Lessons on (Dis)engagement from Polly Pocket

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Thanks to the professional coach I work with, I’m often looking for leadership and organizational development lessons from unlikely sources. It turns out that a toy, a Polly Pocket race track to be specific, provided me with a unique lesson in the importance of building open and flexible structures where people actually co-create, innovate and truly engage in the mission of the organization.

A week ago my 3 year old was out-of-this-world-excited because he’d found a race track at our local thrift store. The photo showed a complete loop-de-loop AND a mechanized conveyor belt that transports the cars up to the top of the race track.

As soon as we arrived home, we set about putting the many pieces together. It wasn’t too challenging to figure it all out and the four little cars were soon racing out of the launching area, twisting round the loops, up the conveyor belt and around the race track (and around, and around).

My son was thrilled. For about 3 minutes. After those first few minutes, he set about moving pieces around. Attaching them in new and interesting configurations. Putting the loop-de-loop at the end rather that the start of the track. I loved the engineering focus that came into play.

Only something wasn’t quite right. Turns out that Polly Pocket Race to the Mall was intended to work in only one way. Each attempt to change the structure met with clear resistance – pieces that weren’t interchangeable, elevations or angles that didn’t match and fasteners that wouldn’t move.

A number of frustrating days ensued as we pulled out tape and string and pretty much anything else we thought might support our mission. No joy. Turns out there’s a reason this particular toy is rather hard to find these days. Kids can play with it but not engage with it so its shelf life is pretty short.

As organizations, are we building structures, processes, approaches that truly allow our community (employees, volunteers, members, partners, funders, etc.) to engage or simply play? When someone from our community brings forward a new idea, an unexpected talent or seeks to change something, are we able to adapt to truly engage that individual or group? If not, how long are we likely to remain relevant?

At Vantage Point, rather than looking to Polly Pocket, I’d like to think we’re instead striving to take our engagement lessons from wooden train tracks and LEGO blocks. Innovative and adaptable toys where the “community,” of kids in this case, are genuinely engaging in the design and creation process.

I think our abundant approach to engaging knowledge philanthropists is one example of how we’re living this out. The knowledge philanthropists connect new dots, expand our expertise and reframe our thinking, pushing us to adapt and enhance the current ways we carry out our mission. Through this engagement, we as an organization remain relevant, and innovative, and resilient. Our shelf-life gets a lot longer.


How have you or your organization built in flexibility and openness to engagement? What pays off have you realized?

About the Author

After working in London and completing her MBA at INSEAD in France and Singapore, Maria Turnbull joined Vantage Point’s team in 2006. Rooted in the not-for-profit sector through numerous leadership roles with the British and Canadian Red Cross Societies, OXFAM and Amnesty International, Maria loves...


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