For the past few years, Roboworx has been part of the Innovation Management course within the Conrad Centre’s Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET) program.

Roboworx participants working togetherIt generates a number of interesting reactions, ranging from excitement to apprehension to terror. Why should this be the case? It is only playing with a toy after all. Or is it?

Furthermore, what does playing with Lego™ have to do with entrepreneurship education?

Roboworx is a simulation intended to provide the participants with a realistic experience of a situation where a start-up team has to develop a product in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) from a client.

As I discussed in an earlier blog, if you start from the position that entrepreneurship must be experienced to be ‘taught,’ then an underlying principle of entrepreneurship education is the experience that is created.

What is the Roboworx experience?

In the case of Roboworx, teams must form and set up a company with all the issues that would be encountered with registering the company, opening a bank account, securing initial bootstrap funding, and of course dealing with the government programs and taxes. Then the fun starts – in previous years I have provided “play with Lego” consulting services through my then nine year old, which has often lead to humorous moments. 

Robot from roboworx competitionThe teams must build prototype products to satisfy an RFP, while dealing with various operational requirements, such as payroll and purchasing required parts. In the end, the teams are competing to win the contact by demonstrating that their product meets the customer’s requirements.

When I stop to think about it, I’ve been through this many times in the ‘real world’ – whatever that might be.

What do you learn?

After surviving the day of fun, play, frustration, disappointment and euphoria, we embark on a post-project review, or post-mortem. What could you have possibly learned from this - after all it is just playing with toys, right?

Wrong. This is very much a multidimensional learning environment requiring the teams to integrate what they have been exposed to through various courses and assignments within the program.

The learning experiences are varied, but over the years many themes have emerged. First and foremost is to really understand what the customer is asking for. Building what you like soon falls apart (often literally) when it comes time for the customer to test the prototype.

Team working together with legoA great deal is learned about issues that emerge in the design and development of a product, especially when hardware and software are involved. Many insights emerge regarding how the project needs to be managed and the implications of poor design decisions early on. The increasing complexity of the project requirements over time also brings out issues related to cost, performance and time trade-offs in a very real way.

Another important learning aspect is around teams, and the role of communications within a small team dealing with a complex, ambiguous and pressurized environment. Many teams demonstrate a better understanding of how the skills that a start-up team ‘brings to the table’ shapes its culture, problem-solving and emerging structure. They also gain a better understanding of what motivates the various members of the team.

All of this learning was ‘snuck in’ while having a fun, memorable experience, often revisiting our inner child through Roboworx and Lego™. We have the technology – do you have the imagination?


Doug Sparkes teaches BET607 Innovation Management and is also Associate Director of Undergraduate Programs at the Conrad Centre.
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