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Rise and Fall of Lego and Why Death Is Good. Again.

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog for days. weeks. years. I don’t know. Ages.

Each time i sit down to do it, i find something else to do. I am avoiding it.

For a simple little blog post, i’ve created many ways to ignore doing it. I don’t know, it must be because i’m scared… scared it won’t be very good or very interesting or worth reading or whatever.

So, whatever.

i’m not sure what thats got to do with Lego. Nothing really.

I’m reading a book about the story of Lego - the company. Lego being a ‘great business case study’ of our times. A great company from Denmark, makes toys, seared onto the consciousness of most adults. In fact seared into the consciousness of almost everyone, unless you’re aged between 15-20. ish. Thats because from about 1990ish-2000ish Lego died, a certain kind of death. Its sales started to slow and, despite some run away successes - like a link up with Darth Vadar and the new Star Wars - the business was, in business speak, plateauing. The hero had gone bad. Or to sleep, or something. The near 30 years of rampant, unadulterated growth (the second such period in its life) had slowed. What did they do? They Took Appropriate Measures To Fix The Patient. They brought in new people. They put in place grand plans, Big Strategies. The innovated. They did shit. A lot of it. As it turned out, the grand plans, the big strategies, didn’t work out, well, not at least not as they were intended. All the new people, the new products, the new ideas just cost a lot more money. Lego was on the brink of collapse. They had emergency meetings in Legoland - which is true, apparently, and a little bit comedy. They needed a new turnaround plan. They needed new people. They needed a new grand plan. All of which, to varying degrees, they got. And what happened? They’re back! They’re big! Lego, after a fallow period, re-found its groove.

Why is this interesting?

In many respects it’s not, of course. Its just another company, albeit one which really does believe in something important, like playing and creativity and joy etc, which did well, then badly, and then tried lots of stuff on the way to fixing itself. It’s a well trodden path. Reading the book and knowing the story did give rise to a few questions which I found interesting.

a) The natural world is full of life and death, of growing and shrinking. I know we don’t like it, and try to ignore it, but its true nonetheless. Companies, like everything else in the natural world, can only rise and fall. ‘Year on Year Growth’ is impossible. Even great companies and their masterful CEO’s - hmmmm - can’t defy the laws of nature. Why then, such surprise, such panic when a company enters its fallow period? Why aren’t we better prepared for it? Why don’t we acknowledge everything needs a bit of renewal, if not outright death, and renewal might show as a down curve in our minds, our hearts or on a spreadsheet. It seems to me, companies which are happy and able to go with the flow of things are better placed to deal with and respond to the myriad problems and opportunities which are sure to come. Companies, like everything else, are complex organisms which must respond to a myriad of stresses and strains. Like occasional death, of course. Lego spent many £100m’s navigating through their renewal. Who knows, maybe this money could have been better spent. But probably not. It was the money spent which bought the time for someone to figure out an appropriate next step.

For Lego, perhaps fittingly, the answer was simplification.

b) We are over complication machines. Our need to input, to be Masters of the Universe, to be seen to ‘do’. This doing, particularly, feeds complexity. I know from my own example. in my mind, FreeState’s success was contingent on the input - like a giant sausage machine. Or an industrial economics machine - appropriately weighted input would lead to appropriate output, in equal measure. Everything is a numbers game. A majority of what we do - well, i can only really speak for myself - a majority of what i’ve often done was borne of a need to look and feel busy. Am I working hard at making this happen? etc. This isn’t really very wise. Or productive. Or effective. I’ve no doubt too, I’m not alone under these illusions.

Whether this need to do was the driver of Lego’s growing complexity, or something else, is irrelevant. whatever their causes, they had become a complexity machine. The new management team - tasked with finding new solutions, did the obvious, they simplified. Management speak heralds ‘Focus’. I prefer simplicity. We crave simplicity in our complex and busy worlds. Well, I know i do. I can’t be alone. Simplicity feels good - see the explosion of mindfulness apps and courses and ways of being, these being, amongst other things, the ultimate route maps to simplicity. Like many things, simplicity feels good because it is good. Lego’s first wave of success from the 1950’s onwards was built on a simple premise; a simple toy could be a tool to fuel children, and adults alike, imagination. Their success, their heritage, was built on simplicity, and their renaissance reconnected to it. With the simplicity, the tension simply melts away. This is true for me. And Lego. So it must be true for everyone in the entire world. 

c) If simplification is true and good, another ’truth’ which the Lego story shows us is that stuff is messy. Changing is messy, big companies are messy, hell, people are messy. Which is maybe the point. Lego’s ten years of turmoil was surely unavoidable. Like any seismic shift, there is always collateral damage. Old securities fade and die, people get scared. We look for new stability. The ground shifts. Its a quirk of evolutionary nature that whilst surrounded by and living in constant flux, our brains and minds and egos exist in fixation. I’m sure a philosopher, neuroscientist, meditating monk could answer me why but this constant holding onto the evaporating world seems to be quite debilitating. It feeds the messiness. Maybe it is indeed the actual messiness. A good story needs a little messiness, especially a messiness which makes us stronger. It makes the Lego story a story. Company, does well, then struggles, stumbles, scrapes its knees, yet somehow, defies all odds to be reborn, a new hero. Now I don’t know the specifics but these seem to be the components of a good story.

What is my point?

Good question. I don’t know. Maybe just that all these things - the messiness, the liking of a good story, the search for simplicity and, ultimately, death in all its forms are of course the stuff of life. We can’t beat these things. For some ancient cultures sacrificial death was an honour. I’m not suggesting that but maybe we should make more of it with our companies, our jobs, our projects. Death ceremonies heralding the passing of great institutions, or even obscure ones. Whatever.

Instilling and recognising the realities of messiness, simplicity and the coming and going of things seems like useful guides for us all. Including Lego.

Earn More And Do More Good.

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