Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking
There are consistent patterns to the way successful strategic thinkers generate solutions.
There are consistent patterns to the ways that integrative thinkers go about generating creative solutions.
there is a joke that always makes Jørgen Vig IN THE LEGO MOVIE,
Knudstorp laugh. The hero of the movie, a mini-figure named Emmett, is admiring Batman’s awesome plane. “Could you make one of these in orange?” Emmett asks. “I only work in black,” Batman growls back. “And sometimes, very, very dark grey.”
Given Batman’s well-known penchant for all things dark, it’s a funny line to comic book fans. But for Knudstorp, the lanky, bearded, bespectacled CEO of the LEGO Group, it’s funny for a whole other reason. “When I became CEO, I was this young, former Mckinsey consultant — you know, Mr. Business,” Knudstorp says. He was the first outsider, and the first person outside the family, to run the Danish toy company in its 80-year history. His daunting job was to turn around a beloved organization that was losing money.
He began by cutting jobs and rationalizing the company’s product line. “We had 13,000 different colours and shape varia- tions,” he recalls. “With that level of variation, we never had inventory.” One of the colours slated to be cut was Old Gray. It was a very, very dark gray that seemed redundant, given that the company would continue to sell black bricks and the lighter Standard Gray.
The brand’s fans — found online on the LUGNET, an early LEGO product users group network — were furious. It turns out these adult master builders used Old Gray as a shadow element when building castles, statues and skyscrapers. Knudstorp spent a good deal of time online defending his decision, coming to understand LEGO’S most passionate fans in the process. “I was connecting with our fans for the first time. I was having a dialogue, which I probably did not win,” he says with a laugh.
Knudstorp sees Batman’s quip, at least in part, as a nod to his own early fight over very, very dark gray. To him, it shows how much the filmmakers came to understand the essence of
the LEGO brand: The joy of building, as embodied in those master builders. It was a journey of great personal importance to Knudstorp in his role as a key guardian of the LEGO brand.
Now a little background. LEGO Group’s core business is its little stackable plastic bricks. But it has also had, since 1999, a highly profitable licensing business. At first, licensing meant deals that enabled LEGO Group to make constructor kits and mini-figures based on beloved franchises like the Star Wars films and the Harry Potter series.
Beyond the bricks, the company soon began extending these partnerships into original entertainment, partnering to produce films, TV shows, and video games. By about 2005, some of the short films, such as LEGO Star Wars: Revenge of the Brick, had become massively successful.
Eventually, the idea of an original LEGO feature film made its way to the company’s brand and innovation board. Knudstorp recalls: “I think we all sort of thought, ‘This is a little crazy. Why would anybody do that?’” Nonetheless, the group gave the goahead to explore the idea and signed an option deal with a Hollywood studio. But board members remained wary. The company had had great success with branded entertainment, partnering with many of the most powerful entertainment brands in the world. But its own early foray in feature-length films — 2010’s direct-to-dvd film LEGO: The Adventures of Clutch Powers, had been disappointing. “It was so brand true,” Knudstorp explains. “It was so loyal to LEGO. The good guy was called Kjeld [after LEGO group chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen]. But, really, it was boring; it had no edge.”
A Tale of Two Choices
From this experience, Knudstorp learned that LEGO Group might not be in the best position to tell its own story. He likens the situation to the task of a screenwriter adapting a book: what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. “If you want somebody to write a great movie script, and then direct a great movie based on the book, one of the first things they will do is violate the book,” he says. “Maybe there’s an uncle that plays a main role in a novel that’s 300 pages long. But when you make the movie, it’s one and a half hours, and there’s no room for the uncle; so he disappears.” The essence of the book remains, but it is recrafted for its new context. “Normally you would never have the book’s author script a movie or a video game,” he says. The author is too close to the book — too tied to her own words and vision to effectively adapt the book to a new context.
The same held true for the LEGO brand. “It does not work that LEGO Group says what the movie should be all about, because we become too dogmatic,” Knudstorp says. “We become too clinical about it. Because we’re not good at writing movies. That’s not our business.”
The problem, then, was how to make a great film based on the LEGO brand. There were many possible models for proceeding in partnership, but for the moment let’s consider two extremes. On the one hand, LEGO Group could maintain total creative control, hiring screenwriters and directors to execute based on a corporate vision for the film. Although this approach would ensure the LEGO brand was protected, it would also mean that no top-tier talent would come near the project. With no freedom to play, the film would be an unappealing gig for the best screenwriters and directors, who struggle with the idea of being beholden to producers and studios, let alone to a big corporation. Moreover, this was essentially the strategy that had produced the lackluster Clutch Powers film.
On the other hand, LEGO Group could cede all control to the filmmakers, letting the Hollywood team have full creative rights over the characters and story, including how the brand was depicted. This approach could attract great talent and produce a successful film; but it would also put the brand at risk, giving outsiders the opportunity to do lasting damage to the equity of the LEGO brand.
Neither choice filled Knudstorp and his board with confidence. As they weighed the possibilities, they came to recognize that they needed a new choice. What they really wanted was a movie that was a creative triumph and would elevate the LEGO brand.
The key to a great movie is great talent, so ceding creative control was essential. How, then, might Knudstorp and his senior team ensure that the creative ‘outsiders’ would treat the brand with the right amount of love and just enough irreverence?
Most of us choose one of the options in front of us, instead of creating a new answer that solves the problem in a more successful way.
It would be a tricky balance, to be sure. Knudstorp needed to turn the outsiders into insiders, but in a way that did not compromise the quality of the work.
He explains how this was done: “We actually gave the producer and the screenwriters at Warner Bros. complete freedom in coming up with a script. We had every opportunity to read it and comment, but we had no rights over it.” LEGO Group leaders had to trust that it was in the team’s best interest to make a film that captured the essence of the LEGO brand. After all, if it failed to do so, the movie would ultimately fail with fans. So Knudstorp decided to make it easy for the filmmaker to do right by the brand — to embrace it the way a fan does.
To achieve that, he insisted that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative team, spend time with LEGO’S super fans— kids, yes, but also the adults who had given Knudstorp so much trouble over Old Gray. Knudstorp remembers:
I said to them, “You need to see these guys. You need to talk to them. You need to attend the conventions with me. You need to read the letters” — we get thousands of letters from children of all ages — “and you need to come to our consumer contact centres and sit next to the LEGO employees. You need to go to the LEGO stores, talk to the staff and understand how real LEGO product fans talk.” [The filmmakers] willingly did that, and of course, spent a lot of time with our designers. I think they were genuinely surprised about how powerful the brand is.
By connecting Lord and Miller with real LEGO customers, Knudstorp helped them not only understand the brand, but fall in love with it themselves. Even better, the stories from customers helped to inform the plot of the film. The filmmakers learned, for instance, that “one of the things that is very important in the fan community is that you must never use glue,” Knudstorp explains. “That’s an absolute no-no for a true LEGO fan, because the essence of LEGO is the ability to build and rebuild, to imagine and make new.” Lord and Miller picked up on the theme and (spoiler alert) made glue a central part of the film.
The result: The LEGO Movie was a smash success. It made more than $450 million at the global box office and boosted LEGO Group sales by double digits on the strength of moviethemed merchandise, including mini-figures of Emmett and Batman. By the end of 2014, LEGO Group was the most profitable toy company in the world.
A New Answer Through Integrative Thinking
The path to success for The LEGO Movie included a different kind of problem-solving process, one focused on opposing ideas and opportunities rather than on right answers and hard choices.
As Knudstorp told CNN in 2014: “When you’re a CEO, you’re sort of forced all the time to have a clear hypothesis — you know, one answer. [But] instead of reducing everything to one hypothesis, you may actually get wiser if you can contain multiple hypotheses. That’s when you notice trade-offs and opportunities.” You give yourself a chance, as Knudstorp observes, to use dueling hypotheses to create a superior answer.
This is the heart of Integrative Thinking, an idea Roger Martin first explored in his 2007 book The Opposable Mind: How
Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. In it, he describes integrative thinking as a way of thinking that enables the creation of new answers to our toughest problems — a process that uses the tension of opposing ideas to help create transformative new answers.
In Knudstorp’s case, he used the tension of opposing choices to create an answer that far more effectively solved his problem than either of his initial alternatives did. The choices in tension were that, on the one hand, he could insist on creative control to protect the LEGO brand, but meaningfully diminish the likelihood that serious artists would be willing to take part; on the other hand, he could cede all control of the film to ensure that it would have the great talent needed to make it creatively successful — but in the process, put his firm’s reputation at risk.
Many leaders would see this as an optimization problem: How much control do I have to give up to attract just enough talent to make the film a good one? Knudstorp rejected that way of thinking. He wanted an outstanding film, and he wanted one that not only supported, but grew the LEGO brand. He framed his challenge as one of integration rather than optimization. In other words, he saw it as his job to create a new, superior answer rather than to choose between sub-optimal options.
Making vs. Creating Choices
How often do you make choices? Really make them? Or how often do you instead accept one of the choices that is handed to you? Most of us settle, most of the time. When faced with a tough decision, we choose one of the options in front of us, instead of creating a new answer that solves the problem in a more successful way. Typically, we look at our options, assess their pros and cons, and choose the one that comes out ahead in the analysis.
It is natural to accept trade-offs. It fits with our understanding of the world and with the decision-making tools that derive from that understanding. We are taught early that life is hard. In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want. So we learn to pick and choose. We analyze the options rather than generating new possibilities. We develop decision-making tools that are evaluative rather than creative.
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, there is an obvious right answer — a solution that solves the problem and that everyone can agree on. But often, there is no obvious right answer and no single solution that will please everyone. Perhaps the options on the table solve only one part of the problem, addressing symptoms rather than causes; or maybe the folks around the table disagree over which is the best answer, producing warring factions who support vastly different solutions. Or possibly, there are multiple good answers, but choosing only one of them means giving up all that is worthwhile about the others. In these cases, we often find ourselves making unhappy compromises, arguing with our peers, struggling to decide — and delaying meaningful action.
At LEGO Group, the choice between having a great film or a film that bolstered the LEGO brand was unacceptable. Knudstorp couldn’t choose only one of these outcomes; he needed both in order to move ahead. To wind up with a movie that was great creatively and great for LEGO Group, he needed to design an answer that would give him the best of both worlds. So he did.
He asked, ‘How might I design a model of engagement with the filmmakers that gives them the creative control they need, but does so in a way that fills me with confidence they will protect the brand?’ Rather than compromise, proposing
complex legal agreements and oversight meetings, he leveraged the master builders — the fans — whose infectious love of all things Lego-related would inevitably transfer over to the filmmakers, making them fans as well.
Mindset is key to this approach. Knudstorp and other integrative thinkers have a ‘way of being’ in the world — a way of thinking through their most difficult choices — that stands in marked contrast to the way most of us think and make decisions. In most cases, our thinking is implicit and rarely explicitly questioned. Our models of the world can be influenced by forces of which we are unaware — and once we see the world in one way, it can be hard to see it in any other way. As a result, we tend to seek out the single right answer to any given problem, default to simplistic models of the world and rely on basic heuristics to get through the day. These limitations tend to create an insular mindset that discounts other people and their alternative points of view. And they tend to produce bad decisions.
There are three missing components that might overcome the limitations of current decision-making processes and produce better outcomes:
or the ability to reflect on and understand our METACOGNITION, own thinking. To be more effective choice makers, we must be clear with ourselves and with others about our own thinking and what lies beneath the choices we make.
— the ability to understand and appreciate the views of EMPATHY others. Other people see what we do not, and so they’re crucial to our ability to advance our understanding of the world. To overcome the limits of our existing approaches to decision making, we need to learn to inquire deeply, genuinely and respectfully into what other people think and why they think it.
Effective decision making demands that we unleash CREATIVITY: creativity in small, repeatable ways. To us, this means generating and prototyping many varied ideas. This approach to creativ- ity takes it from the realm of the mystical — something only for genius artists and entrepreneurs — to the domain of a skill that can be learned through practice.
With these three components as the base ingredients for an effective approach to decision making, you can lay the groundwork for a new way to think and work your way through difficult problems of almost any type.
The approach summarized herein is based on consistent patterns that we have seen in the ways that successful integrative thinkers go about generating their solutions. LEGO Group, of course, had a specific challenge and a particular context. Knudstorp was CEO, and a brilliant one at that. His situation, problem, and solution likely bear little resemblance to the day-to-day challenges that you face at work. But the way he thought through the problem—his mindset and methodology — apply far beyond the LEGO Group’s headquarters in Denmark.
Jennifer Riel is an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management and Managing Director of its Martin Prosperity Institute’s Knowledge Infrastructure project, which includes oversight of Rotman I-think — an elementary and secondary school Integrative Thinking and Design Thinking program. Roger Martin is Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School and the Premier’s Chair in Productivity & Competitiveness. He served as Dean of the Rotman School from 1998 to 2013. Jennifer and Roger are the co-authors of Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking
(Harvard Business Review Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted.