Lego’s David Gram on how we should all become ‘diplomatic rebels’

Innovative. Lucrative. Secretive. These are all words that describe Lego’s infamous Future Lab, otherwise known as the experimental and creative engine of the multimillion dollar Danish toy company. We talk to its former senior innovation director David Gram who visited Auckland for this year’s Better by Design Summit on how the Future Lab works, why design should be human-centric and developing tomorrow’s ‘diplomatic rebels’.

David Gram

In 2015, the UK's Channel Four aired a documentary called The Secret World of Lego which followed the unlikely journey of a 23-year-old British design student. He travels to Denmark to pursue his boyhood dream to land one of the most voraciously contested jobs in the world—a Lego set designer. In fact, any job at the multimillion dollar Danish company makes every grown-up young at heart a bit weak at the knees. After all, don’t we all want to get paid to play with our toys?

But for Better by Design speaker David Gram, he’s decided it’s time to put his bricks back in the box. After six years at the company as senior business development manager, marketing director and ultimately, senior innovation director, Gram says he made the tough decision to leave the company just two weeks ago.

“It was a massive decision because it's one thing to leave a good job, it's another thing to leave Lego and a role at Lego which is super interesting,” says Gram. “But I've been in corporate life 12 years nonstop now and there's been a growing need to be able to step out. When you're in a role or position, much of your time is taken up just by corporate life with things like meetings. So I want to be free of that, but still work with these things and still support organisations on their innovation journey.”

Of course, unlike actual Lego, the company Lego is an entity built on far more than just fun and games. There are structures and rules and a whole lot of secrecy too. There’s a reason why Channel 4’s documentary is called what it is, and why Fast Company (among other creative reasons) likened Lego as “the Apple of toys”.

Future Lab is the toy giant’s highly experimental research and development team tasked with identifying areas for growth and progression. They're the brains behind some of Lego's recent innovations such as Life of George and Lego Fusion, both of which blend physical and digital play and has become a primary focus of what Future Lab does. It’s the ball pit for radical innovation which forces everyone involved—even Gram, who studied business at Aarhus University—to get in touch with their creative side.

“I joined the most innovative, radical unit in the company … There were periods where I thought, 'Wait, this isn’t my role', but I overcame that and that's really empowered my confidence in being a creative person, even with things like a spreadsheet or other tools,” recalls Gram.

“But what pushed me towards [Future Lab] was this core team structure of learning where all of a sudden, you have a small company within a company,” he says. “There’s a design head, a project lead, an engineer, and together, you have to form and create the solutions. 

Diplomatic Rebels

Having spent years building and honing his business acumen and creative nous at Lego’s Future Lab, Gram has arrived at the idea that the future of innovation in today’s economy rests on the shoulders of ‘diplomatic rebels’ who symbolise the mix between being “one that challenges the status quo with one that does it with care, love and empathy” too.

“They’re people that are able to both challenge and develop, but do it in a way that’s highly caring and thus, make it suitable for human life.”

Gram says to foster an environment and culture for diplomatic rebels to thrive not only requires design thinking, but design thinking for the company as a whole. 

“[That means] working closely with consumers to understand their lives and their situations, while at the same time, being highly experimental in their approach to it so that it becomes an ongoing thing not only in the product development area, but across the whole value chain—in the legal department, the procurement department, the financial department. They have customers too, they're just internally within the organisation (aka internal stakeholders).”

“The ideal organisation to me is one where the entire company works in a learning-based, experimental way which is about constantly evolving. So being a diplomatic rebel is one who's able to be both the entrepreneur and the corporate."

While Gram admits the principle can seem idealistic—particularly when it’s applied to a political context and not just a corporate one—he’s confident that to evolve and revolutionise, diplomatic rebellion is what leads the way.

“Yes, they're opposing principles but in the world, there are a lot of opposing things,” he says. “The problem is not that they exist, but that they become extreme. It's either one or the other, and the polarisation of the world—to take it up to a really high level—is happening because of a lack of duality, a lack of being able to fly with both wings, so to speak.

“Let's say if our politicians were able to be 'diplomatic rebels', that means they would create reforms, constantly evolve society, but they'd be doing it in a way that's really caring not just for their constituents, but broadly everyone."

Lego Fusion's interactive experience allows users build something with the bricks and then scan it with a camera into a tablet game.

Putting structure to chaos

From idea to development to execution, Future Lab undergoes a process not unlike the toys itself. One-by-one, brick-by-brick, there are visible steps that underpin every project that filter out the good and bad, identifies common trends and is followed up by weeks of prototyping and research. It’s a surprisingly rigid and organized approach for a team that prides itself on radical thought.

“It probably looks quite process-driven and it is, but I believe that process is needed for innovation and creativity to happen,” says Gram. “There are so many phases when creating something new that it can be frustrating when you don't know how to move forward, so you need a process to follow that you can trust.”

“The process that we work with actually caters for experimentation, but it does it in a way where you're focused in what you're doing. For me, it's a bit of a failed perception that in innovation, it has to be blue sky, completely free and open. The classic brainstorm has this fault because there are way too many ideas and you have no idea how to move forward.”

It’s an allusion to the idea that innovation, for the most part, is a ‘eureka moment’ in waiting, and that if you lay out all your ideas at once, it’s only a matter of time before the lightbulb flicks on. Ad-hoc experimentation isn't always the most effective method, and as companies like Previously Unavailable and Velox Innovation can attest to, a box-to-box approach buoyed by insight-led research can, and does, work in the real world.

“This process removes the decision making from the gate-keepers and onto the project team that are doing the experimentation themselves, and I think there's a lot of empowerment to that,” says Gram. “It empowers the designers, the engineers and the marketers involved in evolving these projects. But it takes process and it takes tools.”

Lego Fusion Town Master

A reservoir of ideas

The Secret World of Lego’s young aspiring set designer, of course, isn’t the only Lego fanatic out there. Lego stands out in the toy business as one of the few products that stand the test of time: the time of age, that is. Adult Lego fans, from committed to casual, exist all over the world, so much so that Lego decided to launch an open innovation hub called Lego Ideas, partly as a way to engage with its community and partly as a way to co-opt the issue of intellectual property.

“We’ve often used adult users as a soundboard. These are hardcore fans and they're the lead users, but they're also the most critical to new ideas because they have a fixed understanding of what a Lego experience should be like,” says Gram.

“But I think any company can find those sort of lead users who are the most hardcore and use those users to help in the early validation of new ideas and get valuable input. Many of them will be experts to the extent they might even be more expert than the people inside your company.”

“That's where the open innovation idea helps because it allows for you to draw on way more resources than what you have inside the company, and you're able to collaborate with your ecosystem and community.”

However, the majority of ideas do still come from the Future Lab team itself, with each new thought documented on a sprawling 'direction wall' at Lego headquarters. As every idea undergoes a rigorous process of filtering, research and categorisation, there are, for one reason or another, products that never quite see the light of day. But Gram says a rejected idea isn’t necessarily a failed one.

“With every work cycle flow, there's a repartitioning of resources happening depending on which of the projects see most traction. That means some projects are put on hold, which might be for a longer time or shorter time, while some are put in the bank until the timing is right,” explains Gram.

“So what's really critical is the documentation of this process, so we’re constantly documenting what we’ve we learnt, what the hypothesis was, how we tested it, what feedback we got and why we made the decision to pause the project. That way when you come back to it, you know that the project was paused because of the timing, or because the technology wasn't mature enough, or because there weren't enough resources to drive it.” 

Beatles Yellow Submarine is just one of several crowdsourced creations to emerge from the Ideas platform.

Human-centric design

Having worked in the business of radical thinking and experimental design for years now, Gram has noticed that the time it takes for new thinking to enter the mainstream has undeniably shortened in duration. Citing easier accessibility to resources and a lesser need for manpower and investment, Gram says that while it’s a good thing since it enables products and services to constantly evolve, it’s only good if there’s a “human-centric thinking” behind what’s happening.

“[Human-centric thinking] means that what’s being developed should be good for human beings, and there I still see there's a long way to go because many technologies are created for the sake of the technology, or just because we can,” he explains.

“There still needs to be a bigger focus on how this can help human beings. How does this make us have better lives and be happier? How does this feed more people? How does this preserve the planet better? I think that's the next evolution within innovation that needs to happen. We need to make products, services and experiences that truly helps the human race.”

“We have the capabilities to do that, but there's been a lack of focus. There's a big fascination about the technology itself and here, I think design thinking can help because it forces you to focus on how the user is actually using the product, what happens to it and by developing empathy for your user, you also start to understand their lives and the long-term aspects and consequences of the uses of your products.”