To push students’ boundaries on product innovation and development, Dr. Dan Li has them pick a card (any card!) and a handful of building bricks.
Assistant Professor of Marketing, Widener University in Chester, PA
PhD in Marketing and Advertising, MA in Advertising, BS in Finance
Many people think toys don’t have a place in the classroom—at least not past preschool, or maybe first grade. Then again, few toys can match the versatility of Legos, which Dr. Dan Li has found to be as effective for sparking creative thinking in college students as in children.
According to Li, assistant professor of marketing at Widener University, case studies and lectures work well in teaching certain courses. But she feels that a subject like marketing—which requires an amalgam of business acumen and raw creativity—calls for a more dynamic approach in the classroom.
“There’s so much creativity that you can cultivate from [marketing] students,” she says. “Instead of just lecturing, I can get them moving and talking about topics.”
Li began using Lego building bricks in her advanced Marketing Principles class at Widener University to give students a hands-on learning exercise that both reflects real-world scenarios and creates an energetic and compelling learning environment—the kind of environment where students can take a concept for a new product and build it up, quite literally, one brick at a time.
“Marketing is a subject that integrates business and creativity. I’m lucky to teach it because I can make the classroom more engaging through different activities. The dynamic atmosphere in the classroom is the most interesting [to me].”— Dan Li, PhD
Course: MKT 300 Marketing Principles
Course description: This course fulfills a core requirement and serves as the foundation for further study in marketing. The course primarily has a micromarketing orientation in that it presents marketing from the perspective of an individual manager or firm in the design of the marketing mix, target market selection, environmental assessment, securing information, and understanding consumer/buyer behavior. Marketing’s macro interface with society and the ethical responsibilities of managers in a global context are examined. A dynamic computer simulation stressing teamwork and group decision making is an integral part of the course.
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Innovation: Teaching product development with Legos
To reinforce a textbook chapter on product development and innovation, Li has created an exercise using custom-made cards and ordinary Legos. To begin, she presents two decks of cards: one of “brand” cards (e.g., Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Hershey’s, Marvel) and one of “product” cards (e.g., food, vehicle, furniture, appliance, electronics). Students work in small groups, each randomly selecting one card from each pile. After each group has its brand-product coupling, Li asks them to generate a product idea, evaluate it, prototype it (here is where the Legos come in), then present it to the class, outlining the product features and target audience. And how does she add an element of urgency? It all takes place during one class meeting.
Lesson: The Lego product-development “lab”
This Lego lab not only mimics a real-world marketing challenge but it also shakes students out of their usual routine, driving class engagement and a deeper learning experience. Here is how Li makes it work.
Create your cards carefully
When first creating the brand and product cards, Li says it is important to consider all of the possible combinations. In early tests of the Lego lab, she realized that some product-brand pairings did not work out well or drive engagement. “It turns out that healthcare is not a very attractive category to students and isn’t as interesting as furniture or food,” she says. In another instance, the resulting permutation did not match a real-world scenario when a group chose “Apple” and “furniture.” (A much easier pairing would be “Hershey’s” and “food.”)
The goal, she says, is to provide a catalyst for creativity. If you find that students continually get stumped by certain cards, she suggests replacing them with new products or brands. The point, she asserts, is to create a challenge, but not an impossible one.
Introduce teamwork long before Legos
Li separates the class into groups of five or six students early on, having them work together before the Lego lab. By the time she breaks out the building bricks, trust between team members has already been established. This allows the assignment to go more smoothly and fosters an important professional skill. “In a real marketing situation, [students would] be part of a team that works through ideas, evaluates each one, and makes an assessment about which idea to pursue further,” she says.
Allow time for the selection process
Li takes a step-by-step approach to selecting brands and products. She recommends having groups first select a brand card, so that students have time to consider their brand’s current products and status in the industry. After giving them a few minutes to discuss the brand, she has them pick the product category. “At that point, they know what they’ll be creating, and then it’s game on!” she says.
Limit resources to encourage innovation
The card pairings are not the only random aspect of this assignment. Part of the students’ challenge is that Li also randomizes which Legos each team receives—she divvies out approximately 50 pieces per group—as a way to reflect the finite resources some companies have to work with. For example, if a group wants to create a car but they do not have a Lego wheel, they will need to find a solution, says Li. “The innovation is to ask the students to think through it. If they are unable to make [the prototype], then it’s pointless” for the purposes of this exercise, she says. “It stays in the imagination stage.”
Keep an eye on the groups
Li allows students 20 to 25 minutes to create their Lego prototype, and she checks frequently on their progress to ensure a fruitful outcome to the exercise. “The progress [can be] very different [for each group]” says Li. If you see that one group is a bit behind, talking with them and pushing through any difficulties might help them find a workable solution.
End with a final presentation
In addition to their half hour of ideation time, groups have two to three minutes to present their prototypes to the class, explaining what they created and asking fellow students whether they would be willing to buy that product. “The presentation should also describe the target audience,” says Li. “You can tell that groups put in a lot of thought into the Lego prototypes. They really think hard about who the potential buyers of the product might be. Some groups even talk about promotion [of the product].”
Adapt your own product
Besides rethinking her card categories, Li has made some other tweaks to the assignment. For example, the first time she tried it, she observed that groups traded with each other to get specific Lego pieces they needed for their prototypes. “I did not tell them to exchange with another group. They just did that themselves,” says Li, who was so pleased with her students’ ingenuity that she decided to include that option from then on. (Li also did not rule out using computers or cell phones to do research, but she has not seen any students do this.)
“In real business situations you can get help—maybe you outsource manufacturing or order something from a supplier,” Li points out. “This offers students an opportunity to practice [real-world] negotiating and communication skills.”
Reinforce pride—with extra credit
Li wants students to have a sense of pride about what they are doing, so she offers extra credit that allows them to share their innovation with the world. Students can take a selfie with their product and post (and share) it on social media. They receive one point of extra credit for every “like” the post receives, and Li offers a 50-point maximum of extra credit. “In my experience, the cap of 50 ‘likes’ is easy to reach,” she says. “Many students get over 100 likes.”
“Students make great efforts,” Li says, “and most are willing to post what they created on social media,” which signals that they are proud of what they created and also enjoyed the activity.
In Li’s course evaluations, students have referred to the Lego activity as “cool” and “interesting,” and some have indicated that it is what they liked best about this course. And they certainly come up with new ideas; as one student posted on social media, “Had a great time prototyping Apple couch in marketing.”