do nothing” says Gram, “you must measure your learnings and really be disciplined about the way that you work”.

At Lego, the development of new products is being democratised, he says. Lego Ideas allows fans of the brand able to create ideas for new sets, but it wasn’t all plain sailing, explains Gram.

If you look on Etsy, there are plenty of Lego-themed ideas, half of them are super-innovative, and half are infringing the brand. Since there was no way to stop brand infringement (and any attempt to do so would have killed Lego), they took the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them” and the Lego Ideas concept was developed.

Lego management were not impressed – they said “no” to the idea – stating that they have the best designers in the world, other companies might steal the ideas, and believing that adult fans of Lego (known as AFOLs) are just nerdy guys.

In order to move forward, there was a need to de-risk the concept, so the team started in a single market – Japan – that was quite disconnected to others. They got another company to build a website so that it looked like it was built by a Lego fan, rather Lego themselves.

The result was amazing. A fan created a Lego version of the famous Japanese Shinkai 6500 Submarine, and when Lego launched the set, it quickly became the most popular Lego set at that price point, despite zero marketing spend.

The next big win came from Lego Minecraft. Originally the sets were only sold via the website of the games company behind Minecraft, but soon major toy retailers were ringing Lego and asking why they didn’t have it in stock. Once again, an idea from the Lego community had become a huge hit, and with no marketing budget. Point proven, management changed their minds, and Lego Ideas has continued its success – and is the reason I’ve a Lego Saturn V proudly stood on my mantel piece!

Perhaps Gram was lucky that despite concerns from management, a pilot project was sanctioned, so it was possible to prove the value of the idea. Not all of us are so lucky, so what are his tips for being a diplomatic rebel?

Diplomatic Rebellion

  • People will hate your project – just accept it
  • Only break rules that you understand (and understand why they exist), and break as few as possible
  • Build a tribe
  • Write love letters – be humble, acknowledge the work of others and remember you’re standing on the shoulders of giants
  • Make other people shine – credit people – even the initial haters

Sound and sensible ideas, and definitely ones I’ll keep in mind, but perhaps the level of success will ultimately depend on the work-culture of your organisation, and amount of empowerment that managers feel secure in giving employees.

Without some level of trust and support from managers, change will always be difficult, and whether you’re diplomatic in your rebellion or not, if the appetite for innovation isn’t truly in the company DNA, you could find yourself being forced to conform or burning out. So which companies are truly ready to take the risk, trust staff, and enable change? Answers on a postcard please!

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