Tuesday 18 March 2014

Lego and the unlamented end of evidence-based policy

Like many people of my age, I must be an absolute expert in all things Lego.  I have played with it, tidied it away, trodden on it in the middle of the night, and am doing so all over again with my own children.

There is a sense also that Lego is almost the last game standing.  Go to the great empty echoing chamber of Toys R Us (my youngest believes it is called Toys Are Rust, and there is some truth in this), and you will see the swathes of Lego driving out the rest.

The rest is nearly all TV or movie tie-in stuff, with a very short half-life, destined for the skip.  There are some plastic kits for older children, there is sports gear and there is Lego.

It is worth asking why.  The answer, I think, is that - unlike all the expensive TV tie-in tat - Lego releases the imagination.  The rest tries to constrain it.

But the reason I have been thinking about Lego is because there is a fascinating article in the latest Fortune magazine about how the Danish company managed to claw itself back from the brink a decade ago, when it was losing about £1m a day.

There are various versions of this in circulation.  One is the precise opposite of what I'm saying here, I have to admit: it was the adoption of Star Wars tie-in Lego, with weapons - flying in the face of the company's pacifist tradition.

But here is another one, and I was interested because it seemed to me to me a little more evidence that the data glacier is finally melting, the old nonsense about evidence-based policy (actually nothing of the sort) is slowly beginning to crumble.

It describes how Lego tried focus groups to help them out of their hole, only to find that the children were just telling them what they thought they wanted to be told.  They then took on a Danish consultancy called ReD, which helped them observe how children play in their own homes.

There was a lightbulb moment when they asked an 11-year-old German boy to show them his favourite toy and he came out with a battered old sneaker, where every mark showed where he had mastered a new trick on the skateboard.

It led to an important insight: children had not changed.  They didn't necessarily want toys that were glitzy, shiny, hi-tech and new.  They wanted to be able to experiment on their own.  This is the strategy that Lego has pursued since - punters certainly relish the movie tie-ins, but they can take them apart, remould them, add in their ow stuff, mix Harry Potter and the Hobbit if they want.

But this isn't one of my homilies about authenticity.  You can read one of those here if you want.  It is about the collapse of the idea that you can measure your way to business and political solutions.

Of course the data helps, but it isn't enough.  This is how Fortune put it:

"It was a rebuke of sorts to the traditional business consulting firms - and to the very notion that a company can understand its customers simply by crunching numbers."

Quite right, and ironically ReD's chairman Bill Hoover is a former senior director of the source of this wrong-headedness, the consultants McKinsey, authors of the famous McKinsey Fallacy ('everything can be measured and what can be measured can be managed').

If only Whitehall could grasp the idea that the data isn't enough, but they are now drowning in graphs - paralysed because they don't realise they some imagination and intuition is also required.  The world and the people who live on it are much too complicated for policy to be a humming logical machine that can just manage the world by itself.

If you want to know what happens when you try that - the fearful legacy of New Labour - just look around you.  

Find out more in my book The Tyranny of Numbers.

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