Brick by Brick and Other Innovations

I recently read Robertson and Breen’s Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry (Crown Business, 2013).  As my children, grandchildren, and I have been long-time Lego fans, this book was fascinating.  It led me to think about innovation more broadly.

But first, let’s consider the Lego story.  Lego means “play well” in Danish.  Three generations of founders (Ole Kirk Kristiansen, Godtfred Kirk Kristiansen, and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen) committed to the Lego Play System, all centered on very well-designed interlocking bricks.

Two decades of strong growth hit headwinds in the late 1990s, with electronic and online offerings capturing the attention of children and their parents.  The partnership with the Star Wars brand, despite the skepticism of some Lego executives, provided a burst of growth.  However, they realized that they needed to broaden their view of innovation.  They adopted the “seven truths of innovation” that were pervasive in management circles at that time.

  • Hire diverse and creative people
  • Head for blue ocean markets
  • Be customer driven
  • Practice disruptive innovation
  • Foster open innovation – heed the wisdom of the crowd
  • Explore the full spectrum of innovation
  • Build an innovation culture

Senior executives hired to pursue these truths restored Lego’s growth, but they were not yet out of the woods.  They created a large number of new products, but poorly managed their development and roll-out.  For example, their financial management system was unable to tell them which product lines were profitable. In addition, no one among top management really understood the technologies on which they were betting.

They had pursued the seven truths, but executed poorly and wasted substantial time and money.  With a new top management team, they revisited the seven truths.  Beyond getting the basic management systems up to snuff, they focused on reconnecting with their core audiences – seven-year-old boys and several hundred thousand adult enthusiasts.  These audiences were quite frank about what they liked and disdained.

Lego brought new discipline to renewing product lines for Lego City and Duplo, as well as new products such as Bionicle, Mindstorms, and Architecture, with much crowdsourced energy and creativity from enthusiasts for the latter two.  They carefully learned how to balance internal and external sources of ideas.  They learned how to dovetail discipline and creativity.  This led to increased revenue and eventually profitability.

This gave them confidence to attempt a disruptive innovation – Lego Universe – a massive multi-player online game.  They teamed with NetDevil, a Colorado-based game developer.  It was a rocky relationship with Lego wanting everything perfect before launch, which was not the modus operandi of the online game industry. Overpriced when they came to market, Universe was shut down in a bit over a year.  Minecraft, a competing startup that was crudely similar to Lego, took over with a much lower price point.

They bounced back with Lego Games – board games that players build from bricks and then play – and Ninjago, an exciting world of ninjas battling against evil.  Lego succeeded in its pursuit of the seven truths.  In the process, they learned that, “The most difficult challenge in business is not to invent an innovative product; it’s to build an organization that continually creates innovative products.”

This fascinating book caused me to revisit my list of many great individual innovators, some of whom are profiled by Isaacson (2015).  Here are ten notable innovators:

  1. Telephone (Grosvenor & Wesson, 1997) — Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
  2. Electricity (Jonnes, 2003) — Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
  3. Automobiles (Watts, 2011) — Henry Ford (1863-1947)
  4. Flight (McCullough, 2015) – Wright Brothers (1867-1912; 1871-1948)
  5. Computing (Maney, 2003) – Thomas J. Watson, Sr. (1874-1956)
  6. Relativity (Miller, 2008; Poincaré, 1902) — Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
  7. Cubism (Miller, 2008; Poincaré, 1902) — Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
  8. Satellites (Butrica, 2014) — Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008)
  9. Internet (Ryan, 2010) – Robert Kahn (1938 – ) and Vinton Cerf (1943 – )
  10.  Digital Devices (Isaacson, 2011) — Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Most of these people are well known and need no explanation here.  It surprised me that the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke originated the design of communications satellites in a piece published in Wireless World in 1945.  Art and technology often coexist quite creatively.

The sixth and seventh entries in the above list illustrates another fascinating example of crossing borders between technology and art.  This border crossing was motivated by Henri Poincaré’s famous book on geometry (Poincaré, 1902).  Reading and discussing this book led to Einstein’s relativity theory and Picassos’ cubism (Miller, 2008).  Science and art drew on the same intellectual roots to invent new conceptualizations of space and time.

Beyond the Lego Group, there have also been innovative organizations such as Bell Labs – The Idea Factory (Gertner, 2012).  There have also been innovation ecosystems.  James Burke’s Connections (1978) provides numerous examples.  He identifies two principles:

  • The greatest impact of a technology is rarely what the originators envisioned
  • The greatest returns on investments in technology rarely accrue to original investors

In The Innovators (2015) Isaacson profiles hackers from Ida Lovelace to Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page.  The path to innovation is seldom smooth.  However, as Joel Mokyr elaborates in Lever of Riches (1990), innovation is central to economic growth and prosperity.

What do the innovators in the above list appear to have in common?  They can be characterized as creative visionaries, who perhaps saw connections and distinctions not apparent to most people.  They were persistent, despite setbacks.  They learned from these setbacks.  A CEO of a very successful high-tech company in Atlanta told me, “It took several years for our customers to convince us of what they really wanted.”  Lego had that experience as well.


Burke, J. (1978). Connections. Boston, MA: Little Brown.

Butrica, A.J. (Ed.).(2014). Beyond the Ionosphere: Fifty Years of Satellite Communications. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics & Space Administration, NASA History Series.

Gertner, J. (2013). The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. New York: Penguin.

Grosvenor, E.S., & Wesson, M. (1997). Alexander Graham Bell. New York: Harry Abrams.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Isaacson, W. (2015). The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jonnes, J. (2003). Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House

Maney, K. (2003). The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM. New York: Wiley.

McCullough, D. (2015) The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Miller, A.J.  (2008). Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc. New York: Basic Books.

Mokyr, J. (1990). The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Poincaré, H. (1905). Science and Hypothesis. London: Walter Scott Publishing. Originally published in French in 1902 and German in 1904.

Robertson, D.C., & Breen, B. (2013). Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry. New York: Crown Business.

Ryan, J. (2010). A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London, UK: Reaktion Books.

Watts, S. (2011). The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York: Vintage.

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