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FIRST and the sports model – is it getting out of hand?

Dean Kamen’s vision for FIRST is simple to state:

To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.

Simple to state, but not nearly so simple to achieve.

The FIRST organization have chosen to use the sports model as the basis of their programs, as shown in the image to the right. Of course, many of the most celebrated people today are athletes, and much of the K12 experience here in the US revolves around athletics.

If you heard his kickoff speech for this year’s game, though, you know that Dean is becoming frustrated with how this model is working out, with the focus for many individuals and teams becoming the winning, not the competition itself. Or, in the terminology of the folks at, these teams have moved from competition into decompetition.

In some ways, this is an inevitable evolution, the nature of professional sports (which, in my mind, includes college sports) in which the intrinsic motivation of young athletes with a love of the game transforms into the extrinsic motivation of the rewards of victory.

What do you think? Is the sports model getting out of hand and need to be changed? Or does it just need to be “tweaked” a bit.

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Some early thoughts on Linchpin

In the letter that he sent along with the early review copies of his new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin asks us to “read it through (twice if you can)” before we review it. I get the impression from his letter, and from his introduction to the book, that he expects many people won’t like it, or won’t agree with it, and that many people will stop reading before they finish.

From my point about 1/2 way through I can see why he might think that; some people are going to find his ideas and suggestions quite radical. I really hope those people who don’t agreee, or don’t understand, take the time to read the entire book and reflect deeply on what it says. They will come out better for it, even if they still don’t agree with what Seth says.

That’s all I’m going to say here about Linchpin for now, I am going to wait until I’ve had a chance to go through it twice and really absorb it before I write an actual review. If you want to know what others are already saying about the book, check out the Linchpin lens on Squidoo.

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To meet, perchance to dream…

In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, author John Medina discusses the importance of sleep (Rule #7: Sleep well, think well):

Why do we sleep? It may be so that we can learn. The brain replays information learned during the day hundreds of times while we saw logs. You’d be more productive if you took an afternoon nap, too.

The “replay” of information that happens while we sleep comes, of course, in the form of dreams (or nightmares). Many of our dreams never make it to our consciousness, while those that do are often quite vivid and may plant the seed of good ideas that we can follow up on. Whether we remember the dreams or not, doesn’t matter, though; we “learn” from all of that crazy activity that takes place while we are asleep.

The typical recommendation for individuals is to get 8 hours of sleep per day – fully 1/3 of the day essentially dedicated to “learning”. Compare this to how most companies operate: maximum effort, maximum efficiency, no room for down-time. The expected amount of “sleep” for an organization? None, zero, zip.*

(In case you are wondering, I don’t consider “after hours” as sleep time since at this point the organization doesn’t really “exist”. Consider it a form of cryogenic sleep, and as Jake Sully reminds us at the beginning of Avatar, “you don’t dream in cryo.”)

The question then is, “Does an organization need to sleep? And if it does, what form would that “sleep” take?” To those questions I propose the following answers:

Yes, organizations need to sleep, and

Meetings are the organizations “sleep”

In his article Meeting of Minds, Richard Veryard talks about the costs associated with meetings:

  1. The direct cost of conducting the meeting (salaries, travel, etc)
  2. The opportunity cost of the meeting (lost productivity)
  3. The cost of not having the meeting

It’s that last one that is relevant here and Richard’s comments on it are part of what inspired me to finally write this article. He says:

Good meetings can make people more productive and creative, and help avoid wasted effort. Good meetings make the organization more intelligent – processes become more efficient, decisions get better, the organization learns more quickly – and this increases the overall added-value of the work done.


* A notable exception is the US Army. Most Army units operate on a 3 phase cycle: deploy, recover, train. At the risk of being overly anthropomorphic – and overly simplistic – you can roughly equate those to “go to work”, “relax in the evening”, “go to bed”.

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Jack of all trades, master of one

In his recent Zen Habits‘ article How Passion and Focus Will Rock Your Career, guest blogger Corbett Barr poses what he calls the “jack of all trades” question:

Is it better to be a Renaissance man or woman and be good at a lot of different things or to be laser-focused and really great at one specific thing?

My answer to that question: Do both and become a

jack-of-all-trades, master of one.

When I hear the expression “renaissance man”, the name that most quickly comes to mind is Leonardo da Vinci, that master of so many things. It would probably not be a stretch to say that he was a jack of all trades, and master of them all too.

But if you had had the chance to ask him what he was good at, what it was that he did, it is very likely that he would have answered with a simple, “I am a painter“. (Or, since he was Italian, probably “Sono un pittore” or “Ego sum a pictor“, assuming the online translators I used are accurate.)

Everything that Leonardo did was for the purpose of making him a better painter. His inventions, studies of anatomy, studies of birds in flight, understanding of light and shadow, and everything else he ever learned and did served a single purpose: to help him “see” the world around him so that he could put it down in paint.

In his article, Corbett goes on to recommend focus, to find your passion and become incredibly great at it. To that I would add, find those things that will make you better at what it is that you are passionate about and become good at those things so that you can become great at that one thing that matters most.

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Children and the curse of knowledge

One of our goals as a society is to educate our children, to pass along the knowledge of what has gone before so that the children understand where they’ve come from and how we got to where we are. At the same time, we are dependent on our children to create the new knowledge that we need in order to continue and to grow.

To accomplish this we must avoid the danger of infecting our kids with a “curse of knowledge”, of teaching our kids not only how to think but what to think. The best of ideas in almost any field of endeavor quite often come from those with the least preconceived notion of what that field of endeavor should be.

One of the home page quotes on the FIRST website is the following:

"Overnight, they were asking and trying things that none of our testers ever dreamed of after six months of development. We know we are all in for a treat as these kids move up through society."

In case you’re not familiar FLL is the FIRST Lego League, a robotics competition program for kids age 9-14 (in the U.S., this equates to 4th through 8th grade). As the quote hints at, a team of technical and game experts spend a lot of time designing a game, coming up with the rules and putting everything together.

But it only takes a day for a bunch of kids, many not even teenagers, to think of questions and try to do things that never even occurred to these experts. The experts are learning from the “novices”.

What have you learned recently from the novices – children, new employees, etc – in your life?

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What organizations need isn’t always what they want

From Seth Godin’s recent article Why ask why?

The secret to creativity is curiosity… The student with no curiosity… is no problem at all. Lumps are easily managed.

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

This reminded me of something I jotted down in my notebook from Richard Farson’s book Management of the Absurd:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking.

Even though that is often exactly what they need.

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Are you just acting, or do you really know what you are doing?

The Ultimate Matrix CollectionI love the Matrix movies. All three of them. (Four if you count Animatrix.) As someone interested in learning and knowledge management, I find the whole idea of being able to simply download knowledge and really, truly learn how to do something very cool. Need to know how to fly a helicopter off a roof and across the city? There’s an app for that.

Compare this to the process that the actors went through to be able to provide convincing performances of these skills.  The actors trained for several months in order to obtain a sufficient level of physical readiness, then learned some basic martial arts skills. Hong Kong director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping created the fight sequences, which the actors then learned.

From a knowledge management perspective, this is an excellent comparison of tacit vs. explicit knowledge.

The fight choreographers developed the fight scenes, then made the “knowledge” of the fight (in this case the choreography) explicit so the actors could “learn” the fight. But, and here is the important part, the actors did not learn “how to fight” but rather “how to perform the fight” for the film. They were acting on explicit knowledge, but it never really became “tacit.”

On the other hand, the stunt men portraying the bad guys obviously had the tacit knowledge of how to fight – you can see it in how they carry themselves and the weapons. For them, it was a matter of taking the new choreography and incorporating it into what they already knew.

From a learning perspective this shows the difference between what Carol Dweck refers to as performance goals and learning goals. Quoted in Dan Pink‘s new book Drive Dweck says, “Both goals are entirely normal and nearly universal, and both can fuel achievement.”

Inside the Matrix, the goals are learning goals. The characters need to actually learn the skills they need. For the actors, the goals were performance goals. Not what you’d call easy, but much easier than actually learning the martial arts and engaging in fights with other masters.

In your job, are you  an  “actor”, trying to provide a performance that follows the script and meets the approval of “the audience.” Or are you a master, continually learning and improving and getting done what needs to get done?

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The blogs of Benjamin Franklin

In the summer of 2007  I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Blaine McCormick, author of Ben Franklin: America’s Original Entrepreneur, what he thought Franklin would make of the internet, social networking software, and blogs. McCormick’s response was along the lines of, “Franklin probably wouldn’t pay much attention to them, blogs are not up to the right standard.”

At the time, I didn’t agree with McCormick’s assessment. Today, I disagree even more and would love the opportunity to ask him the question again. I think Franklin would have embraced blogging – all social media for that matter. I think that McCormick’s response came, at least partially, from an ignorance on his part of what blogs and other social media tools are and what they are capable of. I have the feeling he also confused the sometimes dismal quality of personal blogs, etc and the potential of the tools themselves. (Remember, having good tools do not the master make.)

In the hands of Benjamin Franklin, a master of getting his message out in the media of his day, I can only imagine how the media tools of today could be used.

I was inspired to revisit this conversation by a tweet from John Tropea (aka @johnt) which pointed to Collaboration Throughout the Centuries from last spring on the Sharing at Work blolg.

Like the WWF, but for smart people

Less than 72 hours from now, students from over 1,800 high school teams will be gathered around the country to find out what they’ll be doing for the next 6 weeks. At 1000 (US Eastern time) on Saturday 9 January, Dean Kamen will kick off the 2010 competition season for the FIRST Robotics Competition by announcing this season’s game and publishing the game’s rules.

The teams will then have just over 6 weeks to design, build, test, and ship a robot that they think can win the game. They must analyze the game and come up with a strategy for how to play, then put together a preliminary design they think can execute that strategy. They must pay special attention to the rules and specs they are given. They will break down into smaller teams responsible for specific areas, such as structural, mechanical/pneumatic, drive train, sensors, software control systems. They will build, test, redesign, build, and test. And these are some serious robots, as tall as 5 feet and weighing up to 120 pounds (depending on the specific game rules).

Beginning in March, there will be regional competitions all around the country. (Around the world, actually). The winners of these regional events will then have the opportunity to travel to Atlanta to compete in the International Championships in an event former President George H. W. Bush described as “like the WWF, but for smart people.”

Did I mention these are high school students?

I could go on for pages about what these students will accomplish in six short weeks, and probably will over the course of this upcoming season. I am proud to be a mentor for FRC Team #2893, the Parkway North High School Robohobos, as we go into our second season with the FIRST Robotics Competition. The kids – I mean students (they hate being called kids) – are already preparing for the season, anxiously awaiting the game announcement this weekend. So am I.

If you want to find out more about this years game, check out one of the local kick off events or watch from the comfort of your own home on NASA TV. If you think you have something you can contribute, please seek out a local team and become a mentor. I promise you will get as much from it as the students do.

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My life is my masterpiece

Just inside the entrance to the Art of Living Building in Downtown St. Louis is the following quote:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between

his WORK and his PLAY
his LABOR and his LEISURE
his MIND and his BODY

He hardly knows which is which.

He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing.

To himself, he always seems to be doing both.

I write this in at the beginning of every new notebook I start, so it is always there to remind me of something that is all too easy to forget:

My life is my masterpiece.

Like any artistic process, living a good life requires a bit of effort on your part. But isn’t a little bit of effort to create a good life worth all that it gives back?

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