Potentially Catastrophic Workplace Experiments.

Steve Boese Audacious Ideas, Employee Communications, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, Steve Boese

A close friend of mine recommended the new children’s book The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science for my son thinking (correctly) that most nine-year old boys would be
Scienceinterested in and fascinated by the prospect of blowing things up, experimenting with gross and disgusting substances, and generally causing some good old-fashioned mayhem and turmoil (all in the name of science, of course).

The possibility of danger is cleverly introduced in the book’s title, playing on most kids’ inclination and curiosity with the idea of at least flirting with ‘trouble’.  Some of the book’s experiments describe how to tame fire, make lasers, and simulate the Hadron collider in your microwave… all shenanigans definitely worth testing out if you’re a nine-year old boy.

If you’re a twenty-, thirty-, fourty- or fifty-nine year old HR pro though (nine year old at heart!), fear not, as there are ‘potentially catastrophic’ experiments for the workplace too – the kinds of things that, on the surface, seem pretty dangerous and risky, may scare the adults in the room, but may ultimately teach a lesson or reveal an important truth about people, organizations, or ourselves. Try some of these on for size.

Potentially Catastrophic Experiment #1 – The Open Forum

In this experiment, the organization establishes an online, unmoderated forum for employees to share information, ask and answer each other’s questions, and provide input and feedback to leadership on important issues facing the company.  The specific technology or tool used to provide this open forum or communication platform capability to the employees does not matter that much. If you are at a loss to decide which one to use, ask your kids or your Grandma, as they are likely both pretty familiar with all kinds of tools to keep connected and share content.

Possible side effects : the boss finds out not everyone actually enjoys listening to his brother-in-law’s polka band at the Holiday party every year and employees begin to share ideas for fixing or improving things that management didn’t realize were broken.

Potentially Catastrophic Experiment #2 – Creative Destruction

This experiment involves taking an existing corporate policy, something like the company dress code, ‘official’ working hours, or bereavement leave rules; placing a printed copy of said policy in a fire safe container (a cheap metal trash can works), igniting said policy, and observing the burn. Once the policy has been reduced to ash, hold a symbolic scattering of the ashes on the company grounds. Repeat on a weekly basis with a new policy while simultaneously monitoring sales, profits, and productivity.

Possible side effects : smoke alarms being set off when the old copies of the employee handbook from 1978 are burned and dramatic reduction in complaints to HR about ‘bad smelling’ colleagues.

Potentially Catastrophic Experiment #3 – What Silence Reveals

This is an interesting experiment that examines the effect of silence, electronic silence to be precise. Take a day, or an afternoon if an entire day seems too potentially revolutionary, and ask that all employees disconnect from e-mail and (gasp) actually devote their time, attention, and energy to thinking, building, creating, or (and this is really the scary bit) talking to each other. Sure, keep the customer support email account active, and make sure that products are getting shipped and payments are getting received (but honestly, the people responsible for important things like that are not on e-mail all day anyway).

An offshoot to the ‘silence’ experiment is the ‘Candidate Communication Campaign‘.  For one week acknowledge every online application received, inform all candidates of changes in the status of their applications and the progress of the search, and ensure all qualified prospects that are not hired are given the option to stay connected to the organization to be informed of future opportunities.


Possible side effects : Reduction in employee medical claims for BlackBerry thumb, increased bottled water consumption as employees actually chat around the water cooler, and generalized withdrawal symptoms.

Now, if all this sounds scary and dangerous… maybe it should. Science can be a messy thing.  Heck, when I tried the Hadron collider in the microwave trick, I knocked out the power on my side of the street. So, if you get nervous? Start small.  Take just one page out of a random HR or corporate policy and see if anyone notices.  Go ahead, no one is watching…

Felt good, didn’t it?  Now go blow something up.