Ivy Ross needed a new toy. But not just any toy. As the head of design and packaging for the girls division at Mattel, she wanted something innovative, a product that was part construction set, part craft kit. She knew that sewing kits and jewelry kits were hot with girls, but Legolike construction sets were largely a boy thing. She also knew that the reason wasn't that girls don't like to build things. Girls simply build differently from boys.
Last year, with hopes of inspiring an alternative, Ross, senior VP of worldwide girls design, built a team from various departments and let the designers, model makers, and copywriters collaborate. She brought in outside gurus and Mattel's child-psychology expert to teach the team about classic architecture and about children's play patterns. She also brought in a group of girls, so that the toy makers could watch them play with pipe cleaners, cardboard, and other basic supplies. In addition to constructing rooms and houses, the girls made jewelry and characters and told stories about the world that they had created.
By the end of the year, the project team unveiled a hybrid toy: Ello, which is due out this month, isn't a construction set or a craft kit. Mattel calls it a "creation system" for 5-to-10-year-old girls. Traditional bricklike blocks are replaced by colorful, cartoonish panels, balls, miniature flowers, and other quirky pieces that can be used interchangeably to build houses, furniture, people, pets, necklaces - just about anything. Focus groups confirmed that Ello was a true rarity: a toy that appeals to parents as much as to children. "It blew me away," says Chris Byrne, a longtime industry analyst and a contributing editor at Toy Report and Toy Wishes. "You rarely see something original anymore in this industry. Usually, everybody copies everybody else's ideas."
The Making of a Platypus
How can big companies innovate? That is one of the most urgent strategic questions facing senior executives in all kinds of industries, from computers to cars to, well, toys. Just as Mattel's boys division relies on Hot Wheels to generate income, its girls division relies on Barbie - the most successful doll on the planet - to help generate more than $2 billion in annual sales. But Ross and girls-division president Adrienne Fontanella have been eager to develop a new hit in a new market, not simply another doll. Now they have a potentially groundbreaking toy on their hands. But more important - and perhaps more valuable - is the fact that the world's largest toy maker has a new way of creating toys. The Ello experiment served as the prototype for a recurring development process dubbed Project Platypus. "Other companies have skunk works," Ross says. "We have a platypus. I looked up the definition, and it said, 'an uncommon mix of different species.' " In other words, the ideal project team.
Unlike the Ello group, which worked mainly underground (in between other projects, after hours, and during lunch), the 12 rotating members of Project Platypus take breaks from their regular duties at Mattel's headquarters in El Segundo, California, outside Los Angeles. They work for three months in a studio across the street that was designed to encourage off-the-wall creativity and close-knit collaboration. "To really shift thinking, you have to shift environments," says Ross. "We're a toy company, but we weren't playing enough."
That play is starting to pay off. The first Project Platypus session, completed last summer, produced an educational brand that Ross claims is as innovative as Ello. (She can't elaborate, since it won't be in stores for another year.) Starting in January, Ross will conduct three sessions a year, much to the delight of her 700-member staff. "We already have a waiting list," she says.
The timing couldn't be better. Mattel has been recovering from its disastrous 1999 acquisition of the Learning Company. After paying $3.8 billion for the educational-software maker, Mattel watched it hemorrhage money, dragging the toy company to its first annual loss in more than a decade. In 2000, chairman and CEO Jill Barad was replaced by former Kraft Foods president and CEO Robert Eckert, who has primarily focused on cutting costs and improving the supply chain. Reducing the girls division's production cycle from 18 months to 12 months, says Ross, gave her the credibility to try an unconventional product team. When Eckert saw a short video this past summer documenting the initial Project Platypus, he was so excited that he took a copy to an annual analyst meeting to demonstrate Mattel's renewed passion and creativity.
In many ways, Ross can be seen as Mattel's original platypus. Like the beaver-tailed mammal with the duck bill and webbed feet, she is an uncommon creature, a hybrid leader. She's an adventurous entrepreneur who started her own jewelry business shortly after graduating from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and for years continued working on the side as a designer while rising through the executive ranks; she's a 20-year veteran of big companies such as Avon, Calvin Klein, Coach, and Liz Claiborne. An ingenious right-brain designer and an effective left-brain executive, she defies conventional labels - with obvious pride. "The rebel in me got this going," she says of the project. "I wanted to prove that people don't have to be put in narrow boxes. Designers aren't the only people who can create toys. If you put a bunch of creative thinkers in the right environment and drop the job titles, you'll discover amazing creativity."
"A Common Desk for 12 Brains"
Project Platypus reflects Ross's open-minded approach to design, which she attributes to her father, who designed Studebakers. "He taught me that if you're trying to design a new car, you don't just look at other cars," she says.
The first week of a new project, the Platypus team is exposed to different ways of thinking. The speakers are as eclectic as Ross's reading list: a Jungian analyst, an expert in collaborative living systems, an improv-comedy instructor, and a researcher in music and brainwave activity. Throughout the project, members are encouraged to sit in a special recliner and listen to music and other sounds designed to stimulate their creativity. Ross, ever practical, tried it on staffers beforehand and then shared with her bosses the test results proving its efficacy.
She wants to inspire the team to think about toys differently and to see through fresh eyes how children play. One exercise involves watching a Japanese tea ceremony as a way of honing the team's observational skills. Another involves rapid-fire storytelling, during which team members take turns adding the next line. The idea is to build on others' ideas without judging them.
Likewise, the idea wall in the studio is "a common desk for 12 brains," says David Kuehler, an actor, writer, and engineer who worked at Disney and the Sundance Film Centers before Ross hired him as director of Project Platypus. One of his few rules is that no one owns an idea. Everything belongs to the group, which helps eliminate competitiveness.
For the first project team, one of the hardest adjustments was the lack of structure. Ross prefers that the team organize itself. "We kept on asking Dave, 'What's the schedule?' " says Deborah Ava, a package designer for Barbie Collectibles. "It took us almost two weeks to realize that there was no schedule."
So the platypi, as they like to call themselves, got busy. They went on a bunch of field trips to watch kids play. They interviewed parents and visited schools. "We never say, 'You, you, and you are working together,' " says Kuehler. "We let people align themselves around the ideas that they are passionate about." Five weeks into the new project, the big wall was covered with 33 toy ideas.
The platypi were isolated from the distractions of their old jobs, but they weren't cut off from Mattel. "Platypus feels like a startup, but there's this huge company behind it," says team member Maria Redin, senior manager of innovative technology in the girls division. "We could call the people in market research and say, 'We need these numbers,' and the next thing we knew, we had the report."
At the end of the session, Ross asked the assorted platypi what they had most enjoyed about the project. Their replies mirrored feedback from an in-house focus group in which employees were asked what they needed: a more playful environment in which to work. Freedom to design outside the box. Voices from outside the company. A family atmosphere.
Ava calls Project Platypus "the opportunity of a lifetime." Redin says that it was "a career high." Joseph Feldman, who has been a toy designer for 17 years, says that the project was an inexplicably magical time. When he couldn't come to work one day, he missed being there, something that he couldn't recall feeling before.
If Project Platypus produces only toys, it will have fallen far short of Ross's vision. She doesn't want the project to end when team members return to their old jobs. She wants them to share what they've experienced with their colleagues so that the energy and ideas eventually transform the culture in the girls division and in other departments as well. "I've told them, 'I need you to be creative catalysts,' " Ross says. " 'Find ways to bring this back to the existing environment. It will trickle throughout the company.' "
On a research trip to Seattle, Joyce Kim led her fellow designers in a platypi group-storytelling exercise. In her department, Ava shared the platypi's guidelines for brainstorming (1. Defer judgment). After an open house in the Project Platypus studio, the boys division added a feedback wall of its own, and human resources brought in the improv instructor to lead one of its meetings.
Ross is encouraged. All around her, the platypi are starting to multiply.
Sidebar: 5 Ways to Play Smart
Here are six beliefs about creativity that Ivy Ross, senior VP of worldwide girls design, used to build a breakthrough product team at Mattel.
1. Get out of the office. "Innovation is about exploring possibilities, not realities," Ross says. Nothing sparks new ideas like a new environment. The Project Platypus studio at Mattel is dramatically different from the design center. It has an extrahigh ceiling, grass-colored carpet, and a red door featuring definitions of "platypus."
2. Find untapped sources of talent. By assembling a product team from various departments, Ross encourages employees to stretch beyond their jobs, apply skills that they don't ordinarily use, and even discover new talents. "Most companies don't do enough to develop potential within the people they have," she says.
3. Let your eyes wander. Fresh ideas often come from studying something that is seemingly unrelated to the project at hand. It's a better approach than focusing solely on the competition. "At Coach, we got one great idea from bathroom hardware," says Ross. "We saw how a door opened and asked, 'Can you imagine a handbag opening like that?' "
4. Play well with others. The strength of a project team lies in its members' ability to build on one another's ideas - especially the half-baked ones. But the best collaboration is rooted in trust, says Ross, which comes from a shared experience that binds colleagues together.
5. Don't let the project end. Ross understands that returning to work after Project Platypus is akin to leaving summer camp. On the last days, she reminds participants that it doesn't have to end. By taking ideas back to their jobs, they keep the momentum going. Project director David Kuehler offers alumni a different incentive to visit the studio: free snacks.
Chuck Salter is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. Contact Ivy Ross by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or learn more about Mattel on the Web (www.mattel.com).
A version of this article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.