Design Thinking in Business — Lego

Lego recently ran a billboard advertising campaign that I saw in Europe showing children finding creative ways to play with their colored bricks. One child used them to make flowers that were “planted” in a window box. Another let their Lego figures parachute out of the window using their mother’s bras as parachutes. The tag line was something like you can’t get mad at your kids for being creative (unfortunately, I don’t have the actual text so this is not exact). When children saw the ads, their eyes sparkled and they would actually stop and point it out to each other and their parents, who responded in kind.

A few years ago Lego was having problems making such connections with its core customers because, in an attempt to remain competitive in the world of electronic games, it had jumped to the incorrect conclusion that kids weren’t interested in plastic bricks because they didn’t have the time or patience for them. Based on this assumption, Lego started creating toys that looked cool, but took less time, and creativity, to put together. Not only were kids losing interest, but so were their parents who had bought Lego toys for their kids out of feeling of nostalgia.

How did the company manage to turn this trend around? By realizing that it needed to understand what “play” meant to its users — children.

He (CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp) realized that Lego needed to better understand the phenomenon of play. What is children’s experience when they play, what do they desire from it, and how could Lego serve that need?”

To find out, the company embedded researchers with families in the United States and Germany. The researchers spent months collecting data, interviewing parents and children, creating photo and video diaries, shopping with families, and studying toy shops…key insights began to emerge. Among them was that children play to escape their overly orchestrated lives and to hone a skill.

An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar | Harvard Business Review, March 2014

I’m willing to bet that market data analytics and even focus groups would not have provided this insight. In fact such data may have helped mislead the company in the first place.

You can listen to what people say, sure.

But you will be far more effective if you listen to what people do.

Seth Godin

The fall and rise of Lego shows the importance of getting out there and understanding your customer. I think this is especially important to remember in the age of Big Data. Yes, numbers can provide support, but they can mislead and when it comes to customer behavior, they certainly don’t tell the entire story.

In reading the HBR article, here are a couple of new words, at least for me, I came across:

Phenomenology: The study of how people experience life (Starbucks really got this right when it comes to coffee)

Sensemaking: “A non=linear process that reveals the often subtle and unconscious motivations informing customer behavior that can lead to insights that enable transformations in product development, organizational culture, and even corporate strategy. “ An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar | Harvard Business Review, March 2014