Research shows that children are spending less time playing with LEGO bricks every year. Thankfully, LEGO corporate leaders are well aware of this trend — and that’s exactly why creativity is flourishing at the company, sales are booming, and the business surpassed rival Mattel to become the largest toy manufacturer in the world by revenue and profit in 2014. A firm believer in experimentation, LEGO has given its executives a simple mission: to routinely reinvent the business from the bottom up. Through the introduction of films, video games, apps, and augmented-reality experiences, senior leaders have quickly embraced that mandate.
It bears remembering that disruption didn’t always come naturally to the company. Thirteen years ago, LEGO was on the verge of stagnation, culminating in a disastrous 2002 holiday season when 40 percent of its retail stock went unsold. So the company decided to slash costs and get back to basics. It doubled down on its core competency: mastering the mechanics of play. Conducting groundbreaking research on how children play, LEGO quickly gained insights few companies possessed. It parlayed these insights, along with its flair for design and cutting-edge R&D, into a rapid-fire barrage of new ventures and quickly staged an all-star comeback.
Recently hailed by Fast Company as “the Apple of toys,” the organization no longer sees itself as being in the business of playthings. Rather, recognizing that children no longer make meaningful distinctions between physical and digital interactions, it has repositioned itself as being in the business of “play experiences.” Poised to unleash an onslaught of groundbreaking new ventures from free motion-tracking games you can play with a wave of your hand to massive internet ready apps, it just goes to show… even when the basic building blocks of a business seem to be crumbling, clever recombination is all it often takes to piece them back together.
THE POWER OF THE PLATFORM
Studies of the world’s most successful firms show that the fastest way to unlock your organization’s creativity and growth potential is through simply providing employees with flexible platforms for brainstorming, sharing, and executing new ideas. An increasing number of business leaders, from Wells Fargo to Unilever, are embracing these collaborative brainstorming principles. Nearly a fifth of all enterprises now use cloud computing and websites to innovate —just one of many tools for capturing worker suggestions. But what’s even more eye-opening is how market leaders are using these tools to drive continuing growth and success.
For example: At big data leader EMC, business units pose pressing strategic problems to employees to solve via innovation contests. Workers can suggest solutions, source feedback, and vote for winning ideas online, which are transformed into real-world prototypes. Strikingly, though, many of the firm’s best new innovations are happening when employees independently team up to bring failing ideas to life. At personal finance-software developer Intuit, leaders go one step further. Employees can propose ideas, secure staffing and resources, and actually go to market with pilot programs, sans management approval — and dozens of revenue-generating features and products have resulted. Even government agencies such as NASA and the Federal Trade Commission are now using crowdsourcing portals like Challenge.gov and offering cash prizes to the public for creating new, business ready solutions. So the next time you want to spark ongoing growth and success? It frequently pays to get a second — or even 200th — opinion, just as the world’s most celebrated business leaders do.
When it comes to innovation, less is often more. According to a recent book Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty, evolutions and slight shifts in thinking can be every bit as powerful as revolutions and game-changing breakthroughs. Here are five ways you can rapidly drive innovation in your enterprise without huge investments:
- Constantly experiment with new products and strategies, iterating and improving, based on the results you get from the market.
- Always look for ways to reposition your products toward new customers. Ask yourself: Who else might want our solutions? What new problems can we solve?
- Build an environment that encourages colleagues to bring new ideas to light, and look for insight from unusual places — customers can be your best source.
- Share information freely through departments. When teams are aligned, you can more easily bring about innovations.
- Play a portfolio of strategic bets and innovative new ventures: These efforts can help you continually learn, grow, and stay ahead of the pack.
AT MENLO, EVERYONE STANDS TOGETHER
The next time you feel like the boss is looking over your shoulder at work, consider this: She could be sharing your desk instead. In fact, at industry-leading software developer Menlo Innovations, which has a roster of all-star clients such as AAA and Domino’s, teamwork is the most important driver of business growth. Two workers share every computer in the office, and partners and projects shift weekly, which makes for an unusual fit as senior executives and junior interns must often learn to cowork. But this switching system (borrowed from the airline industry) is no laughing matter. It not only helps facilitate creativity and innovation, it also helps open employees’ eyes to new perspectives. Through direct, hands on mentorship and learning, workers are exposed to new influences, ingrain vital leadership skills, and facilitate ongoing knowledge transfer. Just how successful is Menlo’s buddy system? Ask the thousands of executives from firms ranging from Thomson Reuters to Toyota who now visit the business to learn from its strategies.
INNOVATION FOR BREAKFAST
Why not start the day with a fresh, piping hot cup of oatmeal — served straight from your Keurig coffeemaker? Thanks to food manufacturer General Mills and the magic of open innovation, the choice is yours. With sales of cold cereals (representing about 22 percent of the firm’s U.S.-based business) down as much as 10.7 percent from 2003 to 2013, the company recently faced a difficult choice: Adapt or decline.
With an increase in customers’ demand for grab-and-go convenience, the rising popularity of fast-food retailers’ $3 drive-through oatmeal cups, and the decrease in the amount of time most have to sit around the breakfast table, the company realized it had an opportunity: It could use booming sales of single-serve coffeemakers as a way to reach today’s time-strapped customer. After internal brainstorming sessions, innovation teams created an early sketch of potential solutions. They then presented prospective ideas to their network of suppliers, and external vendors quickly came up with flavoring recipes, packaging, and prototypes.
Following successful concept testing — General Mills setup a lemonade stand-style display in Minneapolis malls —its Nature Valley Bistro Cups quickly served up rapid success. As soon as the cups were launched on Amazon, they sold out; and they’re now carried in over 6,000 retail stores.
SIMPLE SHIFTS; HUGE WINDFALLS
Here’s how three leading organizations used the power of changing perspective and iterative growth strategies to quickly solve problems and create powerful results.
When retailer Target wanted to increase revenues, it didn’t open more giant strip-mall outlets. It introduced pint-size CityTarget stores in highly trafficked urban areas selling locally branded merchandise and household goods (e.g. paper towels) in smaller packages. The concept’s been so successful that the chain has doubled the number of these stores in one year.
Threatened by a flood of low-priced foreign competitors, the padlock maker sought out niche markets for new products where it could exercise its brand-name advantage — continually repositioning these products until they reached max performance. For instance, a steering-wheel lock that initially failed when targeted at mainstream auto owners proved hugely successful when rebranded as a security device for trailers and towing vehicles.
With an average of 5,200 flights to 369 destinations a day, United Airlines is often faced with unforeseen weather delays and cancellations. During events such as these, it once took three to five minutes to rebook each inconvenienced passenger, even with a team of hundreds of agents. At a customer’s suggestion, United introduced an automated rebooking system that tracks flight progress — and in the wake of delays, the system can now reroute customers in just three seconds with no human interaction required.