How radical can you be? LEGO has the answer

Here’s a tool I found in David Robertson’s marvellous book on LEGO’s creative process, Brick by Brick. It could help distinguish practical ideas (that you need) from game-changing innovations (that you might love, but will be really hard to pull off).

15 years ago, LEGO was scared that the rise of video games would kill their business. So they embarked on a rush of new innovations to try and keep kids’ attention. They diversified into TV shows, comics, action-figures and digital toys. Costs went through the roof, but sales didn’t. After 3 years of runaway innovation, LEGO nearly went bust. To save the company, they went back to basics – making plastic bricks for kids who like building. And they decided that every future innovation should be assessed on a grid like this:

LEGO innovation matrix

At one end you’ve got Incremental Improvements within business-as-usual – like creating LEGO Harry Potter based on the success of LEGO Star Wars.

Then you’ve got New Offerings in existing categories – like LEGO Bionicle, which used a skeleton structure rather than bricks, but was still a toy you build and play with.

Finally you’ve got Redefine Category – innovations which are game changers, affecting the whole industry. LEGO tried to create an online brick-building platform, but they were too slow and Minecraft beat them to it.

What LEGO learned is that you should probably only attempt ONE game changing innovation every year – because they are so demanding, bewildering and disruptive. LEGO nearly broke their company when they had multiple innovations in play, all of them trying to be game-changers. But not every successful innovation has to be a game-changer – and you CAN attempt several simultaneous innovations in the other two categories.

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