How the Mindtribe Method Can Be Applied to FIRST Robotics

At the start of the summer, I was told I would become Mindtribe’s first high school intern. Days later, I was chosen to lead a 75-person FIRST Robotics team. As a result, learning about Mindtribe and the Mindtribe Method has coincided with my exploration into the world of team management.

As I’ve been thinking about how to optimize my team’s workflow and strategies to better suit the six weeks we have to build, wire, and program a 120-pound robot, I’ve been familiarizing myself with the Mindtribe Method and how it accelerates product development.

The eight tenets of the Mindtribe Method as seen on the reception wall.

Mindtribe and FIRST Robotics are very similar. Both involve teams of engineers having to deliver a product under certain restrictions and deadlines. Both require quick prototyping and iteration, and both require teams to be able to easily adapt to new problems. Strategies that work for Mindtribe are likely to work for FIRST teams, and vice versa.

With that in mind, here is how the Mindtribe Method can be applied to FIRST Robotics.

Our team’s 2018 robot, Charlemagne.

Assemble a Complete Product Team

For a robotics team to be successful, you need a full team. Besides having people who can wire, program, and build the robot, there are a variety of roles that are necessary to run a successful FIRST team.

  • A leadership structure: Successful FIRST teams need people who can mediate disagreements. Effective leaders reconcile the ideas of everyone on the team, without getting too opinionated in the process. These leaders are also akin to the Mindtribe program leads.
  • Designers: With many teams taking the six week deadline to mean a rushed development process, there are often overlooked steps that can end up saving time. One of these steps is creating a full CAD of a robot before its fabrication. While it does take additional time and effort, proper CAD can help save machining time by having precise measurements early on. It also helps prevent the end-of-season stress that comes from realizing that two important parts can’t both fit on the robot.
  • Strategy Personnel: Similar to the “product visionary” of the Mindtribe Method, it’s important to have people on the team who can step outside of the stress of build season to refocus on the strategic priorities. These people, often active members of the competition scene as well, can be invaluable in reducing time wasted on effective, but ultimately not very high-scoring, prototypes.

Engineer Creatively

Building a 120 lb robot is hard, and there are a variety of ways to approach the same task. While it’s appealing to build the same type of robot year after year, teams should experiment and take risks in order to grow and have more future options for robot development. The best strategies rely on good mechanisms, and good mechanism aren’t obvious. Taking the time to experiment with a variety of different mechanisms is key to ending up with a final robot that effectively executes the strategies your team has selected.

Leverage Experience

Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you have drivetrains you are comfortable making, and they are applicable to the new task, use them! Reuse code chunks that are meant to solve similar problems. Take advantage of the abilities and experience of your team, and its members, to build the robot faster.

Leveraging experience is also useful when making tough, last-minute decisions about which parts of your robot to keep or how to allocate resources. Trying to decide whether or not to scrap a mechanism last minute to give your driver and programmers much needed testing time? Consult the creators, the testers, and the users (the robot’s drivers) of the mechanism to see if it properly functions end-to-end.

Trying to determine the feasibility of a mechanism during gameplay? Consult the drivers and strategists to get a good idea of its value. Take advantage of the knowledge and competition of your team members to better allocate time and resources.

Establish Clear Product Priorities

Six weeks isn’t a lot of time, so know exactly which strategies you want to pursue. Making a clear priority list and sticking to it, will help you keep track of what’s important. Making sure that everyone on the team is on the same page and agrees to these priorities will also help ensure that your team focuses on the most important thing first.

Focus the Team on the Top Priority First

Once you have a priority list, focus more of your team’s time and resources on the higher priority items to ensure that the robot created matches the robot envisioned. Losing sight of the top priorities can lead to a robot that doesn’t effectively complete the game challenge.

Make Frequent Course Corrections

It’s hard to find time for planning when under a tight deadline. As a result, most of the planning for the season gets done before the challenge is communicated. This leads to inaccurate plans, which in turn leads to those plans being ignored. When plans get ignored, it can be difficult to get the robot finished on time.

Teams should update their plans during the build season. Once they know what mechanisms and strategies they’re pursuing, updating plans allows the team to ensure they are following a plan that takes six weeks to reach success. It helps them predict which strategies they can and cannot pursue in the time left. While this sometimes means scrapping certain strategies and mechanisms, it will ultimately lead to a robot better aligned with the team’s top priorities.

Build less, faster.

When prototyping mechanisms, make sure that each prototype you build is meant to test a specific hypothesis. Make sure you know the metrics for those specific tests before testing the prototype, so you can avoid biased results and end up with a better robot. Finally, don’t be afraid to “leverage experience,” such as past robots and prototypes, as a starting ground for your next prototypes.

Take Ownership

Be proud of the robot you made and the work you do. You worked hard for this, so own it. Be excited to use the lessons you learned in the years to come!

I’m thrilled I had the opportunity to work with Mindtribe for the summer and learned a great deal in the process. These learnings will follow me throughout my time in high school and, without a doubt, throughout my career.