The LEGO Theory – understanding where innovation (really) comes from

Although its effects aren’t immediate, LEGO bricks have led to more innovation by proxy than any other company. From this we understand that innovation does not happen overnight, but is the sum of a long series of sequential events. 

I think we can learn a lot about innovation from Lego. Yes. Lego. The company that makes little red bricks!

These days, there are magazines after magazines trying to teach entrepreneurs where innovation comes from. You may have even searched for these headlines. It is a question that has been asked hundreds if not thousands of times in human history – where does innovation come from?

Like any intelligent person would do, you spend time doing research trying to answer this question. You read stories about Musk, Jobs and Gates who all innovated like crazy. You read stories about Twitter’s beginnings on a playground and Facebook’s beginnings in a Harvard dorm room.

Literally. There is an entire industry devoted to finding out where innovation comes from!

However, I think there is a huge problem with this method.

If you are trying to “understand innovation” by reading an article about how Ev Williams and Odeo pivoted into Twitter, put it down!

You need to look in the right place if you want to know innovation. Because all these Silicon Valley stories are only the “means to an end.” They may explain how these people got to where they are, but they teach us little about innovation. To truly understand where innovation comes from, we should not look at the “end product.” We should look at where it all began, and understand innovation as the sum of a sequential series of events. It begins in childhood.

As a society, we need to recognize that innovation does not happen overnight. It is the sum of a long series of sequential events.

When I was really young, 4 or 5 years old, my parents started providing me with Legos. These curious little bricks were more than just a piece of plastic, they were a component to a much larger picture.

Kids brains are so malleable even through teenage life, so it is important that strong connections be formed. What types of connections? Spatial awareness, complex imagination, and curiosity.

These are the values that Lego bricks instill in young kids. You can literally create anything you can imagine in your head with Legos. You put one brink on top of another, and try to imagine what you can create. Even when you do not have Legos in your hands, you can imagine fitting pieces together in your head.

That is exactly what I did in school when I was 6 and 7 years old. I would think to myself while in class during school, How can I make a plane? I would then use my head to sort through every known piece I had in my “big bucket” at home. I used my spatial awareness skills to craft this Lego plane in my head and memorize it. Therefore when I got home, I already knew how to build it.

Because I spent hours at a time in my basement with Legos, I now have a keen sense of spatial awareness. I can design a user interface in my head in perfect clarity. I can imagine how a piece of software would look and feel, how animations could occurs, and whether it will be smooth. Something that is hard to imagine for someone else comes naturally to me. This is all thanks to childhood Legos.

Innovation does not happen overnight. It is the sum of a long series of sequential events. You can not make C without B, and you cannot make B without A.

Lego is continuing to expand into exciting areas. More recently, they have made this curious figure in the video. This is called Lego Mindstorms. It is basically a bunch of Lego pieces combined with sensors, motors and a drag and drop programming language. To me, this is innovation.

When I was 12, I got one of these kits. (Yes, in 2007) Long story short, Lego Mindstorms got me into simple programming. Mindstorms then got me into Arduino which is an open source microcontroller. Arduino then got me into iOS programming. And here we are today.

If you think of innovation as the sum of a long series of sequential events, you start to understand that innovation is much different than you thought. For example, for every entrepreneur who is trying to create the next Facebook, they need to understand this simple fact: Facebook was not Mark Zuckerberg’s first project. The media portrays Facebook like it was written in a dorm room overnight and anyone can do it. This is totally false. Innovation is the sum of a “long” series of events. Over the course of eight years, Mark Zuckerberg worked on the following independent projects “for fun” which led to creating Facebook.

  1. Synapse – a music player that recognizes your taste in music and figures out songs you might like. Result: An acquisition by AOL and Microsoft that he turned down.
  2. Coursemash – a site that helped students pick classes depending on which classes their friends were in.
  3. Facemash – a site that ranked girls. The traffic created crashed the Harvard networks and was given a cease and desist.
  4. Facebook – a website that allows people to connect with their friends.

If you think Facebook was an overnight success. Think again. Facebook was the sum of a long series of sequential events. It started when Mark first learned how to code. Each project he did was an attempt to do something awesome. Only on the fourth attempt, did he actually create something everyone loved.

This is innovation. You can not create innovation (D) without first doing A + B + C.

This is one fact that most entrepreneurs do not understand. The media only portrays the “end product.” Rarely do they ever show how that end product was the sum of several attempts at doing something amazing. They only show the end product – Facebook.

If you only show the end product and try to learn innovation from the end product, you will not understand LEGO theory.

There are two morals two this story:

  1. Lego has unexpectedly contributed to an entire generation of innovation. Although the effects took twenty years to materialize, we can all thank Lego for making the world much better. Few innovations would have occurred if it was not for early childhood education and curiosity instituted by Lego. Next time you see a young boy or girl, give them some Legos. It might pay off someday.
  2. Innovation is the sum of a long series of sequential events. Rarely can you create the next Facebook without creating Synapse, Coursematch and Facemash first. If you want to understand innovation, understand LEGO theory.

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