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Review: Brick by Brick

Brick by Brick

By David C. Robertson


Brick by Brick chronicles the near bankruptcy of the LEGO group in the late 90’s to early 2000’s and the various innovations, changes to business practices, and new strategies they used to not only to pull themselves out of a tailspin, but to become a dominate force in the global toy industry.

One of the book’s more provocative ideas is how to “innovate inside the box”. LEGO is a company that constantly needs to innovate, both to create the next toy craze, and to revitalize evergreen lines like LEGO City. But LEGO learned the hard way that you can’t let designers run amok without setting limits. Every new kind of LEGO piece means a new injection mold, and less interchangeability with other sets. I know from experience as a kid that it was always a bummer to lose the unique pieces because sets felt incomplete and that some of the best kits and later free-form designs were made from the simplest of materials. Again and again Robertson shows how LEGO used limits to better define goals, and to foster creativity. A sonnet has strict rules but infinite diversity and beautiful artistry, and a LEGO kit with 70-80% conventional common pieces can still have unprecedented variety.

It was interesting to see some of the LEGO trends that I observed more from the fringes as a teenager and young adult, and how they fit into the overall picture of the company’s fortunes. BIONICLE, one of their most successful lines in recent memory, introduced the “build-able action figure” to the market, but I remember as a kid and AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) thinking these toys “dumbed down” the essence of LEGO play. But Robertson showed how BIONICLE’s storyline and saavy marketing saved the LEGO group from a lot of other mistakes in that period.

The big takeaways for anyone designing products are timing, consultations with end-users, working with talented and creative people and seeking out unconventional markets. But how you do these things matters too. LEGO’s basic strategies might not look too different from the period when they were succeeding and when they were failing, but a lot of what turned things around was setting limits and defining goals. Use citizen developers to help you build the next Mindstorms, but have a good idea of what Mindstorms is going to be and pick who work with carefully. Work with passionate designers like the man behind LEGO Architecture and think of new ways to interact with LEGO at all ages.

I was a little disappointed that the book had less coverage of the part of LEGO I have the most interaction with today, LEGO video games. There is a chapter on the failed LEGO Universe and some mentions of LEGO Star Wars – The Video Game. I think the reason for the lack of coverage is that most of the development for these games actually happens outside of LEGO, with LEGO just licensing the likenesses. You can see from the Universe story how LEGO could muck up software with unrealistic expectations instead of knowing the limits of what software and hardware can do.

Robertson also devotes coverage to LEGO’s competitors, though most of the focus is given to Megablocks and Minecraft (which now has licensed kits with LEGO). It would have been interesting to see more side-by-side comparisons of toys released from Hasbro and Mattel at the time LEGO was making some of its product releases.

Overall for a business book this is a really fascinating analysis of LEGO’s recent history. It’s better than most of the “trendy” line of business books for practical advice and showing both the good and the bad. The one side-effect of reading the book is that it made me want to play with LEGO’s again, so beware of potential threats to productivity.

(4 stars | It’s a business book with some business jargon, but still a fascinating and engaging story)

*I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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As I write this I’m sitting in the living room with my dog lying against my feet. He doesn’t like thunder very much and sometimes needs a little reassurance that everything is okay. It’s sweet the way he trusts me, and feels better just knowing I’m here, and I feel a little bad that I have to go in an hour. But maybe the storm will die down.

Sometimes there are things I want to write about that aren’t a whole blog post, or if they were it would come across more as a rant. Here’s a smattering:

– I just purchased the recent Dynamite Comics Bundle from Story Bundle and included amongst the titles is Red Sonja: Unchained. For those unfamiliar Red Sonja is a sexy red-headed barbarian fighting in a fantasy world of dangerous monsters and sporting a chain-mail bikini (I reviewed Legends of Red Sonja a while ago which is also included in the bundle). The literal premise of Unchained is that her bikini is damaged by fighting a mystical wolf beast and she has to spend the rest of the story wearing something else, in this case the pelt of the wolf she just killed. Something about that just seems hilarious to me. Don’t judge.

– A little shout-out to my friends down under who may be getting a letter from the studio that produced Dallas Buyers Club. Seems Australian ISPs are going to have to give up the identity of about 5000 of you. The IP addresses were gathered by a data logger working for the studio who joined the torrent sharing of the movie. Piracy is bad and all, but I think it’s ridiculous how much lag time there can be with the release of certain products in different countries (in Australia’s case often many months). I’m always a little annoyed to learn when an American film premieres overseas before it premieres here (and some even get different endings or scenes (i.e. Iron Man 3)). What bothers me simply about this is that there are no clear technological reasons why films can’t just be released at the same time. A lot of theaters in my area now have digital screens where the movie played is essentially a high quality digital file. I know there are some complex economics involved, but that feels mostly like an excuse. People will buy your product if it is reasonably priced, and available in a timely fashion. Otherwise, they’ll find a way to get it anyway.

– I’ve been having a lot of fun transferring some old cassette tapes to digital, a project kicked off by finding a bunch of Brother Cadfael audio books on the cheap from the thrift store. Something about the weight, rattle and whirr of old tapes kicks up some old memories and sent me digging through my closets for more material to transfer. There are a number of Star Trek audio dramas that never made the transition to CD’s which is kind of a shame. The only drawback is that I have to play the whole tape to record it, in real time, but luckily I have a cassette player that fits in my bookbag which I can wire into my laptop and have the old tech sitting next to me while I write code. Best thing I found so far: John  Cleese reading C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Classic and sadly out of print.

– Real training exercise I’ve been assigned at work: A peacock in the land of penguins. Turns out this is a classic business book now in its third edition, following the adventures of Perry the Peacock amidst a sea of birds in tuxes. It’s only a 0.01 on Amazon (with $3.99 shipping) if you want a laugh or to take the course with me. Isn’t corporate life grand?

– In case of any of you have picked up the fractal book but have questions about it, remember you can always contact me at bentrubewriter@gmail.com. I had a great e-mail back and forth recently with someone who picked up the book and needed a little code assistance. Always happy to help someone learn about fractals. Or anything else for that matter.

– I’m thrilled that the next Lego Game will be Jurassic: World, covering the original trilogy and the newest installment. We watched all three movies over the weekend (1st one is still the best by a long shot). But I’ve got to wonder how they’ll adapt this into a kid friendly game. I’ve been playing Telltale’s episodic Jurassic Park recently and you spend a lot of time getting eaten by dinosaurs for making mistakes. One scene in particular involved my character getting crushed between a Triceratops and a T-Rex with a 30 second sequence of my daughter grieving before it told me I died and let me reload. I’m dead already, you don’t have to make me feel bad about it.

That’s all for now. Have a good morning!

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