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Thus, We Retreated to Tabernash

Modular Robotics is now 72 people, and 72, while not an objectively huge number, is sometimes overwhelming since it seems like only yesterday that we were 4 or 5 people. As we’ve grown, it’s seemed sometimes that things get crazy at a faster than linear acceleration: we’ll hire two people at once and everything will get four times crazier.

I think it feels that way because of graphs: because modbot is great big complex adaptive system. People are the nodes, and relationships are the edges. When we add one person to a ten-person team, we’re also adding ten more relationships and communication paths into the mix, and relationships are the nuanced pieces of our system that are messy and unpredictable. When things break at modbot, they usually break because of communication. It’s the edges.

Anyway, we decided a few months ago that we’d change our planning rhythm a little bit for 2015. Last year, we made a lot of projections for the whole year, and when things changed, our projections and actual results diverged wildly and the projections and planning models became less useful really quickly. For 2015 we’re planning and rebuilding our operating model quarterly, so to recap the first quarter and recalibrate for the next quarters, we decided to meet offsite for an immersive session that we called a Retreat, even though we weren’t running away from anything at all.

Eight of us drove West last Thursday morning for a play day in Winter Park and I joined the skiing group.  Snow conditions were poor (frozen-over old corn)  but the company was top-notch.  We were all ready to rock the bunny hill all day since it was Hiller’s second time ever on skis but he figured out pizza and french fries in five minutes and shredded the whole mountain.  The sky was pretty grey: Stu’s the only one of us who broke through, sporting rad purple gnargyle.


We rented a super-cool, super-weird house in Tabernash to use as home base.  We took Myers Briggs personality tests, cooked dinner together, ate fajitas, got a little drunk on red wine, and played charades until late.  All good.

At 8am Friday morning, we settled in for a marathon day of strategic planning.  Eight of us spent ten hours in a big rented living room talking about our product lines, manufacturing strategy, hiring plans, etc.   And it was awesome.  No one talked over each other.  No one interrupted.  Everyone facilitated a section and took turns taking notes for the group.  We were productive, respectful, and functioned like a well-oiled machine.

I started this post wondering about communication and team complexity.  We’ve had some glitches at modbot as we’ve grown, and at times, it seems like we function and work together with results that are less than the sum of our parts.  My main goal for the Retreat was simply to work on communication, soft social skills, and team-building with this group, and I’m pleased to report that I was tremendously impressed with the results.

Christie sent me this photo of one of our walk-and-talk breaks at the Retreat and I absolutely love it.  At first glance, I thought, “wow, Eric, look at you!  What a super business photo.  Looking like such a leader!”  Upon further reflection, I realized that everyone else in the picture is moving forward and I’m the only one who’s walking backward and falling into various holes and obstacles.  Allegorically or otherwise, maybe I should turn myself around and focus on where we’re headed.