Books | Assembly required

A review of Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, by David C. Robertson with Bill Breen.
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books) on

I'm a smart person who lacks a lot of "smart people skills." No one taught me to play chess. It takes me days to read a newspaper. I can't solve a Rubik's cube. I'm a good speller with a big vocabulary and pitiful Scrabble scores.

And alas, even after reading Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry (Crown Publishing, $26), I still don't know how to make a circle out of LEGO bricks.

Author David C. Robertson forged his connections within the toy company when he was named the LEGO Professor of Innovation and Technology Management at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), a renowned Swiss business school.

Now stateside and part of Wharton's faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Robertson collaborated with former Fast Companysenior editor Bill Breen on a biography of LEGO, which glided by Mattel earlier this year to become the world's highest-valued toy manufacturer.

Ole Kirk Kristiansen founded LEGO Group in 1932 in Billund, Denmark. (The North American headquarters is in Enfield, Conn.) His 65-year-old grandson, former LEGO president and CEO Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, is Denmark's richest man, and Kjeld's three children just landed on Bloomberg's Billionaires Index for the first time.

To severely oversimplify, LEGO encountered two crises of conscience. In 1960, the Kristiansens "bet on the brick" and stopped producing the wooden toys that had constituted 90 percent of their products.

Then, in the 1990s, LEGO got left behind as its demographic, 9-year-old boys, grew enamored with digital gaming. "Compared to the razzle-dazzle of Game Boy and Xbox, Jurassic Park and Nintendo, the humble brick seemed like a relic from a bygone era," Robertson writes. (Apps and Call of Duty came later.)

I don't remember this, but in 2003, LEGO almost went bankrupt. With each chapter of Brick by Brick, you wonder how LEGO could possibly exist today -- and whether it deserves to -- given the boneheaded business decisions of its past few decades.

Whence the turnaround? LEGO talked to parents and kids, hired people from different backgrounds, communicated better internally, timed product launches appropriately, set goals, entered new markets, and reached out to Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs), who were previously viewed as semi-creepy and fringe.

These improvements sound more obvious than innovative. In the last 50 pages, I wondered if the earth-shattering transformation promised in title had happened yet.

That's because most of Brick by Brick's action ends in 2008, before the revamped LEGO smashed sales predictions. Either Robertson picked a premature time to tell the story, or LEGO's conquest isn't all that interesting.

What I was most excited to read about, the LEGO Friends initiative -- how the company says it finally caught girls' attention -- is never addressed. A collection of pastel-colored bricks and mini-skirted female characters, LEGO Friends is considered one of the top triumphs in LEGO history.

On an episode of NPR's Weekend Edition, one segment title says it all: "Girls' Legos Are A Hit, But Why Do Girls Need Special Legos?" In the last line of her month-old radio report, Neda Ulaby asks, "Would it be so hard, critics wonder, for LEGO to develop -- even market -- toys for boys and girls to enjoy together?"

During the entire chronology Brick by Brick covers, LEGO never catered to young girls. Now it does, but the LEGO Friends line is vapid and stereotypically feminine. It's Disney princesses meets Bratz dolls, meets My Little Pony meets career Barbie. Indeed, 65,000 people have signed a petition to current CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp called, "Tell LEGO to stop selling out girls!"

According to the book jacket, AFOLs like myself -- who dream of apartments like this or who will probably line up for the 2014 LEGO animated movie -- are the third most sought-after audience for the book, the first two being senior executives and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the very coolest thing related to Brick by Brick is a comic strip rendering of LEGO's financial collapse, illustrated by Bob D'Amico. However, the cartoon only appears on the author's Web site.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards