From my earliest memories as a child I can remember playing with Legos. When I was very small it was the large Legos where I built tall towers out of the brightly colored blocks until they fell down. As I got older, the Legos got smaller and I can remember building more complicated structures for my Star Wars action figures to have epic battles of good versus evil.
I’m currently reading the book InsightOut by Tina Seelig and she points out that in the 1970s legos came without instructions for specific objects but were designed for children to be led by their imagination. In fact in 1974, the following letter was shipped in each box of Legos:
The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship. A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.
Now Lego offers pre-packaged boxes of specific designs developed by Lego engineers. This is great for kids to learn how to follow instructions and build a fantastic version of the Death Star or a Volkswagen T1 Camper Van, but it also inhibits kids from exploring the possibilities and using their imagination.
Having specific goals and searching for the “right answer” leads to a fixed mindset with limited possibilities. As Tina states in her book, “With a limited imagination, we’re doomed to incremental thinking, doing the same thing as everyone else, with limited variation. I have told my college students for years now, “If you want the same results as everyone else, do what everyone else does, if you want different results you have to do things differently.”
In recent years, I have heard Legos used as an analogy for developing flexible frameworks in software development. Many enterprise companies have the desire to develop innovative products. Often, they have established risk adverse cultures and rigid guidelines. Because of this, companies ultimately wind up with products that have a backlog of client requested features that provide only incremental value to users and the market place.
To truly be innovative, companies should allow teams to throw the Legos in a big bin and have fun coming up with cool stuff. Sure most of the stuff might not work out, but you never know when one of the products might just be the next billion dollar idea.