Friday, 5 June 2015

Lego: Entrepreneurship Education for Kids

LEGO, a brand that's universally loved by kids, educators and adults. Have you ever wondered about the culture or core values behind this impressive brand that's delighted kids for decades?

This post picks up on yesterday's theme of opportunities and failures and looks at how carefully organisations need to cultivate the culture. Failure to do so can see even the best loved global brands risk facing bankruptcy, including LEGO.

LEGO's founder was way ahead of his time with core values and culture but the company lost sight of these for a while, but rediscovered them to come up with some consistently impressive innovations and results.

In this post I argue that, if the recent experience with my kids is anything to go by, LEGO could be well positioned to add "Inspiring a generation of Entrepreneurs" to it's already impressive list of engineers, designers, architects, artists and coders that the much loved system of play has influenced.

Master of the Universe Vs King of the World
Last night when I finished my post about the importance of culture and how people view opportunities and failure using Entrepreneurship Education as the focus, I stared drafting a post with an idea for LEGO which was inspired by
  •  David Robertson's book "Brick by Brick"
  • Conversations with my kids about Robertson's book
  • A question that Entreprenurship EdChat #TrepTuesday posed
Getting my thoughts on paper wasn't working out, so I took a break and continued reading about the LEGO story. Just as I'm reading about how and why LEGO Universe "failed" in 2009/10, and how Robertson's research felt Minecraft could be set to forever disrupt the LEGO model, something on social media catches my eye and distracts me from reading. The reason? A tweet includes the following text and link;


Talk about an Epic Fail! TT Games was founded by former Lego staff
who had been let go due to downsizing in 2003
In October 2010 the LEGO Universe was launched but was quietly shut down. Meanwhile, Swedish game programmer, Markus Persson, posted the first crude version of a game called Minecraft in 2009, and the launch and growth of his game was a little more successful.

2009 Version 1 of Minecraft was launched,
Jan 2011: 1 million purchases and $33 million in revenue by April
Aug 2012: 36 million users


I'm not a big gamer so have no idea how easy it is to predict if the new kid on the block can unsurp the incumbent after 4 days. What I do know is that, along with 3D printing, according to Brick by Brick Minecraft had the potential to permanently disrupt LEGO.

Five years on, based on the commentary on social media 4 days after LEGO World's launch, it would appear the company have learned from earlier "mistakes" and have delighted early users with this attempt to take LEGO into the digital world.

For me this is a company that's worth a closer look. Let's explore the culture, core values and some potential opportunities for educators to share LEGO's inspiring story and experiences with their students.

Culture... Starting Early (For Employees, Companies and Kids)
"Today, every person who's hired into the LEGO Group's Billund operations gets a tour of the small brick building where Ole Kirk and his family lived. There, they learn of another bedrock value of the company's founder "Only the best is good enough"

The motto grows out of the days when LEGO still produced wooden toys, Ole Kirk's son, Godtfred - who worked at the company since he was 12 and would eventually run it - boasted that he'd saved money by using two coats of varnish instead of three. The deception offended Ole, and instructed LEGO's future CEO to retrieve the toys from the train station and spend the night rectifying the error. Today a plaque with 'Only the best is good enough' graces the entrance to the cafeteria at LEGO's Headquarters" Brick by Brick

This extract appears at the start of Chaper one of David Roberston's book, and is the first of many stories I've shared with my kids as I've read the book.

Given how much I go on about culture in my blog, it may not come as a huge surprise that I try to cultivate the right culture at home with my kids. If I was to ask my kids "What would you say our culture is like?" obviously they'd scratch their heads and say "Dad, I've no idea what are you talking about!"

If I changed the way I asked this question they would know that we believe that they can do anything they set their mind to... if they apply themselves, are curious and read lots, prepare and do their best.

However, we also know that this isn't always enough and that "failure" is OK, that things don't always go as planned, but you just dust yourself down, try again and we reassure them that there will be other opportunities.

One way that we demonstrate this is by putting our kids forward for auditions and castings.There's excitement at the opportunity of landing the part, preparation with any scripts etc and doing you're best on the day... And 9 times out of 10 the result will be disappointment and rejection as they "fail" to get a part.
My son playing well at knights and castles in an authentic way
Do we want our kids to be famous? Not particularly. Do we hope that this builds resilience and persistence, to know that rejection is no big deal? Absolutely!

Obviously there was also advantages when they do land a part. When it's a TT Animation production like "What's your News," it's great that we are able to say "You've worked for the same company that makes LEGO games." This does wonders for their confidence and reinforces the message that the boys can do anything they set their mind to.

Every time they load up their LEGO games and see TT Animation they know they've worked for a major LEGO partner... and he was only 6 at the time!

Acting is also one of the few ways that kids can work these days, they gain confidence, can earn some pocket money while getting a work ethic and experience of being in a professional work environment.

Are there tough times or periods when the culture isn't what it should be? Sure there are! Does the world of grown ups have the potential to turn me into Lord Business and impact on our kids' world? Has the global recession affected their childhood? Boy! Has it ever!
"Not now boys... Don't you know that we're in the middle of a recession" Sad but true!
Core Values
Reading the first two chapters of Brick by Brick will be a joy for any struggling startup founder to read!

Here's a company founder who's battling against the odds, encountered various setbacks and horrendous catastrophes, was defying conventional wisdom... but was winning! He also had a clear vision of the company's culture and core values.

"Ole Kirk Chrsitiansen, a master carpenter who founded LEGO in Billund in 1932, instilled the company's quintessential value in its name... Leg Godt "play well." Reasoning that the more desolate the times, the more parents want to cheer their children, an insight that sustained LEGO through the Great Depression and subsequent global recessions" Brick by Brick

Unfortunately, speaking from experience, I can tell you that this insight is as true today as it was in the 1930's. In terms of the founders core values and principles that guided the companies decisions, they included
  • Values are priceless
  • Relentless Experimentation begets break through
  • Not a product but a system
  • Tighter focus leads to more innovation 
  • Make it authentic
  • First the stores, then the kids
Like KIPP, Zappos and other organisations who take these values seriously Ole Kirk, found ways to make sure his staff knew the company lived by them and were not just hollow maxims on a cat poster.
"Only the Best is Good Enough"
Graces the entrance to the cafeteria to encourage exceptional performance

From Building LEGO Models to LEGO Building Role Models
Ole Kirk Christiansen is one of a number of role models whose achievements we discuss with our kids, along with others who found opportunities in failures and adverse conditions.

The value of "Be Authentic" and make play as real as possible resonates with us and we have found that, even when our kids were at a young age, we were able find ways to discuss achievements and adversity of various people including Steve Jobs getting fired from the company he founded, Shackleton's adventure and leadership and Rosa Parks resolve (to name a few people in a long list).

Through reading Yertle the Turtle we were able to compare Macks cough with Rosa Parks quiet but determined resolve and the movement that her bravery started... and the power of introverts!

Just as they know the value of failure, my kids also know that dream opportunities can end in disappointment.

Pixar is another family favorite and we discuss how John Lasseter must have felt landing his dream job at Disney... Only to find that it's not what he thought it would be like, and left a short time after joining.

But hey, guess what, it all seemed to work out all right for Mr Lasseter in the long run.

Mads Nipper
I knew a fair bit about the LEGO founders story, but since buying oldest son his first LEGO set around 2004/5, I have watched the brand innovate in all kinds of ways and successfully enter new markets (thereby soaking up more and more of our money... and time. Three days it took to build that blinking Death Star! Grr Argh!)

Every time a new innovation appeared in the shops I marveled at the innovation and the company's ability to remain fresh and current, I would regularly comment to my kids

"I bet there's one or two very smart people at LEGO who's making all this happen"

Through reading Brick by Brick I have found there were indeed some very smart people at LEGO! My kids have been made aware of the people behind the sets and ideas they love, something that I feel could and should be replicated.

One person who particularly stood out for me is Mads Nipper, and how LEGO management treated the dissenting voices in their ranks.

As can so easily be the case, LEGO strayed from the founders' core values and we first meet Mads Nipper in Robertson's book when tensions are high, and LEGO is close to bankruptcy;

"An animated, energetic executive who can be strikingly candid, Nipper was not shy about voicing his distress. 'Duplo was the second-strongest toy brand in northern and central Europe after LEGO... And we in all our wisdom decided to kill it' Nipper observed

In 2002 the infighting boiled over. Nipper and three other heads of the company's markets got a call to report to a suite known as 'the firing room.'If you were employed at LEGO and were summoned there, chances are you'd be unemployed when you left.

For months Nipper and the three executives had continued to press their case against Explore... The dissenters were delivered an ultimatum if they didn't shut up and loyally support Explore they would be asked to leave"

In 2004, when LEGO was deeply mired in financial crisis. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen might well have been tempted to banish the bearer of such relentlessly negative news. Instead he offered Nipper a promotion: head up marketing and product development.

Nipper believed that LEGO had to become far more adept at letting customers help the company determine what the market wanted, instead of executives deciding what customers should want.

But all Nipper knew when he took the call from Kristiansen was that he was about to shoulder a weighty responsibility. As the overseer of all of the LEGO groups product lines, he would be the point man for resetting the company's direction" 

Through Mads Nipper my kids have a vivid example of the importance of playing devil's advocate and making sure that they take the time to listen to the perspective of any dissenters, listening to your users and, if they've done their homework and are confident their insights are of value, sticking to their guns... regardless of the consequences.

The book goes on to detail how the company returned to Ole Kirk's core values through a successful triumvirate CEO arrangement with Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, Jesper Ovesen and Jorgen Knudstorp to establish the kind of culture, partnerships and framework that has delivered hit after hit with LEGO bricks, board games, at the movies, in gaming and online.

Entrepreneurship Education for Kids
During Trepidemic's #TrepTuesday chat one of the questions asked was how can we engage young people in entrepreneurship. In addressing this question during the chat, I made reference to Steve Jobs experiences and the influence that his 4th Grade teacher had on him;

"I’m 100% sure that if it hadn’t been for Mrs Hill in 4th grade and a few others, I would absolutely have ended up in jail. I could see those tendencies in myself to have a certain energy to do something wrong. When you’re young, a little bit of correction goes a long way.” Steve Jobs

As well as this example there are other entrepreneurs who attribute a lot of their success in business because they started young, so didn't have any notion of failure. I wondered if my experiences of sharing Brick by Brick with my kids might be useful to others.

LEGO's history and experience has allowed me to discuss culture, core values and the need for companies to constantly innovate with my kids. It has allowed me to discuss some relatively complex ideas which, in any other context, would have been dry and boring to an 11 year old boy (I know this because I've tried!) But because it's LEGO it has been engaging and fun for them.

Different Roll Out Models... LEGO Style
Talking about the various ways that products were brought to life whether the mass collaboration from Mindstorm User Groups (MUPs), or the two man startup team of Paal Mayer-Smith and Adam Tucker Reed with LEGO Architecture has been a great way to discuss how LEGO build business models that lead to great LEGO models.

We've explored the fine line that businesses tread between success and failure.A model that involved every department worked extremely well with the creation of Bionicle, but the same kind of model didn't work so well when applied to LEGO Universe.

Fantastic results with one idea but with another the team was too big, and striving for perfection allowed the disruptive startup Minecraft who "Shipped early" to leap frog them in the digital world.

So for LEGO to bounce back from this and hear gaming bloggers say "This could be bigger than Minecraft" 4 days after launching that's quite a feat... and during tough economic conditions, these are the kind of lessons I would like my kids to be taught in class.

A New LEGO Enterprise?
A quick google of LEGO and entrepreneurship in schools and lots of interesting articles come up, but these tend to involve information about older kids being enterprising using LEGO or grown ups talking about entrepreneurship education.

I think that any school aged child who plays with LEGO products would learn a lot about entrepreneurship, and would find the lessons about the company's history and approach to innovation engaging and fun.

David Robertson says at the start of the book that Brick by Brick is not a blueprint for innovation and goading businesses to follow it.

That may be the case, but I think there might be a blueprint here for LEGO to add "Inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs" to their impressive list of engineers, designers, artists, coders and architects that they have inspired for decades (Never mind the phrase "I wish I had stuck in at school" when I was younger... Maybe I have wished that have played well when I was a kid!)

Maybe some collaboration with educators like David Robertson, Trepidemic, MIT and Stanford could build a curriculum for educators of kids from as young as 5.

I don't think the idea would be a million miles from LEGO's core values and would be a similar approach to how they have worked with partners and users with other projects.

And who knows, maybe a group of child entrepreneurs along with LEGO's culture and know how with making learning fun will do a better job at education reform than the current crop of "experts"

I'll leave you with a great comment from Mads Nipper;

"Children and drunks are the last honest people left on the face of the earth. And children will never buy a product that isn't fun" Mads Nipper

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