I spent the last year helping some middle school students start a robotics club. We had a ton of fun, some challenges, very little money and in the end … a very big success. There were quite a few lessons I learned as a professional project manager that, as it turns out, it takes a child to teach (or at least reinforce):
We designed, built, and programmed a robot using a LEGO® MINDSTORMS kit.
Always, always, always (always!) be honest.
Kids have this magical way of keeping you honest to begin with. They have an innate sense of right and wrong, and they are not afraid to call you out.
At the beginning of our robotics club, I purchased a LEGO® kit and talked up some of the features I found written on the box. I thought I was being clever in passing this off as preexisting knowledge.
One young lady pepped up and said, “… it’s OK if you don’t know what you’re doing, just don’t read the box to us.” Ouch. Burn. Got it.
Your projects are only as small as your mindset.
We had a 15-line item schedule, a $280 budget and a used laptop. By most project standards, this would be considered “small.” The ace up our sleeve is that we had 12 of the brightest, most creative, and downright determined students not ready to accept “small.”
We set our goals to be the best. We aimed at creating 2 new robots, installing 3 new features, and performing 2 tests that were not in the typical syllabus. Their excitement was contagious; their passion inspiring; and, in the end, we all learned a little bit about how far you have to stretch to get something out of reach.
There is always a timeline — so make sure everyone knows it.
There was a major letdown my last week when I had to inform everyone I would not be back until after the summer. I took it for granted that everyone knew summer break would mean end of classes and clubs. Oops. It’s pretty easy to fall into that trap when you’re running professional projects, too.
When a few tasks are completed early, it’s easy to get into the habit of just expecting them all to be done so smoothly or taking for granted everyone knows the deadline. Maybe expectations have changed because of the earlier task completions, maybe priorities have shifted, or maybe nothing has changed — the only point is to constantly reiterate what the timeline is.
Here we are during one of our testing phases. Everyone's hard work led to a very successful year.
Step aside and let someone else drive.
Can you imagine telling a group of middle school students to sit down after an 8-hour day of school so you can show them how to make a program for a robot? Yeah, I know… they laughed at me, too.
After I put away my presentation (sadly, I’m serious), I plugged our laptop into smart board, sat 3 students at the board, and said, “OK, go!” And sure enough, it went. As is often times true, you–as a leader–have to let someone else take the lead. Whether it’s making the final call on an engineering design or paint colors in a new room, sometimes it’s just as easy to get where you want by navigating from the back seat.
There are plenty of places that can teach you the techniques of successful project management. There are books and countless articles that will tell you what the rules and documents templates are for each situation. I promise you, however, that not one of them will teach you how to deal with keeping your project team focused during preadolescence, or how to put the little hat on the LEGO® man (Tom is his name) backwards in all attempts at making robots cool.
I can also assure you that you will not find a better place to give back to a community than at a local school, church, or charity. Please try–go get some little people, start a small project…and just see how BIG you feel.