Meeting the Diplomatic Rebel

by Mel Kaplan

Published on
October 15, 2015

David Gram, the Marketing Director at Lego’s Future Labs is in a unique position to be able to talk first hand about innovation as a practical outcome, working for the Apple of Toys.

His presentation about the remarkable story of Lego’s comeback, from near bankruptcy, to the most powerful brand on the globe in just over a decade, makes a compelling story. Don’t take my word for it, there are numerous articles on Wired, Forbes and the Financial Review, to name a few.

With a global brand like that, an amazing war chest and the most talented people in the world, innovation should be a breeze. However, it turns out, it’s not that easy. An organisation needs commitment, it needs process, and most of all it needs ‘diplomatic rebels.’ They are the people that challenge the status quo, but are nice about it. They help the doubters and naysayers shine.

But what about a small services firm in a provincial city on the other end of the globe? Can they have diplomatic rebels?

Last week I was fortunate to sit down with David and ask him that exact question and a few others as well. Below is a heavily edited version of our talk.

“It’s easy to set things on fire, and to rebel, but it’s hard to get everyone to follow”

Me: Is it possible for an organisation to have many ‘diplomatic rebels?

David: Yes, absolutely. The trick is to give them focus, so that resources are directed for quick outcomes.

Me: Can you have part-time rebels?

David: That is a bit harder. They need to keep working their day jobs, but need enough time, around 30%, to dedicate to the process. Otherwise they never get past ideation. They need to be able to get to a pilot stage. The concept is to try something small, fast. If it works, they bring it into the core business. If not, they go on to the next idea.

Me: So the process is still the same, regardless of the size of the team or the company?

David: Yes, but with an organisation of thousands, it can take many years to refine the process. With a smaller business of less than a hundred, maybe it could be faster, one to two years.

Me: Many organisations confuse digital and innovation. Where does Lego see the two?

David: Lego is very aware that innovation is much more than digital, but to ensure the success of the program, we have to focus on one key area first. Our job is to make sure that digital is embedded into the core company. Once that happens and it becomes part of their core competency at all levels, then Future Lab will move on to the next thing.

Me: It’s easier to see the innovation in a tangible product. But how does a services company innovate.

David: True, very true. For a services firm, the innovation has to be in the experience. What is the value in the experience and how do you make improvements, either incremental or radical, that customers will gain from? Innovation is never easy, and it is especially more difficult when customers don’t see something in their hands.

We are hearing more and more about the need to innovate to stay competitive in this business environment. Having people who are ready to question old ways and poke around for new ways is the key. Equally as important is the process, the support, and the governance, no matter what size the company is.