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Little Changes Matter A Lot--And Other Innovation Lessons From LEGOs

Jan 3 2014, 1:36pm CST | by

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Little Changes Matter A Lot--And Other Innovation Lessons From LEGOs
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Little Changes Matter A Lot--And Other Innovation Lessons From LEGOs

You can do far more with what you’ve got than you realize. And innovation is easier than you can imagine.

Consider a LEGO brick. How many combinations do you think you can create from just six simple, eight-prong squared LEGO bricks?

Maybe a thousand? Wrong. Try higher.

A million? Not even close. Six regular LEGO bricks offer more than 900 million combinations.

That’s an essential truth about innovation that I learned recently from my Forbes colleague, David Sturt. There are infinitely more options than you realize in any situation.

Sometimes little tweaks solve big problems

There are several implications of the LEGO principle. For one thing, a few simple and small changes can result in big new things. Sturt has pointed out that that most innovations aren’t spectacular “outta the box” reinventions or revolutions. Rather, they’re minor twists on the current reality.

Innovation most often happens from adding or subtracting one or two pieces that are already in place.

Sturt has recounted in the past how one group of product designers noticed that many parents detested the wobbles that resulted from ordinary strollers being rolled across cracks or breaks in the pavement. The designers didn’t need to create jet packs and drones to carry babies. They just made the wheels bigger.

In the same way, the designers noticed how many fathers refused to carry the sorts of large bags that are handy for keeping baby items. They didn’t seek to reinvent the male ego. They simply added a storage space under the stroller.

Constraints don’t reduce your creativity; they enhance it

Perhaps the most surprising principle that Sturt has come upon is how “constraints and realities are the building blocks of great work,” as he notes in Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love.

Most people mistakenly assume that creativity is at its peak when there are no rules, no boxes or limits to ground our flights of fancy.

The opposite is true. Every problem or every situation that you face implies some limits and constraints. But every problem or situation also offers a metaphorical few squares of LEGO, with the 900 million-plus possibilities.

Sturt found that even the freewheeling and freethinking Frank Gehry found that the constraints of a given project kicked his creativity into high gear. (This is the same Frank Gehry who was featured on the Simpsons as designing a Springfield building based on a crumpled-up piece of paper.)

Think of it this way: There’s a difference between innovation and imagination. Meaningful acts of innovation solve a real problem or addresses a concrete situation. Random acts of imagination can simply be a case of showboating on the part of an artiste type. The market for the second is far more limited than the market for the first.

To be really creative, stop trying to be really creative

This is a key principle I learned from an improvisation instructor, and it ties nicely to the idea that an unchecked imagination doesn’t usually create much of real use to society.

The improv instructor would rein in his more imaginative students, who were trying to turn simple scenes into elaborate alien-invasion spectacles. “Try to be obvious about what happens next, don’t try to be creative,” he told them. “That way, you’ll create scenes that are more believable or funnier or more moving.”

What works for improv works for innovation. And it gives us a few core principles:

  • If you want to add creativity to a situation, don’t set out to try to be cute or clever. Set out first to see things as they are.
  • If you calmly face the situation as it is, you’ll begin to see the problems and the opportunities within.
  • A few simple twists—adding or subtracting from what’s already there—may well be enough for a great innovation.

In the end, the creative person doesn’t just shoot off her imagination like a firework for spectacle; she brings it to bear, quietly, on the realities in front of her.
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