Risky By Design

For Chapter 8 -- "Sometimes You Just Have to Lego"

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In my previous post, I described the unprecedented buzz surrounding the introduction of Lego's robot kits, Mindstorms -- thanks largely to Lego users immediately reverse-engineering them and discussing the specs among themselves.

Management in Billund responded to this development essentially by doing nothing. It didn't sue anyone for intellectual-property infringement, and it didn't change the Mindstorms marketing plan, such that it was. It just left the product on the shelves, where it did just fine, if not necessarily with the target audience they'd had in mind.

But six years later, with the original version getting long of technological tooth, the company went online to take a closer look at the community that had clustered around Mindstorms. Lego discovered that the fans had not only embraced the robots but customized them, using various parts and sensors of their own contrivance to give the toys capabilities beyond the off-the-shelf design.

"They know the product better than we do," says business manager Steve Canvin and hence the Big Idea: to recruit a handful of fans for collaboration in the redesign.

Using Google to track down their emails, Lego got in touch with four hardcore enthusiasts, offering them the chance to participate in the design of the new Mindstorms kit provided they sign a non-disclosure agreement and travel to Billund at their own expense. "

Within an hour, they had all signed the NDA," Canvin recalls.

This was the Mindstorms Users Panel, eventually expanded to 13 Lego freaks and geeks, affectionately referred to in Billund as Legoholics. How addicted are they to finding novel ways to snap stuff together? Very. "Some of them scare me," Canvin says.

Not so much, however, to deny them free rein around Lego's super-double-secret design inner sanctum. A cluttered warren of work tables and overflowing shelving in the heart of the low-slung coporate campus, the R&D center is off-limits to most employees and all outsiders. "We actually brought them inside," Canvin says. "Nobody gets in and out without permission. They got to roam around freely."

Operational security is what guards the keys to the kingdom. Putting it at risk obviously required an unprecedented concession from top management, which is justifiably paranoic about the surprisingly robust plastic-building-block competiton. Sensing that no such concession would be granted, the Mindstorms team handled the situation

with the delicacy of middle managers since time immemorial:

They didn't bother to ask.

"It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission," Canvin sagely observes.

And so began the process. Many months later, prototypes for the second generation of Mindstorms were developed. Listenomics did not end there, however. On the contrary. At Lego, Listenomics was just beginning.
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