Mason’s Robots

I gave a talk on leadership recently at George Mason University. It’s an impressive place. Still not even 50 years old, the university has now grown into the largest in Virginia and one of the largest in the U.S.

There are a lot of good scholars at George Mason, including my hosts Seth Kaplan and Reeshad Dalal – professors in industrial/organizational psychology. But there is also something strange going on at Mason, and it says something about how to lead.

The something strange? Well, let me tell you how I first met this stranger. Upon arriving on campus for my talk, I easily found the visitor parking at Mason and, after exiting the parking garage, came to a busy crosswalk. I saw a car waiting and, upon entering the crosswalk, I met … a toy.

It was a small vehicle that looked like a miniature version of some stormtrooper personnel carrier from Star Wars. It was white, about the size of a duffle bag, and had six wheels and a black windshield. I thought to myself, “Hmm, must be some child’s toy.” I looked around for a kid with a radio-controlled device. I saw plenty of students around — but no child operating one. The students walking all around me seemed unaware of the toy. It motored on and took a turn to the left.

After crossing the street, I started up hill, and saw another toy…and then another…and then another. The whole campus is filled with these cute vehicles quietly going about their business.

What is their business? These little vehicles are no toys – they deliver food…and Starbucks. If you’re a student, staff or faculty member, you download the app, use it to order your food and the robot will deliver it to you.

As it turns out, this whole program is a first: Mason was the first university to use robots to deliver food.

George Mason has gotten a lot of press from these six-wheeled gremlins. See the NPR report, this story from the Washington Post and this report from CNBC. Their logic makes a great deal of sense. Campuses are hard to navigate by car. And inefficient. We’ve all seen the meal delivery vehicles double-park, move a few hundred feet, park again and continue. It’s not a good way for those on campus to get their food. In theory, the robots solve this problem.

Not only do they fit with Mason’s creative mindset – they are good optics. The robots are a distinct presence when you’re on campus and a constant reminder that Mason focuses on the future. Andrew Carton has done some really excellent studies showing how important visuals are to leadership.[1],[2]  Carton’s studies focus on using visual imagery in language. Carton and Lucas (2018, p. 2107) note in their article, “By vividly depicting an event or outcome that an organization can one day realize, image-based rhetoric reflects the notion that a vision is a “portrait” of an ideal future…and under-scores the very essence of the word ‘vision’—the ability to see.”

Of course, an even more powerful tool is to use visual metaphors themselves. If I say, “Juliet is the sun” – from our friend Shakespeare – it is even more powerful to show that Juliet is the sun. When I have visited CEOs, it is not unusual to see a symbol in their lobby, often early products that show a company’s legacy. Mason’s robots do that, but rather than reflecting on the past, they point toward the future.

What are the lessons learned from Mason’s robots? I think there are at least two:

  1. Visuals matter. As a leader, use the power of symbols and visualization to convey a vision for the future.
  2. Develop culture of innovation. Develop a reputation for and a culture of innovation. Research reveals that leadership is linked to innovative behavior by establishing a culture of innovation.[3] Leaders can foster such a culture by rewarding creativity (and not punishing such efforts when the results fail), encouraging others to be future-oriented and promoting a culture of experimentation and discovery.

I’m not suggesting that all is Valhalla at Mason. Mason is public, and like many public universities, one of the reasons it is so large is that it has had to grow to support itself (through tuition revenue). Times are rather tough for state universities, particularly those units whose livelihood depend on tuition dollars. Mason’s robots teach us, however, that one way leaders can adapt to challenges is to innovate. And communicating that innovation in visible ways – like Mason’s robots – is really, well, innovative.

[1] Carton, A. M. (2018). "I'm not mopping the floors, I'm putting a man on the moon'': How NASA leaders enhanced the meaningfulness of work by changing the meaning of work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63(2), 323-369.

[2] Carton, A. M., & Lucas, B. J. (2018). How can leaders overcome the blurry vision bias? Identifying an antidote to the paradox of vision communication. Academy of Management Journal, 61(6), 2106-2129.

[3] Scott, S. G., & Bruce, R. A. (1994). Determinants of innovative behavior – A path model of individual innovation in the workplace. Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), 580-607.

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