Blog | July 31, 2019

Do You (As A Leader) Create Great Choices?

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

When Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin, professors at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, submitted their Leadership Lesson, The Wrong Answer: Learning To Leverage Opposing Perspectives for Life Science Leader’s June 2018 issue, they also sent a copy of their book Creating Great Choices: A Leaders Guide To Integrative Thinking, which I finally found time to read. Now, some may not realize that Martin, according to the most recent Thinkers50 rankings, is considered the top management thinker in the world, and from my perspective, the coauthored book is a good reveal as to why. For example, early in the book, Riel and Martin ask how often we make choices — I mean, really make them. Or, do we, instead, accept one of the choices handed to us. Let’s be honest, most of us settle most of the time. And when faced with a tough decision, we choose one of the options in front of us instead of creating a new, more successful way. Let’s look at an example highlighted by Riel and Martin of how great CEOs create their own great choices.

What Can Be Learned From LEGO

In 2004, the LEGO Group, maker of the plastic construction bricks played with by children and adults around the world, was near bankruptcy. That same year, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, a former McKinsey consultant, joined the company as CEO, the first person outside the family to run the Danish toy company in its 80-year history. Like most CEOs of organizations losing money, he began by cutting jobs and rationalizing the company’s product line. Beyond bricks, the company had a highly profitable licensing business, meaning it could make constructor kits and minifigures based on franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars. These soon expanded into original entertainment content, where the company partnered to produce films, TV shows, and video games. By 2005, some of LEGO’s short films had become so successful that the idea of an original LEGO feature film made its way to the company’s brand and innovation board. And while the company had had great success in partnering for LEGO branded entertainment, its own foray into feature-length entertainment was less than disappointing. For example, its 2010 direct to DVD film LEGO: The Adventures of Clutch Powers was, in the words of Knudstorp, “too loyal to the LEGO brand, boring,” and “had no edge.” This made the CEO think that perhaps his company was not in the best position to tell its own story, likening the situation to adapting a book for film. “If you want somebody to write a great a movie script, one of the first things they will do is violate the book,” he said. For example, there might not be enough room for a key character when adapting a long book to an hour and a half movie. The book’s author is often too close to effectively adapt their work into a new context, but a screenwriter isn’t, and thus why they take on such a task. Knudstorp thought the same principle held for LEGO. So, how could the company make a great film based on the LEGO brand when they are not in the business of writing movie scripts? It seemed there were two options: (1) LEGO could maintain total creative control, hiring screenwriters and directors based on a corporate vision for the film; or (2) LEGO could cede all control to the filmmakers giving Hollywood full creative rights over the characters and story, including how the LEGO brand was depicted. Here’s what they ended up deciding. “We actually gave the producer and the screenwriters at Warner Bros. complete degrees of freedom in coming up with a script,” Knudstorp said. “We had every opportunity to read it and comment, but we had no rights over it.” However, to make sure the filmmakers embraced the brands the way LEGO fans did, the CEO insisted that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative team, spend time with LEGO superfans, both kids and adults. “I think they were genuinely surprised about how powerful the brand is and how meaningful it is,” he shared. End result, The LEGO movie, nominated and winner of numerous awards, grossed nearly $470 million globally. 

What’s Required To Create Great Choices?

According to Martin and Riel, many leaders would have viewed Knudstorp’s decision dilemma as an optimization problem: How much control needs to be given up to attract just enough talent to make a good movie? Knudstorp rejected such thinking, as he wanted to create an outstanding movie that not only supported but grew the brand (i.e., create a great choice). The authors refer to the process as integrative thinking (i.e., taking the best of choices A and B and creatively reconfiguring to create new value). It seems creating great choices requires the cultivation of controlled empathy — a purposeful and directed attempt to understand others and their experiences. Why? Well according to the authors, having a lack of empathy tends to lead to narrow, single-minded solutions. With empathy however, we have a much better shot at understanding how others think and are better able to learn from their perspectives. The authors note the following broad ethnographic research tools working well for generating understanding and building empathy.

  1. Observation – watching people closely in their natural habitat.
  2. Engagement – gaining an understanding by engaging with a person directly to get their story.
  3. Experience – creating a situation where you can experience what someone else is going through (i.e., walking in their shoes).

According to the authors, another important component for leaders interested in creating great choices involves collaborative creativity (i.e., working with others to find new answers to vexing problems), which requires practice. Here are five principles to keep in mind when working to generate new ideas.

  1. Start with a problem to be solved.
  2. Escape the tyranny of the blank piece of paper (i.e., existing models can be very helpful in getting started).
  3. Learn the value of bad ideas (i.e., defer judgment to prevent other ideas from going unsaid).
  4. Build to think (i.e., sketches, models, prototypes, storyboards, role playing and narrative storytelling can help make an abstract idea more real).
  5. Give yourself time to think and play so insights can emerge.

Riel and Martin draw on numerous other examples beyond LEGO to explain how to get better at creating great choices, and for those leaders truly interested in doing so, I’d highly recommend reviewing their book. Because this 1,000-word blog is not nearly enough space to do the topic justice.