FRC Team Structure and Leadership Notes

Summary

In St. Louis at the 2012 World Championship event, Finbarr Crispie and Wyn Schuh spent some time finding out how high performing teams are organized and this is some of what they learned.  This information was used to create a new leadership structure for the Spartan Robotics FIRST Team 971 that was adopted on June 1, 2012.  The new structure worked much better than what we had been using in the past.  So much so that after a year of operating under it, there is a general consensus that it is fine as it is and needs no changes for the next year.  These notes have been archived here to here to help our team understand some of what went into the design or our leadership structure and to help other teams that are working on their leadership structure.  Michael Oct 7, 2013.

Notes

There were two things that we found to be consistant across the teams.  I (Wyn) will present them here and then highlight the interesting things that we found about different teams below.  It is not necessary that we adopt all of the things that we found but if we can take these ideas and tailor them to fit our team it might be helpful.

The two things that we found were:

  • Students are not expected to go it alone.  All of the successful teams we talked to had adults take care of many of the logistical tasks on the team.  How much of the logistics depended on the team.

  • Students were broken up into task related subteams.  The task breakdown didn’t matter as much as the fact that each group had an adult mentor who checked in on and gave guidance and support to the group.

Other things that seemed to be important to consider were:

  • The organizational structure has to work for the participants (students and mentors). What works for one team may not work for another.

  • Setting expectations is critical. Gathering feedback helps.

  • Making a commitment is key. Our team seems unique in the "come when you like" policy. We did not see any other team like this.

  • Students should be empowered as much as they are willing but the mentors need to run the team.

  • Not all teams met every day during the build season.

What follows is some notes from conference talks that Finbarr and I went to as well as from talking to individual teams.  If you wonder why we didn’t talk to more teams, after talking to 6 or 7, we began to be hearing the same things over and over.

Team 359 - I went to a talk by the mentor of the Hawaiian Kids team who were the Championship Chairman’s Award winner last year.  The talk was titled, “Helpful Tips in Managing and Sustaining a FIRST Robotics Program.”  Here are some notes I took

  • They have 20-25 students

  • About half of them are girls

  • About half of them are non-technical (not necessarily the same half as the girls)

  • They have lots of adults helping with the team logistics and a teacher who runs the show

  • Documentations - They have lots of documentations.  

    • Students are required to write up events within a week of it happening.  They had binder that was about 6” thick (with plastic sleeves) of documentation for this year.

    • They have a team that keeps the website up to date.  They also have a graphics teacher who helps with this team.

  • They track students to keep track of what they are doing and what impact robotics has had on them (I am assuming from my notes that this refers to former students but could also refer to current students)

  • Support - they make sure that they make thanking the parents who help a priority

  • Administration

    • This is done by the teacher and includes:

      • Coordination

      • Planning

      • Finances

      • Fundraising

      • Class Set up

      • Schedule

      • Team meetings

      • Travel

    • They have many people who just help with support

  • Sponsors -

    • They have a lot of sponsors and often offer to provide volunteers to the sponsor for events as part of maintaining good will.

    • During Week 5 they have an open house for sponsors and parents - students plan and put on this event

  • They feel that it is important to have and maintain a website as well as relations with sponsors, the school, and the students

  • Sustainability - They have enough money to stay in business for 3 years if their funding was cut off entirely.


Team 27 - Presentation by Rush.  Finbarr Crispie attended this talk on “Be Sustainable!  Tips and Tricks for Managing your Team and Growing Successfully.”  We also spent a long time talking with a group of mentors in their pit.  They are a very impressive team and having learned so much from them made getting picked by them even more fun.

  • They have found that 30-35 students is an ideal size

  • Mentors are overall in charge.  Parents help but are not in charge.

  • They are very clear about setting expectations for participation on the team.  To do this they have:

    • An application and interview process for each student (they have never actually rejected any student by this process but it allows the mentors to get a pulse of the team and what they need to change)

    • An all day Mentor Retreat in the fall

    • A two hour Parent “retreat” in the fall

    • A weekend Student Retreat in the fall

  • They are big on commitment. Being on the team is an all year commitment. Students cannot be on a winter sport. There are 3 mandatory meetings a week with the first 1.5 hours of mandatory study time and then about 3.5 hours of robotics.

  • During the Fall students try many different activities. Before the build season they try out for different posts and the mentors choose what sub-team each student will be on.

  • For sustainability departing seniors have to train incoming students.

  • Avoiding mentor burn-out: Mentors divide up responsibilities and empower students as much as possible. Students run events like their Summer FLL camps.
     

Team 1114 - We talked to students on Simbotics.

  • In addition to mentors who support the individual activities, they also have one mentor assigned to a group of 3-4 students.  This is their “Big Simbot/Little Simbot” program.  This mentor is someone who checks in on the students and the students are encouraged to come to them about anything they need help with such as issues related to the team, school work and just life.

  • Each student is required to raise $200 and any extra they raise goes half to the team and half to the individual student travel expenses.
     

Team 341 - Miss Daisy - We talked to students on Miss Daisy

  • They sign up for the various sub teams at the beginning of the season and they stick with it for the entire season and cannot change.  I believe that they pick a team and have an alternate.

  • They had a business plan binder.  They had a budget of $92000.  However, $35000 of that was travel with a lot of that income being provided by parents.  It’s a different way of accounting than we do.
     

Team 246 - Overclocked from the Boston area.  This was a random team in Curie that I went up and talked to because they looked organized and had won a Chairman’s award.  In some ways, they were organized more like than other teams.  I talked to several of the students who were in leadership.  They have a small team and it sounds like the robotics team is a significant fraction of the school.

  • They had a teacher in charge of their team who took care of major logistics.  However, students did more of the lesser logistics than some of the other teams - that is why I said it was more like our team than some of the others.

  • They had 2 Team captains and then sub captains under them.  It sounded like there were very clear task divisions between the captains and sub captains.
     

Team 111 - Wildstang - I talked to a mentor who was taking care of the pit while everyone else was gone.

  • Their team is a class except that they meet one evening a week (I believe that it is Monday) from 5:30 - 8:30 for the entire year.  It is mandatory to attend these meetings to get credit.  They do a lot of their training and planning during this time.

  • During the season, in addition to the Monday night meetings, they only meet kind of officially on Saturdays.

  • They have subgroups that have a mentor helping lead them and these subgroups schedule their own meetings to get things done during build season.
     

Team 67 - HOT.  We talked to some students.  

  • They have 45 students and 20 mentors.

  • From what I understand they meet 3 days a week during build

  • They require 25 hours of community service at events during the summer and 90% attendance during build season to travel.

  • They have mentors assigned to every subgroup

  • At every meeting they start with an organizational meeting where they plan what they expect to achieve
     

Team 469 - Las Guerrillas - we talked to some of their students.  Of all the teams we talked to this one was probably the most loosely organized.  However, they did have loose groups with mentor involvement.

Team 118 - Robonauts (they were across from 469 and had a cool pit).  We talked to a couple of mentors from their team.

  • They had a teacher in charge who handled logistics.

  • The mentor we talked to had also been with 27 before he changed jobs.  He said that Rush had a stricter participation policy because they had a different demographic than 118 in Florida with more under-priviledged kids than on 27.

  • As you might have noticed, I took fewer notes as I kept noticing the same themes.
     

Team 100 - Woodside Wildhats.  They were staying in our hotel and I ate breakfast with a group of mentors on Thursday.  Their motto is “Student Run - Student Built”.

  • They have teachers who run things from the school(s) side.

  • They thought that the fact that we didn’t have a representative from the school was a mistake on the school’s part because a school representative provides continuity.

  • Their interpretation on “Student Run” was that the students take care of the robot.  They thought emphatically that the students should not have to be responsible with the team logistics so that they could be freed up to design their robot.
     

Team 9 - Paly.  It turned out that quite a few Paly people were on our flight home.  As I got up and stretched my legs between St. Louis and Denver, I heard some of their mentors talking at the back of the plane so I joined in.  Krystine from the Space Cookies was also there.  

  • It turns out that Paly is also a student run team in the sense that we have been.  The consensus was that it was not working very well for them.

  • I mentioned that I had been thinking that maybe we could include some of the surrounding teams in some training this summer was met with enthusiasm.  One of the mentors was in the controls field and was very interested in talking with Austin and maybe collaborating.  This gave me the idea that maybe we could get something going with local teams where we could work together on training and maybe have teams with certain strengths lead those efforts.  Krystine said that she would be interested in helping organize this.

  • I also found out that both Paly’s and Gunn’s main robotics mentors are going to be gone next year.
     

Team 254 - James asked why I didn’t include the Poof’s and Girl Scouts so I talked to Travis Covington about how they were organized and the answer was very enlightening.  I have a vague sense of how the Space Cookies are organized and have decided not to include them right now because there is another whole set of issues that they have to consider because they fall under the Girl Scout umbrella.  The interesting thing about 254 (and Austin warned me about this) is that they are organized more like we (971) are than you would think.  Their team handbook is at http://team254.com/resources/handbook/

  • They currently have a leadership team of 9 students

    • President - The team president is responsible for keeping team unity, making sure the leadership functions as designed, staying in contact with sponsors and being a team spokesperson.

    • Vice President - The vice president is responsible for finance, archiving, and submissions.

    • FRC Build Head & Assistant VEX Build Head - Responsible for organizing FRC build related activities and ensuring students get the most out of the technical aspects of FRC; also an assistant VEX head in charge ofbuilding and maintaining the VEX field.

    • VEX Build Head & Assistant FRC Build Head - Responsible for organizing VEX build related activities and ensuring students get the most out of the technical aspects of VEX; also an assistant FRC head in charge of building and maintaining the FRC field.

    • Graphic Design & Animation - Responsible for maintaining the team identity through graphics, banners, robot decorations, information flyers, awards; also in charge of the FRC and VEX animations.

    • Controls - Primarily responsible for programming and electronic function of FRC and VEX robots. Also IT manager for the lab network, lead developer for the Team 254 Simulator, and webmaster for the team website.

    • PR & Marketing - Responsible for awards to other teams, award submissions / presentations at competition, and publications.

    • Competition - Responsible for preparation for FRC and VEX competition, spirit and organization.

    • Scouting - Responsible for FRC and VEX scouting and scouting preparation.

  • Austin says he has heard that they are planning on adding more positions and Travis confirmed this.  The are also getting rid of the VP job and maybe adding an Engineering lead above the build heads - the build heads are purely technical.  The new jobs are in the areas of

    • Finance

    • Documentation and submissions

    • Website

  • One difference is that their positions are not elected.  Students apply for the job with resumes and applications.  The positions are then filled by mentors, teachers, and former members reviewing the applications.  Travis said that MVRT does this too.

  • They have had trouble this year with people not fulfilling their responsibilities so Travis says that they are adding an interview process as well as a contract that the parents and students sign saying that they understand the responsibilities and time commitment involved.

  • Their travel organization is done by a Bellarmine teacher because of restrictions imposed by Bellarmine.

  • Their students want to run the team and do as much as they can or will and the mentors are there to help them when they have trouble or fall short.  Travis says that they are planning on having more leadership training this year to learn delegating and other things.
     

Team 3189 - They are working on being more sustainable since the lead mentor’s son is graduating this year and she doesn’t have enough help.  However, they did a few things that were interesting.

  • They currently have a captain and a co-captain - the captain is selected by mentors and teachers and then the captain picks the co-captain as someone they can work with.  The purpose of having two is so that they can cover for each other.

  • They treat every task (technical and non technical) as a project and assign a Project Manager for each project.  The Project manager then pulls members from the talent pool to get the task done.

  • At the end of every meeting the co-captains and project managers write down what has been done, what needs to be done next meeting and what needs to be gotten/purchased before the next meeting.

  • Charlotte, the head mentor says that she has found that peer pressure helps the most for motivation.  Someone on the team said that at one of the shipping companies (she thinks DHL), employees are instructed to answer the question of what they do by saying something like, “We deliver packages and this is what I do …”  Their team agreed that if they see someone who isn’t doing anything they will say to the person, “We build robots, how are you helping?”
     

Olin and the HPV team - It was interesting that in talking with people at Olin and on the HPV team that a college team had some of the same issues that we are experiencing on our high school team.  These issues involved getting people to make a commitment to the team, stepping up and taking responsibility and with respect for tools and facilities (this was more a Olin wide problem rather than an HPV issue).