Creativity and a Controlled Study

Mike and I decided his engineers needed to know the rationale behind the organization’s structural change, and to apply that knowledge to handling building issues as they arose. The engineers needed to be clear, not confused.

There were 995 employees in the Engineering function (993 of them men), scattered across the US in large to mid-sized cities. 955 engineers reported to 40 regional engineering managers.

How to train them all?

These days, the easy answer is easy—technology. But this was twenty years ago, and the engineers, who mainly worked out of basement engineering offices, had no access to the company computer that sat on each property manager’s desk.

Mike’s plan was to bring in the 40 managers, have Mike train them, and then send them back to their territories to repeat the process.

I saw a flaw in this plan.

Mike is a great public speaker—confident, credible, dynamic, engaging. Most engineers, even the 40 managers, don’t have that skill set in their toolbelt.

I wanted to use a learning method we had pioneered at McDonald’s—learning maps. A group of people sit around a table, look at a picture the size of a tablecloth, and talk about it. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the $50K we’d need to hire the learning map company, but I knew the value was in the conversation, not in the custom image.

What I proposed to Mike was that instead of the 40 managers trying to lead training sessions, they instead lead table conversations. This would allow them to leverage their knowledge without feeling like they had to perform.

The equivalent of large cue cards would be on each table. Someone would draw the first card, read it, and the table would discuss it. The engineering manager would facilitate the conversation and contribute their knowledge. There could also be periodic short video clips of Mike, explaining different aspects of the change. (I knew Mike would be stellar on video.)

Mike hated my idea.

I hated his.

But I had a suggestion.

I suggested we do a controlled study. We would run two pilot sessions simultaneously. Both would springboard from video clips of Mike, but one room would use instructor-led presentation, and the other would use table conversation. Mike and I could float back and forth between the two rooms to see how things were going. At the end, we would survey the participants to get their reactions to the learning experience and to measure their learning.

Mike agreed to the experiment. And, improving his odds, he said he wanted Keith to facilitate his instructor-led session. I told Mike this wasn’t a fair test because Keith was a mini-Mike in front of a room, but Mike would not be dissuaded.

If Mike got Keith to lead his session, then I got Roger to lead mine. Roger was the engineering manager who, to explain mold remediation in a training session, built a partial wall, soaked it in his bathtub overnight, and then let it sit for two days to turn green.

The test was on.

Mike and I floated between the two rooms.

At the end of the morning, we gave the participants their surveys. My group won both. They liked it better, and they learned more.

So that is what we did.


There have been many times I doubted my competence at work, but this was not one of them.

This one still makes me smile.

Chewing the Cud of Good

Wood sculpture of a gold house on a crooked ladder
© Hans Panschar

Thankful for the group of people that I virtually write with every Monday through Friday. They help me keep my butt in the chair, and they give me a community to belong to.

2 thoughts on “Creativity and a Controlled Study”

  1. I’m impressed Mike didn’t want a “do-over” and accepted the outcome.
    You would have remained professional whereas I may have gloated.

    1. One of the nice things about engineers is that they trust physical evidence. We did a test, the results were clear, Mike went with it. Other nice things about engineers: they take care of their cars, and the ones who take care of buildings refer to their buildings as “she.”

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