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The Business Lesson I Learned From My Roomba


Sean Follin

Date Published

Aug 30, 2017
6 minute read

Charlie Munger, the equally successful yet less well-known partner of Warren Buffet, is considered to be the one of the smartest generalists of all time. His success is likely due to the fact that he finds a “lesson” in everything. Charlie is notorious for taking high-level concepts from different fields, especially psychology, and distilling the core concepts down into simple, easy-to-remember “mental models.”

“The models have to come from multiple disciplines – because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines. You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough – because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly – wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry any weight.” – Charlie Munger

I highly recommend reading up on Charlie’s wisdom in his book, Poor Charlie’s Almanac.

Since I started exploring how I could learn more about mental models in order to apply them, I’ve started to see business lessons pop up in the strangest of places. One of them is from the Roomba.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence Are Evolving

As technology advances, we are hearing more and more about the unique ways robots and artificial intelligence are accomplishing tasks, ways that we can’t predict or understand. For instance, Facebook just pulled the plug on its artificial intelligence system after it developed a new language to more efficiently communicate with other computers that was incomprehensible to humans. Here’s a snippet of the convo:

[Bot 1] I can i i everything else.
[Bot 2] balls have zero to me to me to me…

A latte then appeared out of a slot in the side of Bot 1 and slid over to Bot 2.

The latte part is a joke, however the conversation was very real, as these two machines negotiated with each other to process an equation. It was an unexpected turn for Facebook engineers who, with the looming threat of AI takeover, quickly tweaked their formulas.

That said, the bot did what humans do, only more efficiently, and more importantly, in a way that we weren’t expecting.

So what’s a Roomba have to do with all of this?

The Business Lesson I Learned From My Roomba

I live with my girlfriend, and we were recently gifted a Roomba. If you’ve never seen one work, it’s quite fascinating. The Roomba is a robot vacuum that sits on a docking station in your house. You can program it to vacuum for you, eliminating the laborious task of getting out the Dyson (très bourgeois!). Here’s the rub, because the Roomba is programmed differently than the human brain, it doesn’t use the same patterns to clean that we humans would. For instance, instead of cleaning corner-by-corner, and room-by-room like any normal, sentient being, the Roomba completes a series of non-associated zigzags across the room. When it bumps into something, it turns a little bit and takes off in the other direction.

It drives my girlfriend nuts. Several times I’ve seen her pick the Roomba up and move it over to a particular area, only to have the dang thing head off in some seemingly arbitrary direction.

After contemplating this phenomenon, something emerged for me. With both humans and technology, it’s critical for leaders to “let things do what they do.” Just because someone, or something, doesn’t complete a task the way you would, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. In fact, that’s where a significant amount of learning can occur.

Now, if you’re working in an environment where process is king and demands repeatability, you most certainly want to rein in any variations when completing tasks. However, for the more creative endeavors, especially ones that have you pitted against a problem you have yet to encounter, it can be incredibly valuable to let someone, or something, take a stab at it, and just observe.

As Charlie Munger says, ”Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”

Leading from the Middle teaches you how to improve the system and show the Man that Millennials know how to get stuff done. Gain new perspectives on leadership, plot the course, and make an impact, even if your title equates to something along the lines of “assistant to the assistant.” Be forewarned — if you take on Leading from the Middle, there’s no such thing as, “above my paygrade.” Written by a Millennial, for Millennials, but in no way, shape, or form limited to Millennials.