Instructions vs. Imagination

Lego FerrariWhen I was growing up (circa mid 1970's), Legos were my favorite toy. Back then, Lego sets consisted of random bricks of various sizes and shapes and it was up to me to build what I imagined. It was all about discovery and exploring the possibilities. Problem-solving. How to construct what was in your mind.

Today, my 13-year-old son Noah still enjoys a good Lego set, but they have changed dramatically. Now you'll find a box with a beautiful picture of a pirate ship or a Ferrari on the cover. Inside, there are lots of single-use specialty parts. And, unfortunately, detailed instructions that step-by-step lead to a single outcome while simultaneously erasing the possibilities.

Instead of building blocks of right-brain imagination, the sets have become a left-brain exercise of how to follow instructions. Do what you're told exactly. Follow the rules. There's only one right answer. And God forbid, don't make mistakes!

How ironic, considering this trend is the exact opposite of what we need to win in business (and life). In the industrial age and even much of the information age, following instructions was just fine. Get good grades, work hard, do what you're told, don't make waves, and 30 years later you'll retire with a gold watch. Today, that fantasy simple no longer exists ... right along with rotary phones and lead-based paint.

Today, the world has become too complex and changes too fast. There are no more operating manuals for success. Today, winning is about creativity and imagination and exploring the possibilities. You may still get hired based on your resume, but you will advance based on your ability to improvise, adapt, and create.

In this new era of business, a key challenge for you as a leader is to develop the imagination of your teams. Instead of issuing detailed instructions, allow your people the freedom to dream. Establishing a culture where team members can unleash their creativity and explore the possibilities will not only drive better results ... it will create teams that are motivated, happy, and actually having fun instead of being clock-punching drones.

The next time you are tempted to issue a set of instructions, try a different approach. Provide the building blocks and then let your team create their own masterpiece. You may just discover that game-changing innovation is already present. It may just be locked inside a team that needs to be instructed not to just follow the instructions.

It's time to let your team's imagination come out to play. And I'm happy to lend you my old-school Lego set if it will helps jumpstart the process.

Add New Comment


  • Randall Benson

    Thank you for the insightful article. You are spot on. When I was a consultant with large consulting firms, I was often a purveyor of programmatic, steps-based, proven-path, paint-by-numbers management programs. They were very attractive offerings because they appeared to take away the risk. In fact, I found what you discussed. Programmatic approaches really take away innovation. Those that followed the instructions dramatically underperformed similar groups I guided were people were encouraged to explore, discover and apply innovative ideas. It’s apparent that having a clear goal, but also the degrees of freedom to pursue discovery, triggers the imagination, creativity and passion necessary for breakthroughs. I explore this phenomenon, including the reasons why and the dramatic outcomes, in my new book, The Quest Effect. I believe that you have put your finger on the single most powerful generative force in organizations.

    Randall Benson

  • Bernard Martin

    As with many things today, I don't think forming a prima facia view is always the best. Sometimes there are deeper lessons to be learned.

    You article brought several things to mind that I think are worth sharing.

    "There are no more operating manuals for success"
    I think that hits the nail on the head. How many companies today skip the step of creating manuals or instruction sets and instead create a series of online FAQ's? A "build it and they will come" attitude seems to permeate many new companies identity. This is particularly true with cloud based companies. I have often come across an attitude of "Why should we care about the unwashed masses that don't know what we're talking about" "They should just 'get it' Perhaps the lesson is that those companies should take a page out of a Lego Manual and follow the KISS principle: Provide an understandable instruction set.

    "Inside, there are lots of single-use specialty parts."
    At first glance I'm sure that is how it appears. But let's remember that Lego can't really afford to make a bunch of unique "one-off" parts due the the scale of their global business. My son has that same kit as well as numerous other lego kits. It's actually surprising how many different colors we have the exact same pieces in. It's a modular system. It's well thought out and planned. Frankly it's a great lesson for manufacturing. It's the epitome of Lean Manufacturing. It's the basis of 'interchangeable parts' outlined by General Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval in Système Gribeauval.

    "Instead of building blocks of right-brain imagination, the sets have become a left-brain exercise of how to follow instructions"
    At first glance that may be the lesson. But as with many things it is much more complex that that. many of the Lego kits serve as an introduction to building. It generates ideas. It encourages using other kits to make encourage "discovery and imagination" Unlike in the 70's it gives you a starting point to stimulate imagination. Instead of starting with a blank sheet it slowly introduces children. In the case of my 11 year old he started going online incentivized by the Lego Magazine. He started watching YouTube video at 5, By 7 he had created stop motion lego movies and by 9 had put them on his own website.

    "The next time you are tempted to issue a set of instructions, try a different approach."
    Check out Lego Mindstorm. This is where Lego has evolved. Again, my 11 year old is participating in this years "First Lego League" competition with his team. He's learning how to work with a team. How ideas should not be defended. How to be open to alternative viewpoint and "out of the box" "what if" thinking. This years competition is all about "Engineering meets Medicine" Frankly, it's one of the best "team building" exercises I have happened upon... and certainly better than sitting in a sweat lodge. There is not an "instruction set" merely a "goal" to be achieved. It addresses all of the STEM issues everyone is beginning to talk about in education.

    I suppose my point to all of this is that sometimes we need to dig a bit deeper, because our first perception may not always be completely accurate. We might only be touching the trunk or tail of the elephant. Maybe your team needs to grab a Lego Mindstorm kit, use the FLL platform and goals and learn how to work together to innovate... and let their "imagination come out to play."