Note: this is a serious article - it’s been ages since I published anything, serious or not, but if by fat chance you remember this site for its less serious content, I might as well warn you.
Now that the next cycle of LEGO Ambassadors is beginning, and I’m not part of the program for this cycle, I’d like to share some thoughts I have about it. While there is of course a lot to be said about the Ambassadors program, I’ll focus on the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) in particular, as I feel it’s a seldom discussed but important aspect of the program.
Up to cycle 5, the NDA was mandatory - the very first thing you needed to do before jumping in would be signing it, along with a release form. The exact terms of the NDA are presumably not a secret, since people receiving it aren’t under NDA; but they aren’t very interesting either - in a nutshell, you’re not supposed to disclose secrets you might encounter while doing your Ambassador work. Or, I assume, any other work you might do for LEGO under another NDA.
So far, so good. LEGO protects his assets, which is understandable. Actually, the fact that they’re even willing to share information with simple customers shows that they’re much more open than a lot of other companies. That said, the amount of confidential information I personally received as Ambassador during cycle 5 wasn’t extremely high either. Of course, I can’t say anything about it; let’s just say that most of it were pre-release pictures of upcoming sets, and not even long before release. I’ve seen preliminary pictures of the Eiffel Tower set, for example.
I don’t know if you noticed, but I did just breach the NDA: I just disclosed some of the confidential information I came in contact with at the time. Granted, the breach is minimal, since I don’t upload the pictures themselves, and the set is since long on the shelves so you didn’t learn anything of value, but it’s still a breach. Actually, I’m lucky, I realized it just in time, so I still can ask for permission to publish this article and cover myself.
OK, Steve approves. Pfew, that was close. Thanks, Steve!
This brings me to what I consider the one big problem of the NDA: it scares people. Most of the time, I was afraid to say anything because it didn’t know if I was allowed or not. And I don’t think I’m the only one, our discussion forums during cycle 5 were littered with questions like “May we share this information?”, which wasted valuable time from the LEGO Community Team.
Most importantly, the LEGO community at large got the impression that Ambassadors weren’t allowed to say anything, and were forced to silence, nearly vanishing from the online world altogether. Some resented this as a fracture between the Ambassadors and the community. Which was Not Good™, considering Ambassadors are there to represent the community.
Maybe I exaggerate the fear. As far as I can see, the Ambassadors are usually perfectly able to decide whether the information they so much want to share with their fellow fans is OK or not. Still, when in doubt, shutting up has always been a safe choice.
On the other hand, there wasn’t always much to say. The term “Ambassador” is really an ambiguous one, most of the time understood by fans as “Ambassadors from LEGO to the community”. Whereas it means “Ambassadors from the community to LEGO”. The difference is important: our job is to relay your desires, your complaints, your wishes to LEGO. Everything you want to say to LEGO but don’t know how can go through an Ambassador. While we do relay some information from LEGO to fans from time to time, it is not the main purpose of the program as I see it.
But back on topic. LEGO involves fans for much more than the Ambassadors, for example for workshops (think about Power Functions or Mindstorms), and there the information is much more sensitive (even showing fans actual prototypes). There is no question that the NDA is vital there. But for Ambassadors, wasn’t it more of a nuisance?
If there’s one good thing to say about cycle 5, it’s that we were able to think clearly about the program itself and how it should evolve. Maybe we did less LEGO-related stuff because of that, I don’t know, but this was necessary to ensure the program would thrive in the future. Among other issues, we pointed out the NDA, and LEGO understood there was a problem with it.
However, suppressing it would mean LEGO wouldn’t be able to consult Ambassadors on confidential matters, which would have been a loss, so they did the next best thing: for cycle 6, they made it optional.
The way it was done was that a part of the discussions would still be under NDA, and only Ambassadors willing to sign it would have access to that. Everything else - not covered by NDA. This allowed not only to allow people not to sign it if they didn’t want to, but more importantly, it allowed for a very clear and simple way to identify confidential and non-confidential information.
When we were asked whether we’d sign the NDA or not, there was an overwhelming “yes” response. In a way, that surprised me, as I had the impression more people were actively against it. I myself had discussed the matter a lot (consider what I’ve just written so far and you’ll get an idea of how verbose I can be), so I felt I needed not to sign it to be able to witness the difference. I’m spoiler-hungry, so this wasn’t an easy decision, and I’m still not sure it was a good one. I write this just as a justification of sorts, in a way.
To be honest, at the time, I hadn’t expected the “optional” aspect of things - while a simple idea, I simply hadn’t thought about it; in my mind LEGO would either go on with or without it. I also hadn’t expected the fundamental difference it would make even for people signing it, that is, the separate discussions and clear labelling of what was confidential or not.
So there I was, not under NDA anymore. This meant I could, and still can, talk about everything I witnessed during cycle 6. Did I? Well, not that much. Most of what’s going on there is sure interesting, but it doesn’t mean we should dump it all on the fans. Maybe other Ambassadors did share more than I did; most of my discussions with fans were not online, since I represent an actual physical club and focused on real contacts with people, during various events in Europe. But it was good to know that I could discuss anything and not risk to say something I couldn’t.
By the way, that actually happened to me during cycle 5, in LEGO World 2007: I had just seen some prototype of something (notice I’m not saying what, even though it’s out now), and I wanted to discuss it with someone whom I was sure he knew about it yet, as he had been ambassador earlier, and participated in various other NDA-covered projects as well. Big mistake: he didn’t know. That was a real-time “oops”, much more embarrassing - no taking back, no cover. Luckily, he’s a great guy and stopped me before I even said anything too important, and even if I did, he wouldn’t have spread it further.
Still, the danger of knowing confidential stuff is real, and while I trust most Ambassadors have a better judgment than I do… what you don’t know, you can’t spread, so I was happy not to know anything confidential during cycle 6. Well, except I still did learn a few things, because some people still thought I was under NDA and I confess that sometimes I played the game of not reminding them. But while I could technically speak about it, I’ll use whatever little judgment I have and not do it. Don’t worry, there isn’t that much anyway.
To conclude, I think LEGO chose the good approach - but whether under NDA or not, Ambassadors should always pay attention to what they say, and not only for confidentiality reasons.
So, as newly appointed Ambassador, should you sign the NDA? That’s a personal question. I’d advise so, unless maybe if you’re afraid to have to pay more attention to what you say. I remember someone last year saying that it was what the community he represented would expect from him. I don’t think he actually asked them, but that would probably the wisest choice: discuss it with your community, and ask them what they think of it. You do represent them after all.
Since I can’t be bothered with maintaining properly a simple site, please divert your comments to the corresponding thread on LUGNET