Integrity and Automation: Leadership Lessons from Lego Robotics (Part 2 of 3)

I have the privilege of being a Lego robotics coach in the FIRST Lego League. There are over 40,000 teams in the First Lego League in 98 countries, and 640 teams in Minnesota alone.

Our team is called the Plaidiators. We’re made up of five homeschoolers between the ages of 10 and 13. We just wrapped up our season last weekend, and I’d like to reflect on the leadership lessons I learned through this experience. This is all for the kids and not associated with my day job. However, I learned a few things that directly apply to my profession of leading teams in enterprise technology.

If you are curious about Lego robotics and would like to better visualize how a tournament works, check out this short highlight video I made from the State Championship last week.

Part 2

This article is a follow-up to a previous article I wrote. Two years ago, we just wrapped up my inaugural season as a Lego robotics coach. As a rookie coach, I learned as much as the kids, if not more. I wrote an article reflecting on the engineering and character lessons and how they relate to my leadership experience at work. I’m not going to repeat those lessons here. Please read that article first, then pick it up here.

In this article, I will provide more in-depth reflections that go beyond the basics, based on my three seasons of experience with the league. In fact, I’ve learned so much, there’s too much to cover in just one article. Stay tuned for next week for part 3.

The long journey

Within the state of Minnesota, there are three rounds of tournaments. All registered teams compete in Regional tournaments. The top 25% of those teams advance to Sectionals. The top 25% of the teams in Sections advance to the State Championship. At the State Championship, the top 3 teams advance to the World Championship.

Two years ago, the Plaidiators season was over at the Regional round. It was difficult to work hard and then be “one and done.” We gained a lot of experience and insight but didn’t get a chance to implement those improvements until the following season.

Last year, and this year, the team progressed all the way to the State Championship. After each Regional and Sectional tournament, the team had the opportunity to act on the feedback they received and make improvements within the season. That resulted in tremendous growth within the season. That, combined with the cumulative year over year learning, grew their collective capability to be quite competitive.

As leaders and professionals, we grow the same way. It makes no sense for us to work for a short season. It’s a mistake to only focus on hitting our numbers for this quarter or fiscal year. It takes years to grow an excellent Lego robotics team, and it takes years to grow a professional leadership skillset. The formula is the same. Work hard, get results, get feedback, act on the feedback, then try again.

Integrity

In our Regional tournament this year, the team experienced a unique test. The team just executed a decent, but not perfect robot performance, and eagerly awaited to see their score appear on the board.

When the score appeared, their first reaction was joyous surprise, because it was higher than they anticipated. After a few seconds, they did the math in their heads and realized it was too high. The referees had made a mistake and scored them higher than they should have.

My co-coach and I gathered the team members around us and asked them what they wanted to do. Without hesitation, they unanimously decided to report the error to the head judge. I didn’t accompany them. They went on their own. The head judge heard them out and allowed them to keep the unearned points.

The team immediately felt good that they had acted with integrity but were still a little unsatisfied with the unearned points.

Lego robotics tournaments operate on a “best out of three” rule. They still had one more opportunity to run their robot. In their third run, they ran their robot nearly perfectly, and fairly earned a higher score than they had been graciously allowed to keep earlier in the day. That victory was sweet indeed.

At work, integrity is more important than ever. Just like this young robotics team, we need to go out of our way to set the record straight. Sometimes we will receive grace or another chance, and sometimes we won’t. Doing the right thing is mandatory, regardless of the implications that follow. Last week, I wrote an article about how I apply integrity to my day job at work.

The robots and the humans

I had a revelation at the end of this season that will definitely change how I coach the team going forward. The team works hard to develop a robot that is capable of scoring a lot of points in the allotted time. This year in particular, the ability for the robot to achieve its maximum score was highly dependent on fast and precise manipulation of the robot in the launch area between runs. For those of you unfamiliar with Lego robotics, this is somewhat analogous to a racing pit stop.

We used a lot of prep time leading up to the tournaments rehearsing our elaborate attachment changes and precise alignments in the launch area. If the humans executed their changes perfectly, then the robot would usually perform very well.

Our strategy required not only our robot to act like a robot, but it also required the humans to act with robotic precision and consistency. That was the flaw in our plan. Humans are lousy robots.

At work, we have the same challenge. We design enterprise software systems. Even though the technology is robust, sometimes our business processes require our users to perform a lot of manual data entry. This work is not only time-consuming, it’s also tedious and prone to human error. In the enterprise software industry, there is a new technology available to solve this problem. It’s called Robotic Process Automation. This technology automates the front-end business process, as if a robot was sitting in a desk chair, typing on a computer, but through software.

The goal of this technology isn’t to replace human jobs with robots but is instead intended to relieve the humans of the robotic job requirements, so the humans can do what they do best.

Both at work and as a coach moving forward, I will work to ask the robots to do the robotic work, and the humans to do the human work. Then we will really perform to our highest potential.

Next week: part 3

There are more lessons for me to share, but that’s enough for one week. Stay tuned for next week. I will share relevant lessons about public speaking, innovation, and mentoring. Do you love robotics and technology leadership? Please share this article with your colleagues.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.