Project Platypus: Reinventing Product Development at Mattel, An Interview with Ivy Ross

Ivy Ross is senior vice president, worldwide, girls design and development, at Mattel, Inc. Before coming to Mattel, Ms. Ross held positions at Calvin Klein, Coach, and Swatch, among others. She is also a renowned sculptor. Her own metal work is currently in the permanent collections of museums including The Smithsonian Institute, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York. She has received the National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and the Women in Design International award.

Can you tell us about the new project you're working on? 

It's called Project Platypus. We take 12 employees with various skill sets and backgrounds and from all levels of experience. We give them the task of conceiving and developing a completely new brand. We put them in a separate building—2000 square feet—that looks like a playground. The desks are on wheels. There are lots of toys and materials. I like to imagine that a helicopter has picked them up and dropped them someplace completely remote—a totally new environment—even though it is just across the street. For three months they leave their jobs and their titles behind to take part in this experiment.

Why is such a radical departure from “business as usual” necessary? 

We have to find new ways to explore possibilities. In the past companies could just look at the opportunities afforded by the market at that time. It was stable and predictable. Now, especially in the younger market, everything is changing. It is very dynamic. We need to focus on the possibilities of a world that does not yet even exist. We need to explore the “What ifs.”

And the normal company structure didn't allow for this type of exploration? 

I have 450 people who work for me. Everyone is busy all the time—practically 24/7—just growing our existing brands. No one has time to become truly immersed in the possibilities. Through this project we are trying to create a way of working together that is more of a living system. Take a cow, for example. If you want to get milk out of a cow, you have to give it time to graze. These days, no one has time to graze. No one has time to explore. It's not just about giving people the best equipment and software to work with, it's about feeding their soul, their mind and creating an environment that each of them can grow in.

“In the past companies could just look at the opportunities afforded by the market at that time. It was stable and predictable. Now, especially in the younger market, everything is changing.”

How do you foster a creative environment? 

For the first two weeks I don't ask anything of the new Platipi. The first two weeks are a gift. I bring in outside speakers. One of them is a guy who teaches improv comedy. We've been taught that ideas should be judged by quality rather than quantity. In improv you learn just to react quickly and allow other people to build on your idea. You start with an idea. It may sound dumb to you but someone else takes it and runs with it. All the sudden something brilliant emerges from your dumb idea. I also bring in a Jungian analyst who talks about patterns and archetypes as it relates to toys. If we are working on a project that has to do with buildings, I bring in architects to talk about structure. But mainly we have fun. We have fun trying to get people going on the same wavelength. We have a special sound chair that we play CDs through. The sound causes vibrations that penetrate your whole body. These vibrations are at a special frequency designed to put you in the theta state, which is where creativity occurs. Basically, the vibrations bring both halves of your brain together.

Does anyone find the creative process stressful? 

They panic. When we first start everyone wants to know about the deadlines. Everyone wants to know about the stages in the process. I tell them the net net is that in 12 weeks we have to have developed a new opportunity for Mattel that doesn't yet exist and that we need to deliver the business plan, the products, the packaging, the whole bit. How we get there? I don't know yet. It's an adventure. Then my job is to let things grow organically. It takes time to self organize. “Oh my god we're eight weeks into this thing and we still don't have a product.” I tell them to relax, don't panic, that chaos is part of the process. I tell them to go to Labrea tarpits, to go to zoo, to come back with a fresh perspective. And then suddenly it happens.

“If you want to get milk out of a cow, you have to give it time to graze. These days, no one has time to graze.”

What happens? 

There's the “aha.” Someone gets on a roll, and the idea builds, and people start looking at each other. Suddenly, they know that they have something brilliant. And it's not just one person. Everyone feels it. When it happens, even if it's late in the game, people are so excited that they do what it takes to pull it together. Everyone works as hard as they can to make this idea work, because they are invested in it. We're really collaborating and building ideas together as opposed to the old model where everyone works in silos and is competitive with one another. This is true collaboration. Everyone moves through the entire process. There's no batton passing. Marketing doesn't pass the business objectives to design, so that design can create a visual and then pass it off to engineering who then passes it off to packaging. Everyone is present from the moment of conception and it really creates a feeling of ownership. In Platypus everyone is responsible for the end result. It is more of the feeling you get in a small company except that we are producing a product that will be a $25 million dollar brand out of the box.

How have the results been? 

The results have been phenomenal. I promised the company that we would do three of these a year and if the company got one new brand a year then it would be a success. So far we have done two workshops and we have produced two incredible new products and we still have to do the third session. And the people have been renewed. They have a renewed sense of value. I hoped that some great brands would come out of this project. What I didn't expect was the extent to which people would really be transformed. I heard from one Platypus who had to take some time off. He called up to tell me that for the first time he actually missed coming to work. It meant so much to me to hear that. This program has helped people experience work as a place that goes beyond earning a living.

Do you think that this excitement, this personal transformation gets passed along to the customer? 

Absolutely. We have to offer brands that establish a relationship with a consumer that goes beyond the product. I think that this relationship starts at home. It starts with the relationship a company has with its employees. And by giving employees freedom they actually become more productive. People reinvent themselves. As you grow older you may find that your skills or potentials have changed and you didn't notice because there was never a playground where you could assess and rediscover what you're good at. People are so caught up in climbing the ladder. Companies need to honor the fact that people can have untapped potentials. Let's try it. Why not? You get wonderful surprises.

What about the people who get left behind at the office to pick up the slack? How do they feel about project Platypus? 

I tried to come up with the maximum time I could pull a person away from a job. I came up with three months because that is the length of time people typically go on maternity leave. Somehow your coworkers cover for you, knowing that you're coming back. Yes, it is going to be disruptive, but people understand how to cover the workload. Also we're finding that people are willing to cover because they know that they will have a chance to participate in the project.

Has there been any push back from different departments? 

Human resources said to me, “You are going to create a monster—people won't want to go back to their normal jobs.” They were right. Some of the participants literally hold on to their desks and refuse to leave. But I tell them that it doesn't have to end—the dialogue and poetry can continue. And these people are going to serve as creative catalysts. It's about changing the dynamics of the whole company.

“Human resources said to me, ”You are going to create a monster—people won't want to go back to their normal jobs.“ They were right.”

Do you think this process has special relevance for designers? 

Designers need to engage their clients and coworkers creatively, to make them part of the creative process. They also need to let other people into the process and not try to own it. It's like being in a jazz band. Everyone plays individual instruments. Then all the sudden you get into a zone and you're playing together and building off each other and all the sudden you've created a piece of music that has just evolved. Everyone involved feels ownership at a very deep level. This way, designers don't have to sell their idea to team members or the client. They were there at the conception. Designers should become creative catalysts within the organization.


First published in Gain 2.0: AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy.