Back in episode 25 I told you about a unique experience I had creating the Future Innovation Leaders class for 8-12 year olds. We explored the connection between the digital world and the physical world. One of the tools we used was LEGO Mindstorms – robots that can be built and programmed. An executive at LEGO listened to the podcast and we started a conversation about innovation at LEGO. Innovation is a part of LEGO’s DNA, but this has not always been the case. In the 90s, the company’s sales were declining. They hired innovation consultant after innovation consultant, trying practices that worked for others but were not a good fit for them. In 2003 the company lost $300 million dollars. Then a few things changed, with a focus on creating “enhanced play” experiences. Today, 60% of their annual revenue comes from new products – innovation is at the core of their successful business. Part of their turnaround is because of how they leveraged their loyal fans, creating a community that promotes the brand and extends what you can do with LEGOs.
When I asked LEGO who I could interview to discuss innovation, their response was interesting, but not surprising given how their community of fans has influenced their success. They said to talk with “bazmarc” – at least that is how he is best known in the LEGO community. Bazmarc, who is Marc Andre Bazergui is an IBM Remote Technical Support Specialist by day, and a LEGO Robots Expert by night. He is one of the 12 members of the official LEGO Mindstorms Expert Panel (LMEP) that has been actively involved in the design, testing, and development of the product. He is also a contributor to a larger but exclusive group called the Mindstorms Community Partner (MCP) program. Marc has traveled around the world for events to inspire kids and adults with the wonders of Mindstorms. My interview with Marc uncovers community-building practices product managers can put into action.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers, Developers, and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- A lot of us played with LEGOs when we were kids, but few of us have gotten involved with their robotic system, Mindstorms. What is Mindstorms? It is a toolkit that allows kids and adults to create robots. It consists of a computer brain, called the Brick, with sensor ports and motor ports. Robots are created by adding sensors, motors, infrastructure, and creating programs in a visual coding environment. The current generation of the product is called EV3, the previous version is NXT, and the first is RCX.
- LEGO has crowd sourced innovation through community building. You are a Mindstorm Community Advocate – essentially an ambassador for Mindstorm. What do you do in that role? Advocates volunteer their time to support LEGO and influence the direction of current and future products. The MCPs have meetings with the LEGO Community Manager (a LEGO employee) every two weeks, discussing plans to create more customer engagement, helping LEGO spot new raving fans, and sharing fascinating customer stories. He also administers a LEGO Facebook group, sharing games, EV3 selfies, and more.
- How did LEGO structure the community – what are the “building blocks” (pun intended!) that make it work? A key action was when LEGO realized customers were hacking the original RCX Mindstorms. Instead of trying to control the use of RCX, LEGO encouraged the hacking and saw a community develop that extended what LEGO envisioned for the RCX. LEGO contacted key contributors and offered them a cryptic opportunity to be part of something special but could only tell them more after they signed a nondisclosure agreement. Those accepting became the founding members in the Mindstorms Development Partners (MDP), that influenced the development of the next generation product, NXT. This was a small and exclusive community. Later the group needed to expand and additional raving fans were identified and invited to formally apply to be in the exclusive group. Social media platforms play a key role enabling the LEGO communities and helping to identify new talent. Live events across the globe allow community members to meet in person periodically, deepening their relationships and commitment to LEGO.
- What are some examples of innovations that customers are responsible for? A notable example is 7th grader, Shubham Banerjee, who used a Mindstorms EV3 to create a braille printer. He submitted it to his school’s science fair and later received funding from Intel to create a commercial version of a low-cost braille printer.
- What are the current things the community is working on to promote the LEGO brand and how will customers find out about them? A perfect add-on for the Mindstorms EV3 are LEGO Technic sets. Marc and his colleagues in the MCP group created the Mindstorm remix concept by asking what could be created by combining the EV3 with the the Technic Fire plane. The MCPs are taking the very best concepts and sharing build instructions on the LEGO Mindstorms blog called The NXT Step.
- Geeks in Toyland article featuring the community that contributed to creating the LEGO Mindstorms.
- LEGO Mindstorms Blog
- Marc’s Facebook LEGO Mindstorms EV3 group.
“Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way.” – Tom Freston
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