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.