As they get older (and they are still only 5 and 6) I increasingly find I’m learning from my kids, both in what they tell me and also in what I can observe.

Take, for example, how they play with Lego (or “Legos” if you are American – although why, if you’re American you can’t understand it’s “Maths” I’ll never know… I digress).

My boys have three primary modes for how they play with the insanely successful plastic bricktoy:

1. Battle combat mode

It’s because they are boys, right? They’ll grow out of it, right? Whatever, it seems that some of the time the way in which they play with Lego is to use it as a multicoloured assault weapon. It’s not that uncommon to find their bedrooms littered with the stuff. A set of painful landmines for the barefooted.

I think we see combat battle mode in business a fair bit too. The use of new technology not for any purpose other than to show to the market or our competitors that we are more innovative than they are. What I am starting to call PRTech. It’s pretty harmless. It’s generally pretty useless.

2. Ikea mode

For many years I’ve argued that Lego is in fact a Nordic-wide conspiracy to soften us up to buy flat-pack furniture in later life. Ikea mode – the selection of an instruction manual, the finding of the pieces, the construction of the model – is a 3D jigsaw puzzle form of structured play, a game almost, where the kids will spend hours (usually regularly calling out “Dad! Can you just find this bit?!”

Ikea mode is the predominant way in which organizations go about experimenting with new technology. They want to innovate, but they want to do it with extremely well defined outcomes, a known plan, and to have assurance that whilst they are being innovative, someone else has done it before. Ikea mode innovation is fine for as long as you are dealing with Known Problems, Clock-like challenges.

3. Free play mode

Free play mode is where the deep, creative play comes to the fore for the boys. Magical things are constructed on their own terms. Blocks become spaceships, castles, mini adventures fuelled by their imaginations. This is, at it’s heart, what Lego used to be about (until it understood the value of creating successful (and often very violent) kids media franchises).

This, I contend, is far less prevalent in the world of business. Doing things to tinker, to play around, without any clear outcome is frowned upon. It’s not work-like. It shows no clear ROI. IT IS NOT WORKING.

And there is not only the pity, but possibly the problem, for many organizations. When new technologies or concepts first emerge they are, quite rightly, regarded by the masses as mere “toys”. Today, look at things like Virtual Reality. Proper businesses don’t play with toys – they invest in solutions.

But without developing the ability to play, free, creative, no-defined-outcome type play, organizations will always be following others. There’s only one thing you can do with a toy – play with it. The other modes are equally important, but Free Play, tinkering, needs to be an organizational muscle that businesses develop if they don’t want to only ever be following the herd.

I’m currently writing a book about the importance of Play in organizations. Find out more here.

One thought on “Three things innovators can learn from Lego

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