Cre­at­ing Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to In­te­gra­tive Think­ing

There are con­sis­tent pat­terns to the way suc­cess­ful strate­gic thinkers gen­er­ate so­lu­tions.

Rotman Management Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Riel and Roger Martin

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.

In clos­ing

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.

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