Posted by: Ron Hanscome | December 9, 2009

TM Lessons Learned from the 5th Grade

It’s been awhile since my last post, and once you get done reading this I hope you’ll understand why. For the last few weeks I’ve gotten increasingly involved in my 5th grade son’s Lego League team in the ramp-up to their tournament competition. It’s been quite a journey, and along the way I’ve picked up some (hopefully) valuable TM and project management tidbits to share. It’s a bit of a story, so grab your beverage of choice and come along with me…

Lego League is a global competition that is designed to get 4th-8th graders excited about science, robotics and technology. Teams consist of 4-10 kids in the same grade, and the goal is to compete in a tournament environment (this year’s theme was Transportation) with multiple components:

  • Program a Lego robot using a simplified object-oriented language to perform a number of tasks (picking up loops, triggering markers, knocking down barriers, etc.)
  • Develop a research project to address the transportation issues of a community (our 5th graders chose to try to solve the parking problems at a local ski hill)
  • Discuss the technical aspects of the team’s approach and methodology with the judges
  • Demonstrate teamwork and knowledge sharing

Our team of seven 5th graders (the “BrickMasters”) began work in October, with the end goal of getting ready for the tournament in early December. They met weekly to begin with, and I was regularly involved as a parent, although we had a dad with experience who took over as the main coach. He outlined the various tasks the team needed to complete, assigned duties to the team members (e.g., programming team, robot build team, research tasks), and set the boys to work. As with many projects, some team members were more engaged than others, great progress was made in some areas, and other tasks lagged. As the tournament date approached, we increased the frequency and duration of the meetings to get back on track (which caused a number of scheduling issues for team members already committed to other activities). The team tried (and discarded) many potential solutions to get the robot to perform its assigned duties. Frustration mounted. Despair began to set in. One week before the tournament, the research project was basically on track (research with ‘real’ engineers completed, scale model of the hill constructed, skit for the judges drafted), but the robot was still not able to complete any of the three program “runs” successfully. No problem, the team can meet daily leading up to the tourney to ‘cram,’ and get everything done, right?

As the parents worked with the team to make final plans for the week, we received the final piece of devastating news — our head coach would need to travel for work and be gone the entire week, not returning home until late Friday night, and would be available only intermittently by cell phone. What’s worse, he had to take his work laptop, which cut our programming capacity in half. Ouch! Guess who needed to take over as coach for the week? Bingo!

Thankfully, a lighter than usual consulting load for the week made it possible for me to step up and invest the hours needed (24+ at last count). Every day after school the team would meet and determine what needed to happen that day. Other parents stepped up to help get the research project ready while I focused on working with the programming teams in an incredibly tedious and frustrating cycle of test/debug/retest/debug/retest. By 11:30 pm Friday evening we had done all we could to prepare for the next day’s tournament.

The results? The team did well in the technical portion by clearly explaining the rationale behind their programming decisions. However, the robot runs themselves did not adapt well to the variability of different table setups — everything was just a little off, and not many points were garnered  during three separate attempts. Finally, the research project skit was a “home run” — each team member did their part and answered all of the follow-up questions with aplomb. Because of our poor performance in the runs, we all assumed the competition was over. Imagine the team’s (and parent’s) surprise and delight at the end of the day when the BrickMasters were awarded first place for their research project! Imagine our further surprise when we learned that this first place finish came with an invitation to participate in the state tournament in January.

So, what did I learn from this experience about managing talent and projects?

  • We depended on a single point of leadership to keep the team moving forward — when that leader was taken out due to unforeseen circumstances, it almost resulted in disaster. Some form of crosstraining and contingency planning would have made the transition much smoother and reduced stress on everyone (especially me).
  • During the project we chronically underestimated how much time tasks would take to complete, which put us behind and caused us to take short cuts to catch up, which resulted in mistakes and further delays.
  • Never underestimate the power of postive reinforcement and encouragement to keep the team going when  the chips are down.
  • Team members have a wide variety of skills, skill levels, passion, and energy. Getting to know them as a leader enables you to better match the talent to the tasks, and set them up for success.
  • After our first robotic run at the tournament produced few points, the team got very discouraged. The coach recognized this, and forcefully encouraged the team to get themselves ready for the the next item on the schedule, the research project presentation. He did a great job of getting the team to move past a perceived point of failure and focus on the next opportunity for success. The team responded and did their very best work in front of the judges.
  • People can rally in the face of adversity if you can clearly communicate specific tasks and “to do” lists on a daily basis.
  • There is no failure – instead, take whatever happens as learnings to be applied later on down the road.
  • Sometimes you just have to take a break and shoot each other with nerf guns.
  • Nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment you get from persevering in the face of adversity — In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!”

So, the BrickMasters are not done after all. There is a lot to do between now and the state tournament, including the need to basically ‘start from scratch’ with our approach to programming the robots. The team has learned a lot, and will only get better.

As I reflect back on this experience, I draw some very clear parallels to a number of projects in the HCM world. What do you think? How does this relate to the projects you are currently trying to execute? How does your current “agony of defeat” set the stage for a “thrill of victory” down the road?

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