Who Needs Paper Route When You Can Start A Robotics Company?
Nothing inspires both hope and fear like discussions about the future. From H. G. Wells’ Time Machine to The Terminator movies, utopia and dystopia are intertwined. Our visions range from promise and possibility to industrial grade cruelty and dysfunction.
The annual Business Innovation Factory Summit (BIF) is a place where these hopes and fears are not only discussed, but treated as concrete problems to be solved through innovation. It is a unique gathering, where famous personalities like Walt Mossberg and Dan Pink mix with an eclectic assortment of social entrepreneurs and corporate executives.
This year was no different. From an obstetric nurse seeking to curtail deaths related to pregnancy in poor countries to an activist’s struggle to save the world’s fisheries, innovators shared their stories. Some were inspiring, others were heartbreaking, but what really stole the show was a 14 year old girl who, along with her sister, built a robotics company.
The Incredible Story Of Beatty Robotics
Like a lot of kids, Camille Beatty liked to take things apart so that she could see what was inside. Unlike a lot of kids, however, her parents encouraged her to do so. As she became more and more intrigued by the gizmos and doodads in the electronic devices she dismantled, her father suggested that she try building something.
Her little sister, Genevieve, wanted to build a droid from her favorite cartoon, Star Wars Clone Wars, and that’s what they did. With Camille doing the metalworking and her little sister soldering, they sketched designs, scoured the Web for instruction, ordered chipboards from Arduino and built their first robot.
Today, Beatty Robotics is a thriving concern. The girls, now 14 and 11, have done 35 projects so far, building robots not only for themselves, but for corporations and museums. They have even been honored at the White House by President Obama. It is truly an amazing story, but one that’s become strangely common.
Anyone with kids has noticed the shift in how they use their imagination to create. While earlier generations built with inert blocks, the Lego sets that kids have available to them today come embedded with their own functionality. They not only explore shapes and forms but can, with help of a few Google searches, hack the technology itself and change its course.
Autodesk has recently created a program that makes the firm’s popular computer aided design (CAD) software available to millions of students for free, while the maker movement has made a vast array of 3D printers, CNC mills and even chipsets accessible for middle class garages and basements.
It’s easy to imagine the Beatty girls, along with their two-year-old sister, creating their own future and that, strangely enough, is becoming a serious problem.
The Lost Art Of General Management
While the Beatty girls are just beginning their careers, Len Schlesinger has already had several. He’s been a successful corporate executive, a college professor and the President of Babson College. He’s the kind of guy used to getting things done, which made the experience of caring for a sick parent all the more frustrating.
What he found was that, while the doctors who cared for his mother were highly skilled specialists, there was no one integrating their work effectively. There was, in effect, a dearth of general management, the field that Schlesinger had devoted his life to mastering. To him, it appears that we are building a culture of star performers, but no coaches.
The problem seems to be becoming more widespread and more dangerous. If we only value entrepreneurs and disruptors, who will run the large organizations that organizations that can solve big problems? As David Brooks wrote in a recent column in The New York Times:
Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.
The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.
At BIF 10, Schlesinger pointed out that no serious research has been done on general management for over 30 years and he is looking to change that. He has since returned to academia and is now a Baker Professor at Harvard Business School. He has designed a new course on general management and is beginning his research.
Narratives and Creation Spaces
The Beatty sisters and Schlesinger present a stark contrast. Not just because the girls are looking forward to a fantastic career of accomplishment and the distinguished professor is looking back on his, but because of what they represent. The Beattys show the power of individual creativity, while Schlesinger highlights the need to organize collective action.
Clearly, we need both. Problems are not uniform and cannot be fully solved by any one approach. We need to find a way to square the circle.
On the second day of the BIF 10 Summitt, John Hagel, Co-Chairman at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, pointed the way forward. He argued that to create movements that can, through collective action, achieve big things, we need both narratives and creation spaces.
A narrative, unlike a story, requires both authorship and participation. It has no preordained resolution, but is open-ended and focused on an opportunity. Creation spaces, on the other hand, allow for small groups to take collective action in the context of a larger organizational and governance structure. Hagel points to Saddleback Church as an example.
The Beatty sisters represent a powerful narrative of what imagination and persistence can achieve, while Len Schlesinger, through his work on managing organizations for the 21st century, is helping to design the creation spaces of the future. Some early efforts at reinventing the organization, such as Holacracy, show promise, but there is still a ways to go.
Preparing The Future
The unsung hero of this story is Mr. Beatty. He could always be found at the summit a few steps away from his precocious young daughter, letting her glow in the limelight, but there to provide support, when needed. It was he that gave her the encouragement and working space for her to fulfill her dream. He also performs mundane tasks, such as ordering parts.
We desperately need to fuse the poetry of the narrative with the prose of the creation space. The next generation will have very different challenges than we did and will have to prepare differently. They will need new skills and expertise, such as the logic of code, but will also need to collaborate more effectively, often in the absence of clear organizational hierarchy.
Peter Thiel likes to point out that we were promised flying cars but ended up with 140 characters instead. Yet that is far too facile an argument. In truth, 140 characters are better than a flying car. Buck Rogers type transportation is just that, a device for getting us to a particular place or, perhaps, for running away.
Creation spaces, however, are where we find ourselves and each other and that’s where our future will be won… or lost.