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What makes a great builder? It’s the mission that matters

Creating cool robots is great. But iRobot’s real success, CEO Colin Angle writes, is thanks to the company’s clear mission and principles.

What makes a great builder? It’s the mission that matters
[Photo: courtesy of iRobot]
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For more than three decades, iRobot has been a pioneer in the robotics and consumer electronics industries. It’s no exaggeration to say that our success is almost entirely due to the mission-driven builders who have created a culture that thrives on innovation.

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Through the years, iRobot has developed some of the world’s most important robots. The company inspired the first Micro Rovers used by NASA, revealed mysteries inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, and deployed the first ground robots used in combat by the U.S. Army, saving thousands of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

iRobot brought the first self-navigating, FDA-approved remote presence robots to hospitals, and has developed robots to help save the environment. The Seaglider found harmful subsea oil in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon crisis in 2010, leading to a more complete cleanup, and the PackBot helped shut down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011.

[Photo: courtesy of iRobot] PackBot, an early iRobot creation, helped shut down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
iRobot was conceived as a place where you could dive in and get your hands dirty as you tried to create the next great robot that could change the world. As an example, we’ve long had machine shops and 3D-printing facilities onsite—I think it’s important to actually try to build what you conceive. I learned how to machine my own parts when I was a young builder, and it’s an invaluable skill for anyone who is trying to make something new.

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So we recognized the importance of being a builder a while back, and we knew builders would form the core of our business. But that also prompted us to confront the questions, “What does it take to be a world-class builder?” and “How can we ensure that the builders of iRobot—as well as those working at other leading technology companies—are always driving toward the next great innovation?”

[Photo: courtesy of iRobot]
From my perspective, it really comes down to the importance of mission. That is, why are you building what you’re building? And who are you building it for? We at iRobot know there are no greater reasons to build robots than to help people accomplish more and achieve things never imagined, but asking yourself these crucial questions will make a world of difference in defining your mission.

I’d be lying if I said I knew the importance of the mission when we founded iRobot. No, it took a little time for us to get to that point. You can get there too.

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A learning experience

iRobot was originally founded on pure technology: robots that could do some very cool stuff.  The first mission of the company was as simple as “Build a rover, send it to the moon, sell the movie rights.” While the envisioned blockbuster never saw the red carpet, we realized that the key to making a true impact lies in creating a robot that delivers more value than it costs to build (or sell).

[Photo: courtesy of iRobot]
The next question we had to ask was, “What’s the value we’re creating?” Still, it took us a long time to get to the Roomba, with some ups and downs along the way. We tried our hands at robot toys, industrial floor cleaners, autonomous vehicles, robots that would clean oil wells, and robots that would clear your gutters.

When we eventually created the Roomba, we knew we had hit on something amazing—not just a solution to home cleaning, but a robot that would give people back time in their lives to do the things they’d rather be doing. A robot that can make life better for millions of people—now that’s a mission we could get behind!`

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As the next chapter emerged, we knew we needed different kinds of builders—builders committed to creating a market for these amazing machines. We had to cultivate an appreciation that robots weren’t just the stuff of science fiction stories, but rather affordable creations that people could buy and personally benefit from right now.

Living by the code

To truly change the world with technology, we realized it’s important to focus on the people tasked with creating it.

Specifically, in iRobot’s case, we wanted to establish principles that would set the expectations of how iRoboteers should approach their jobs. It is a code, and we are committed to it. And since it is our code, we call it the Builder’s Code.

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[Photo: courtesy of iRobot]
To quote Simon Sinek, “When the things you say and the things you do are in alignment with what you actually believe, a thriving culture emerges.” That’s what the Builder’s Code represents. The seven principles of the Code are the guideposts for everything we do at iRobot, and I think they’re valuable for other builders out there too:

  • Put consumers first.
  • Pursue possibility.
  • Move with urgency.
  • Own the outcome.
  • Debate and commit.
  • Have each other’s backs.
  • Defend the code.

On top of these bedrock principles, it’s important to have a clear mission. For us currently, the success of our robots is measured by actually freeing our customers from some of the time they spend maintaining their homes. To achieve that mission, we are always striving for new levels of trust, reliability, and usability in the robots we build.

As an organization, our goal is to balance the innovation that’s embodied in our mission with a business model that supports us—leading-edge innovation guided by pragmatism. That’s how we empower our builders to deliver on the founding concept of the company and create a revolution in home robotics.

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Articulating and acting on a mission that has meaning is an important way to bring out the best in your people—the ones who will actually make that vision a reality. If you want to ensure that your organization is always working toward your ultimate goal, take the time to define your mission, instill it in the organization, and live the principles behind it every day.

Colin Angle is CEO, Chairman, and Founder of iRobot. For more on robotics, innovation, and the future of the smart home, follow him on Twitter @colinangle.