Bill Breen, Books, David Robertson, Lego

Brick by Brick : How Lego almost blew it


Brick by Brick : How Lego rewrote the rules of innovation 2012

(and made everything awesome)

By David Robertson, with Bill Breen

A review

As a kid I played with Lego. I know many, but not all, of us did. As an adult, pre-kids, one of my biggest fears about parenthood was the pain of treading on scattered Lego blocks. We probably began buying Lego for the kids in around 2006. To me Lego seemed like it had been ever present. I did think it went through a bad stage when there was too little scope for independent play. Too many single use pieces, unable to be used for anything but their original purpose. What I didn’t realise was that Lego themselves had almost driven the company into bankruptcy.

Lego comic2

This book was a rags to riches to almost rags before back to riches again story. In the late 90’s Lego had witnessed a sustained period of massive growth. It had a large and vibrant research and development department. The only problem was there was little control over this department, and too many ideas were being developed with no strategy for getting them out to market. Those that did, were not liked by children or not given enough time to establish themselves before being supplanted by other product lines.

David Robertson first started out looking at Lego as a case study, within his role as a professor of innovation and technology management in Lausanne, Switzerland. He then went on to become a professor of Lego, which seems like one of those slightly made up cool job titles. The book still feels quite objective and dispassionate about how Lego sought to change their operating methods, and even some of their company philosophy to ensure they averted a bankruptcy predicted to be less than 6 months away.

Lego were aware of the challenge of remaining creative and innovative despite having grown to be very large company. This challenge,  is outlined as ‘the innovators dilemma’’s_Dilemma by Clay Christensen. It boils down to the idea that it can be very hard for companies, once new and innovative, to remain able to see new niches and ways to develop new products. The reason being that they become so focused on trying to defend the markets they have carved out, that creativity and openness to new ideas become secondary to promoting and pushing their existing products. Lego were well aware of the examples of other companies that were once top of their field, but then declined as newer more disruptive products managed to develop products that were initially seen to be of no value.

The book highlights Lego’s successful attempts to simplify the number of individual pieces they were producing, at the same time as creating playable appealing products. The idea was to come up with new innovative products, and yet also ones that were clearly recognisable as being part of the Lego stable. For a long time for example they had been reluctant to tie in with the Star Wars brand.

Lego X-wing

And yet once they did it, it seems such an obvious winner of an idea, and is now a fantastically successful part of the Lego range. From the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star, these are massive models to build, priced more for adults and fans than children.

Death star

Similarly with Lego Mindstorms, the programmable robotic Lego kits, it quickly became apparent that AFOL’s (adult fans of lego) were creating products beyond what Lego had expected to see. For a long time Lego resisted engaging with these non core users of their product, seeing as them as an irritation rather than a source of ideas and innovation. Eventually, and tentatively,  using NDA’s (non disclosure agreements) Lego finally sought out the top Lego Mindstorm users, through on line user groups. A MUP (Mindstorm users panel) was formed, as Lego realised the fantastic, and yet obvious in retrospect, value of asking your users what they would like from your products.

Lego Mindstorms

The MUP grew from strength to strength, more top users were incorporated, and the panel expanded to include others. These were naturally called MUPpets!

Without wanting to give too much away the book is a good read. Accessibly written, it is something you could grab at the airport and enjoy reading on the flight. Robertson is well aware of various concepts of innovation, discussing blue ocean marketing strategies, and other key strategies to ensure a large company remains innovative and capable of causing disruption. The massive success of Minecraft is discussed. How it achieved success where Lego’s own previous in house  game development failed massively. This time around though Lego were more open to going into partnership with what could have been a rival, and instead, naturally, you can now buy Lego Minecraft sets.

Lego minecraft

What about Lego the movie!?

Lego movie still

In reading the book, it only seemed fitting to watch the movie too. In many ways, the movie clearly reflected the key values Lego itself would want to promote. In a key scene towards the end, as the Lego people finally rise up against the evil Kracle dictator, Lucy, aka Wild Style (are you a DJ?) urges everyone to pull up the Lego structures and rebuild into whatever they want them to be. In this way Lego would seem to have managed to return to it’s roots.

Lego = meaning in Danish, play well.

And no, I haven’t stepped on as many pieces of Lego as I thought I would. I think, as a parent, you learn to walk in a different, more sliding sort of way, to reduce the number of stepping on Lego incidents.


David Robertson blog

You can also watch a video of David presenting his ideas on youtube at

 David Robertson video link



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