All Articles Leadership Strategy Book excerpt: How strong are your Lego thinking skills?

Book excerpt: How strong are your Lego thinking skills?

4 min read


If innovators have one thing in common, it is that they love to collect ideas, like kids love to collect Legos. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling advised that “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” Thomas Edison kept over thirty-five hundred notebooks of ideas during the course of his lifetime and set regular “idea quotas” to keep the tap open. Billionaire Richard Branson is an equally passionate recorder of ideas, wherever he goes and with whomever he talks. Yet, absolute quantity of ideas does not always translate into highly disruptive ideas. Why? Because “you cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction,” says Edward de Bono, author of Lateral Thinking. In other words, getting lots of ideas from lots of different sources creates the best of all innovation worlds.

Innovators who frequently engage in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting become far more capable at associating because they develop experience at understanding, storing, and recategorizing all this new knowledge. This is important because the 100 high-profile innovators we interviewed (people like Jeff Bezos, founder of and the 500 innovators we surveyed rarely invented something entirely new; they simply recombined the ideas they had collected in new ways, allowing them to offer something new to the market. Questioning the status quo, observing like an anthropologist, networking for new ideas, and experimenting helped innovators slowly build larger, richer stocks of building-block ideas in their heads. The more building blocks they acquired, the better they were able to combine newly acquired knowledge to generate a novel idea.

To illustrate, think about a child playing with a set of Lego blocks. The more different kinds of blocks the child uses to build a structure, the more inventive she can become. But the most innovative structures spring from the novel combination of a wide variety of existing Legos, so as the child acquires different Lego sets (for example, combining a Sponge Bob set with a Star Wars set), she gets even better ideas for new structures. Similarly, the more knowledge, experience, or ideas you add from wide-ranging fields to your total stock of ideas, the greater the variety of ideas you can construct by combining these basic knowledge building blocks in unique ways.  No wonder Steve Jobs was a wizard at connecting the unconnected.  He spent at least 18 years of his 56 year life actively acquiring a vast assortment of Lego block experiences—ones that when recombined helped catapult Apple into the stock valuation stratosphere (think iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad).

Anyone with deep expertise in a particular field, who can combine that knowledge with new concepts and ideas unfamiliar to them, tends to be more creative. This is why innovation design firm IDEO tries to recruit people who demonstrate a breadth of knowledge in many fields and a depth in at least one area of expertise. IDEO describes this person as “T-shaped” because the person holds deep expertise in one knowledge area but actively acquires knowledge broadly across different knowledge areas. A person with this knowledge profile typically generates innovative associations in two ways: (1) by importing an idea from another field into his area of deep expertise, or (2) by exporting an idea from his area of deep expertise to one of the broad fields he is exploring where he has shallow knowledge.

So how solid are your Lego thinking skills?  How well do you diversity your idea and experience stock?  How powerfully and consistently do your diverse experiences recombine into creative ideas? If you’re like most people, your answers may not be as positive as you would like.  To change those answers, we suggest changing your behaviors.   Engage the four discovery skills of disruptive innovators (questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting) to enrich your idea stock and enhance your capacity to put Lego thinking (connecting the unconnected) into everyday practice.

Hal Gregersen is a professor of leadership at INSEAD. He consults organizations around the world on innovation, globalization and transformation and has published extensively in leading academic and business journals. Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the architect of and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation. Jeff Dyer is the Horace Beesley Professor of Strategy at the Marriott School, Brigham Young University. They are co-authors of “The Innovator’s DNA.”

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from “The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.” Copyright Hal Gregersen, Clayton M. Christensen and Jeff Dyer. All rights reserved.