Plenge Lab
Date posted: December 8, 2015 | Author: | No Comments »

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My daughter, on a team of fifth grade all-girls from Wellesley MA, recently competed in a First Lego League (FLL) robotics competition. My wife and I served as coaches, which was a demanding but thoroughly rewarding experience. This year’s team got me thinking about design principles for complex systems, as the goal of the annual Challenge is to build from simple (individual Lego pieces) to complex (navigating a robot built from those Lego pieces around a field with missions created from the same Lego pieces) with efficiency and precision.

For those not familiar with FLL, a video link to our team’s performance can be found here. A graphic from Google trends (link here) and the number of views on YouTube (link here) gives you a sense of the magnitude of participation across the world. Overall, FLL is a wonderful example of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in action. The FLL event also fits very well with evolving views on our educational system, as described in a new documentary “Most Likely To Succeed”.

[Disclaimer: I am a Merck/MSD employee. The opinions I am expressing are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer.]

Here are my lessons learned from this year’s FLL season. Some lessons were directed towards the kids, whereas others were directed towards the coaches. For each, I try to subset the things that a coach can emphasize (in the business world, the equivalent of a leader / manager) and those things that are the domain of the kids (the equivalent of team members / employees).

1. Optimize on core design principles – In building a complex system, it is important to pick unifying principles, and then guide the team to optimize on those principles. For FLL, an important principle is reproducibility of the robotic missions. The basic premise is nicely illustrated in this FLL video on “tolerance and reliability”.

As a coach, it was easy to guide the kids towards these principles. Because the kids did not necessarily know alternatives, this is something that they accepted easily. In retrospect, however, I could have more clearly articulated the core design principles from the very beginning. It took me too long to be clear on this point. I suspect that leaders in many complex organizations also fail to clearly define core design principles at an early stage.

2. Iterate like crazy – This is the brilliance of Legos: the fundamental unit (a small piece of plastic with interlocking bricks) naturally lends itself to constant iteration and the ability to build from simple to complex. Indeed, there is no limit to what can be built, including fashionable dresses and life-size Star Wars fighter planes. The same robots used in the FLL event can be used for other cool things, like playing the guitar or the piano.

What I found interesting as an FLL coach, however, is that while 10-year old girls naturally iterate, it is not natural for them to have a healthy obsession for the amount of time it takes to iterate effectively. In fact, this was the hardest lesson for me to teach the kids. All of them had a limited attention span and became tired quickly. (To be fair: tired after a couple of hours…maybe not that quickly!). Malcom Gladwell refers to this as the 10,000 Hours Rule in his book Outliers: the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing for 10,000 hours. For complex tasks such as robotics, I believe that “practice” is a balance between iteration and execution, with iteration dominating early and execution dominating late as a concept design matures.

3. Expect failure – With iteration comes failure. And after the kids invested hours in iterating a robotics program, it was very hard from them to discard the idea completely. Yet at times, this is exactly what we had to do.

As a coach, I struggled with this lesson. If not done properly, declaring that we would not further develop an idea (or in this case, a particular robotics program) ran the risk of alienating a kid who may have felt that their idea wasn’t a good one. To the contrary: this is exactly what is required in a system that iterates on prototypes before advancing the best ideas. The concept of “failure” is something that is very popular in the business community (e.g., see “Strategies for Learning from Failure” by Amy Edmundson here or here).

4. Learn from others – The cornerstone of FLL is a commitment to Core Values. As stated on the website: “By embracing the Core Values, participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.” However, listening to, and considering the opinions of others takes extra time and effort. It would have been a lot easier to have one person decide on a robotic mission and then have that person do the programming. But this approach does not lead to a diversity of ideas.

This was another area that I had to work to work hard on. Fortunately, learning from others seemed to come more naturally to the kids. What was hard for the kids, however, was balancing this design principle with #2 and #3 above (iterate and fail, respectively). Again: it takes extra time and patience to learn from others, which means that it can be harder to iterate and, if not done appropriately, easier to fail.

5. Have fun – With a competition as challenging as FLL, it is very easy to focus on the outcome (winning) and not the process. But without enjoying the process, winning – however that is defined – will never happen. The FLL Core Values emphasize these points: “What we discover is more important than what we win.” And “We have FUN!

This is another area that I had to work on, but came naturally to the kids. In fact, the kids were bound to have a good time, unless the coaches or parents interfered. In the business world, there is a correlation between happiness and success (see HBR article here): “Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder — and smarter.”

It is all about balance. If the kids (or at employees at work) only have fun, then they may not work hard, iterate and fail. If the kids (or employees) only solicit opinions of others to ensure a diversity of ideas, then they might not get to a solution that they can implement as a team. And if the kids (or employees) only iterate and fail, then they might not deliver a final product.

When I asked one of the kids what she learned this year, her response was “Don’t give up.  Some people would get frustrated and stop working…including me!”  This is a concise summary of the design principles above…and comes from the daughter of one very, very proud father.


For more reading on the topic of “design principles for complex systems” in the business world: The September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) was devoted “Evolution of Design Thinking” to design principles, with a particularly relevant article on design thinking (link here). A recent blog, “The Rise and Fall of Rational Drug Design”, described the complexity in small molecule development inherent in the pharmaceutical industry (link here). The 2014 book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace provides an outstanding example of leading through complexity (link here). And the Marshmallow Challenge is an interactive way to learn about building a complex structure from simple materials (20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow).




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