Improving the Team Experience

One thing that I think FIRST HQ does very well is respond to feedback from the FRC community. When it comes to things like champs venues, different software options, and other technical/logistical issues, I think HQ does an excellent job of listening to and acting on complaints. Granted, I’m sure almost every participant on this forum has a list of things they wish HQ would change, but in general I’ve seen a lot of positive responses to requested changes and I want to thank HQ for that.

However, there is one area where I think the involvement of HQ is really lacking and possibly really needed and that is at a team level.

One of the more common types of posts I see on CD is either a student or mentor—sometimes but not always anonymous—raising a concern about their team. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but it’s something that occurs often enough that I worry. When I volunteer at events in a technical role, I frequently encounter teams (mostly at the district level) that are having some type of intra-team issue. I’m in no position to help them with that, but it does make me wish that there was more that could be done. Talking to other volunteers and team members has only made me more aware of the fact that while FRC as a whole is full of awesome people who work together to make great things happen, not every team has a smooth ride on that journey.

To some degree, learning to overcome interpersonal and team dynamics issues are a valuable learning experience. Conflict resolution skills and interpersonal skills are a cornerstone of what FRC is about, and I don’t mean to suggest that all team issues are inherently bad. But I have seen a lot of teams where the issue stems from adults who are integral to the existence of the team itself, and I have seen teams struggle to resolve issues when the person they would otherwise go to about a problem is the source of the problem. And this is the biggest area where FIRST itself is very hands-off.

Other than background checks and material about YPP, FIRST doesn’t really get that involved with solving problems at the team level. And this makes a lot of sense—there’s thousands of teams with thousands of different issues that FIRST does not need to have anything to do with. But I do think that teams would benefit from some involvement from FIRST when it comes to major issues that teams struggle to resolve. FIRST professes to be very values-focused and I think that’s absolutely fantastic. But I also think that FIRST needs a way to ensure that 1. teams are adhering to YPP, 2. teams are generally adhering to the value system laid out by FIRST, and 3. students and mentors have a generally positive experience in the team environment. I’m going to break down what I mean by each of these a little bit.

  1. YPP is obviously very important, and every principle in the guide to what YPP is could be applied to every team activity students engage in. Egregious violations of YPP are almost always reported to schools or law enforcement, but there’s less-egregious violations that are still unacceptable that frequently are let go. Examples would be: mentors yelling at students in an abrasive/aggressive manner (a pattern of behavior), mentors belittling students and their abilities (a pattern of behavior), discrimination against groups or individuals, etc.

  2. Obviously each team has its own set of values as well, and all teams are different. However, if a team is teaching its students to act in ways that are neither gracious nor professional (being rude to other teams, lying about outreach, refusing to abide by rules at events, etc.), that would be a systemic team problem that should be addressed.

  3. Not everyone is going to have a positive experience. Obviously, we should strive for that, and try to maximize the number of participants in FRC who have a positive experience with the program because the goal is to make STEM fun and promote it in a way that allows people to experience how cool it can be. With this, I don’t mean that a few students on a team don’t enjoy the experience, I mean a situation where a larger number of team members (student or adult) are having an unpleasant experience due to their team environment.

I think FIRST would benefit from a reporting system for these types of events. To prevent abuse, reporting could be limited to students from the team involved, adults from any team, and key volunteers. If someone not on that list has a concern, ideally they could bring it to an adult on a team or a key volunteer and have it reported by them as experienced by someone else (that way the adult/volunteer could make an effort to corroborate the report). Ideally the system would NOT be anonymous when reports were being made, but if FIRST decided to pursue a report, anyone associated with the report submission would not be named (nor would their relation to the team be named unless explicitly permitted by the reporter). The lack of anonymity would allow FIRST to verify the identity of the reporter and communicate with them if necessary, as well as discourage frivolous or false reports. Ideally, if FIRST could verify the identity of the person, and the behavior described met some predetermined standard of what is unacceptable, FIRST would pursue the report.

I realize this would require lots of effort and time on the part of HQ, however, I feel like it has the potential to measurably improve the team experience. The team environment is really integral to the experience of any student or mentor in FRC, and in my experience, members of teams with a positive environment that don’t succeed competitively are a lot more satisfied with their robotics experience than teams with a negative environment that experience more success.

If anyone has any questions, I would be more than happy to answer if I can. I apologize for the length of this post, but I do feel that it is worth saying all the same.

The biggest issue, as you did mention, is the size of FRC (or FIRST as a whole). HQ already does a ton of work with their limited staff. Addressing these issues at the HQ level would require hiring new staff and establishing a new infrastructure to process information. (Side note: remember how well event registration worked when they introduced a new system… twice)

While these are pretty important issues to help solve, I think it would be better if individual states (regionals) or district organizations (FiM, MAR, etc.) set up some sort of help center. If, for example, a fourth year team in California is having issues with a mentor being mean, or students struggling to find mentors, it is more likely that a California regional director (or other delegate) will communicate with that team in a timely manner than if the request went through New Hampshire.

Unfortunately, the level of involvement from HQ that you are laying out really only happens in organized sports or activities where the adults are hired through an interview, and job requirements are explicitly outlined. Volunteer-based activities always struggle with keeping good adults and avoiding the bad ones. I’d bet that upper-echelon teams who DO interview their mentors before considering them run into problems like you’ve mentioned.

Hopefully, one day, FRC will be free of some of the issues it currently has.

I do think that lower level organizations would probably be better equipped to handle this (for one, the number of issues per area would be smaller) but I am from FiM and have been blessed with (relatively) well organized district administration. I am unsure of how well equipped other states/districts are. I know there are a lot of great district administrations out there, but I don’t know how it works in the regional structure.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, for FIRST to have any control over what happens in a teams shop. That’s up to the school or community organizations. Behind the team to monitor and control.

If incidents happen. At events, however, anyone can file a Non-medical incident report, the form is even posted online:

These do get looked at and addressed, from my experience.

Additionally, FIRST has Senior Mentors deployed around the country. From my experience with them, they’re willing to help with anything the team needs. FIRST has a survey they send out to teams the SM works with that has a whole long list of things they could have helped you with, and I actually fee a little bad filling it out and only checking one or two boxes, because that’s all my team actually needed assistance with.

So the resources may not be terribly well advertised or utilized, but there are at least some resources available to teams. It may not be enough to solve all of the problems, but it does help. Any ideas on how to improve those resources, short of spending a lot more money on additional people?

+1 on linking the NMIR. They’re a good starting point, but I don’t think they’re an end-all be-all solution. My experience also says that these are indeed looked at and taken seriously.

Well, for starters, we can start to be more public about things in general. From my understanding, FSMs have do’s and don’ts, and these things are not always made public unless one chooses to come forward about it after their time as an FSM has ended. Additionally, many regions do not have FSMs at all, some regions even actively refusing FSM assistance.

Personally, I’d like to see more action taken by FIRST here, both on FSMs and intra-team problems. I think it’s a very important thing that is a bigger deal than people recognize.

I was going to suggest the FSM/RD route as well (FSM mainly).
Do I think that will solve all issues? No. I’m not that naive.

That being said, I think there is something that FIRST can do, with mostly existing resources. As follows:
–Create a page (easily findable) in everybody’s login for “Report an Issue”. Filling out the page generates a semi-anonymous* report indicating that someone had an issue, it’s intra-team, and it affects the team to some degree.
–Use the report info to class as “needs addressing now”, “could use some help when someone can spare a couple hours”, or “can’t do anything” (this last being for complaints about event staff rulings–while stuff can be done, it won’t be retroactive).
–Forward to appropriate FSM or RD for followup. FSM/RD gets the team number added on to the available report. Priority assigned is also given–that gives the FSM some flexibility in when to review.

–Trust FSM/RD to get to the root cause and apply mentoring as appropriate.

I would think that there might be some sort of “trusted personnel” that could also help out on this so the FSMs don’t have to do all of it, but that would be more discretionary.

*For initial review, all info other than student/adult reporting, and state/country, is scrubbed.

That being said: I’m not entirely convinced that everything is an HQ problem, other than when HQ doesn’t ask the teams before a massive decision…

If there was such an easily findable, on the portal “report an issue” type of page, what does everyone thing the ratio of “Good” and “bad” reports would be?

“Good” report - something FIRST can help address that they aren’t already getting some other way (post event or post season surveys, NMIR form, for example). This would include serious team issues.

“Bad” report - stuff FIRST can’t do anything about or that they’re already collecting some other way. Things like “there was a bad call in match…” Are already covered by post-event surveys. Stuff that happens at an event is already covered by the NMIR form. There would be some genuine team issues FIRST could help resolve, but there could also be a number of “the team is building a design I disagree with” or “someone else was chosen as captain and not me” type of issues - they seem like big issues from the perspective of the person posting, but may not actually be indicative of a team issue, just a personal issue.

I actually think that if the reports aren’t anonymous and are more like filling in an NMIR then it’s going to cut down on the more scurrilous and libelous reports. All of them would have to be vetted.

I do believe that if FIRST has the time and manpower to hassle me about copyright for our team logo then they could take some sort of action like this and put those resources to better use.

In addition to the fact that I think a lack of anonymity would reduce this, from what I’ve seen, a lot of students can be hesitant about reaching beyond their team for help anyways. That’s not to say all students feel that way, but generally in my experience, students are reaching out as more of a “last resort” for issues they can’t solve.

There is always the potential for abuse of a system like this, but I do think the benefits to teams would outweigh the potential downside of a few frivolous reports.

And when I said HQ, I wasn’t limiting it to specifically HQ reads all the reports, HQ manages the system, etc. I just think it would be beneficial to have some guidelines for how this works that exist on the top level, to be implemented by FSMs or more local administrations, just to ensure that every team has access to a relatively equal level of assistance (I realize totally equal is unlikely due to team distribution).

I’ll speak a little bit about the FSM’s role as I was a FSM for 5 years ending my service in Jun 17.

The list of FSM duties is about 5 miles long, in my time as a FSM, resolving inner team conflict was not on that list. There were also some Do-nots and resolving inner team conflict was not on that list either.

However at the request of the FSMs we did get some conflict resolution training at annual conferences in the later years of my service. This was a 2hr session IIRC so not exactly something that will bring everyone up to expert status.

Early on in my service I did get contacted by a team that was having issues between the mentors. When I asked for guidance from HQ I was told that isn’t something that FIRST gets involved with. That said I did help the team out because negotiating is part of my business and I knew that I had the respect of a number of the mentors in question as I had helped the team in their early years before I was a FSM.

But the reality is not every FSM is able to attend the annual conferences, so you can’t count on every FSM having been through even the limited training HQ does provide. The FSMs come from many walks of life and a broad range of prior FIRST experience. So not every FSM is equipped to handle conflict resolution and I’m certain a number of them just wouldn’t want to attempt it. That said, I’m certain that there are also a number of them who would be glad to help and have the skills to be helpful. As others have mentioned not every area has a FSM.

In conclusion, while I certainly support reaching out to your FSM with a problem, what ever it may be, this particular type of problem is not one that will be universally supported. I don’t see FIRST as willing to make that be one of the FSMs duties, nor one of the qualifications of the job.

I’ll also say that in my time as a FSM, team and student experience were my top priorities and I know that a number of the other FSMs that I have met feel the same way.