For six years Jake McKee led social media strategy at Lego in the US. You probably now know what a terrific job Jake and the people at Legos have done at building and bonding with a community of fans and fanatics. (McKee is currently CEO of his own agency, Ant’s Eye View)
What’s surprising is that before McKee started his social media initiatives at Legos the company’s strategy towards customers was, in his words, “Don’t. As in, don’t communicate with customers—at all!”
McKee related his experiences at the recent Supergenius Conference in Chicago held by the GasPedal folks. He described a company that in 2000 was so afraid of frivolous lawsuits over ideas that they forbade anyone in the company except the corporate communications department from communicating with customers directly.
One point he made in particular stuck with me—there was no “bell curve” of adoption of this new culture of openness. To the contrary—it was an “inverse bell curve.” And that’s got me thinking a lot about how new ideas and the new social communications environment are adopted by companies. It’s changing my thinking about change management.
In “Crossing the Chasm” Geoffrey Moore developed the theory that technology adoption in any population followed the classic bell curve—innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Moore said that in between the early adopters and the early majority there was a chasm, an unwillingness to “jump on the band wagon” which innovators and early adopters were willing to do.
Moore believed that every organization has innovators and early adopters who love new things, new ideas. They either have the smarts or the chutzpa—or both– to welcome new ideas intuitively. Their downfall is that sometimes even the smart ones fail spectacularly with new ideas. Anyone who has worked on the “bleeding edge” of technology will agree.
The early majority, according to Moore, is the key—that’s where the really smart managers are in most organizations. They’re forward thinking enough to jump on ideas they know will work, and they’re conservative enough not to stick their nose to close to fire until a new idea has proven it will likely be successful. In fact what makes these people good managers is their ability to evaluate and take action on risk—moving fast when it’s smart, and moving slow when it’s not.
So the key to the success of any new initiative in an organization, said Moore, was to “cross the chasm” by identifying, cultivating and proving to the smart managers in the early majority that the initiative is actually a great idea.
To summarize the last half of Moore’s book in a paragraph, he said there were three strategies to successfully cross the chasm: 1) Get top management to sponsor the initiative in meaningful ways, 2) build a structured process of research and development that allows the innovation to iterate and evolve and 3) build increasingly successful pilot programs that prove the real value (often ROI) to the early majority and use that success to build real enthusiasm in the company, centered on the early majority whose opinion counts the most.
What blew me away about McKee’s experience at Lego is that it was almost the opposite. He didn’t encounter a bell curve, he met with an inverse bell curve.
“You had a bunch of people who were very enthusiastic about these ideas—they got it right away,” said McKee in his presentation. “And in the middle you had a bunch of people who just didn’t care—they would sit in meetings looking at their e-mail on their Blackberries under the table. And then there was a huge group of people who couldn’t stand the ideas, they actively hated them and worked against them.”
“I got tired of giving the same meeting over and over and getting the same adversarial response” he went on. “So I just stopped. I just didn’t deal with the negative people at all. I worked with the enthusiastic people, and we started building success. The lesson was: work with people who want to work with you, and build real success.”
“I was lucky in that I had a boss who have me air cover. About the tenth time I went into his office and said “Are you really sure it’s okay that I’m doing this?” he told me to stop it. He said, ‘just go do what you think you should do and I’ll get your back.’ As long as you don’t get arrested, it’s okay.”
So what are the learnings from McKee’s experience at Lego?
I think it clearly emphasizes the importance of senior management buy in. McKee needed permission from a boss who said “I’ve got your back” and meant it, and had the ability to provide that support.
I think it also means that the most important part of organizational change is getting the first steps right and building success stories that are real and meaningful for the organization. It’s okay to fail, but do it on a really small scale, then learn and iterate fast.
And probably most important is be sure you’ve got the right ideas. Know why this particular version of the change is important and in the best interests of the organization.
And regardless of the bell curve—inverse or mountain-like—you’ll be able to build successful change.