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Secrets of Human-Capital Management 【April 2014】

The one tip theory of learning

By David Creelman


You often hear managers say that if they get one good idea out of a conference then it will be worth it. That is a testimony to the power of a good idea; but don’t you find that profoundly inefficient? Why spend two days to get one tip?

Is the same true of the expensive training programs we put on? Do managers walk away only a tiny bit better than when they went in? Do they only remember one thing when we tried to impart dozens of important insights?

I draw three conclusions:

• The idea that one tip is enormously powerful is worth thinking about. Perhaps we should design our training more explicitly around teaching one thing, not many.
• A lot goes on in conferences beyond picking up that one tip; and it may be that the chance for reflection is what adds the most value.
• Training and conferences are inefficient; we should be able to do better.

Teaching one tip
It is a useful principle for all our training that rather than thinking of all the things we would like to communicate, we should identify just the two or three tips that matter most and ruthlessly refine those. In the work of Michael Bungay Stanier, who runs Box of Crayons, there is a constant theme of finding the ‘essence of situation’ and concentrating on that. With coaching, he emphasizes just a few principles such as: Be Curious (stop giving so much advice) and Be Often (stop waiting to coach). Those of us with too many years of university education may prefer more complicated models. What is magical however, is taking a big messy subject like coaching and finding the essence.

Beyond the one tip
I suspect the real value of a conference is not so much the one tip you retain, it is the chance it gives your brain to process what it already knows. Getting away from the busy work of the office allows people the time and perspective to chew over their business issues. The specific content of training may not matter much as long as it is sufficiently provocative to get people thinking about important things and not just wondering what’s for lunch.

This is not just an apology for our current approaches to learning; it also implies we should be building in lots of time for conversation, reflection and even day-dreaming. Henry Mintzberg says “Thoughtful reflection on natural experience, in the light of conceptual ideas, is the most powerful tool we have for management learning.” This is a principle we can adopt for many of our learning interventions.

Doing better
The main reason we have conferences and class room training is that in days of yore, getting groups together was the only way we could do training. Now, with the mobile internet, we can provide opportunities for learning any place any time. The success of TEDtalks is a testament to the power of short chunks of learning. Our training department may want to shift most of their budget from workshops to short learning interventions, to think of training as a series of “that one great tip that made the conference worthwhile”.

If you are learning calculus then the one tip theory of learning is not going to get you there. However for most managerial learning we want reflection, day dreaming, conversation and a daily stream of five minute segments delivering ‘one tip’.



David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at