In Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry (2013, Crown Business), authors David C. Robertson and Bill Breen spotlight the company's disciplined approach to creativity and its business turnaround. In the following edited excerpt, the authors detail how the development of the action-figure toy Bionicle, a part-robot, part-biological character, set in motion a cultural change at the company that led to its successful business transformation.

A full spectrum of innovations creates value not only via new products and services for customers but also from changes to a company's business model, internal processes, and even its culture. And for LEGO, inventing Bionicle was very much a culture-altering event.

The challenge of creating a new play experience pushed the Bionicle development team to solicit feedback from the outside world, which in the 1990s represented a dramatic break from standard LEGO practice.

From the birth of the brick to the last years of the past century, designers were so secure in their knowledge of what kids wanted that they rarely ventured beyond Billund [the company's Denmark headquarters] to glean insights into children's lives and apply what they learned to their next creations. To the extent that LEGO designers ever listened to kids and adult fans, those consultations almost always took the form of a kind of reluctant due diligence. Except on the rare occasions when a focus group unanimously disparaged a toy, consumers were brought in simply to fine-tune and validate products that were inevitably destined for the market.

Because Bionicle, as well as the Slizer and RoboRiders toys that preceded it, sought to introduce boys to a story-driven fantasy world, the "designer knows best" mind-set had to change. Starting with the assignment that led to the creation of Slizer, the design team sought to acquire a far deeper understanding of its potential consumers and use that knowledge to better position its toy concepts and guide their development.

The effort began when the Slizer team, working from published research on boys' behavior and especially their play lives, created detailed profiles of four different consumers, each with an alliterative name. There was Agent Anthony, who loved action movies and adventure stories. Systematic Siegfried was fascinated with technology. Artistic Arthur would probably grow up to be a craftsman. And then there was Bully Bob, easily distracted and the loudest kid in the room--hardly the typical LEGO consumer and one whom the company had never seriously pursued. Each of the archetypes informed Slizer and helped shape Bionicle, but none more so than Bully Bob.

"With the Bully Bob character, the model's functions and look and feel had to be very different," said Holm. "We started to give life to concepts that had many more competitive twists to them. There was also a social aspect, which got us thinking about how boys might play in groups, rather than alone. When we gave birth to those types of concepts, the whole world opened up. It felt like we were on to something." 

The team's outreach to kids led to a crucial insight early in the development of the toy. When it tested Voodoo Heads, the team worried about the conflict that came with the concept. Part of the play experience involved one character punching the other, causing its head to pop off. The team thought that kids from the United States, with their greater exposure to baleful movies and bloody TV shows, would go bonkers for decapitated characters. To its surprise, the team found just the opposite. Violence was a turnoff, because the American kids personalized the experience. There was also a practical consideration: the boys told testers they were afraid they'd lose the collectible heads if they blew off too easily. Having heard the customers' verdict, the developers went back to their bricks.

As the concepts evolved from Slizer to RoboRiders to Voodoo Heads to Bionicle, Bully Bob morphed into Bionicle Boy, a dynamic trendsetter with a short attention span, a kid who likes to multitask and desires instant gratification. For the designers, Bully Bob and, later, Bionicle Boy were vital signposts for navigating the journey to develop the Bionicle line. When designers began to lose their way they referred back to the archetype, which reminded them, as Holm put it, to "always be a bit more daring." Thus they pushed the features that would make the toy unique: vivid storytelling and richly drawn characters that wouldn't burst a kid's allowance, delivered a hefty dose of street cred, appealed to boys' collecting instinct, and, above all, were cool.

Two years after Bionicle hit the U.S. market in the summer of 2001, the development team began working with kids and adult fans to help guide the evolving story line. The effort began by accident. In 2003, right around the time that the news media began reporting on the LEGO Group's financial troubles, a rumor starting circulating among LEGO user groups that the company was going to drop the line. Greg Farshtey, who had taken over as the lead writer of Bionicle books and comics, joined one of the toy's fan sites, BZPower, to refute the rumor. Almost immediately, he began exchanging fifty to a hundred daily emails with kids. He soon found fans were an invaluable resource for testing ideas and gauging the story's performance. 

In the years following Bionicle's launch, other LEGO development teams would go to far greater lengths to elicit feedback from beyond the company's design studios. But more than any other product line, it was Bionicle that helped LEGO take its first tentative steps toward building bridges with kids and adult fans. 

Reprinted from the book BRICK BY BRICK: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry by David C. Robertson with Bill Breen.  Copyright 2013 by David C. Robertson. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.

 

Published on: Jun 20, 2014