How cheating at school made me more effective at work

Busted.  I could feel the blood rushing to my face as our Professor casually asked Jack and I to stay after class for a chat.  It was Sedimentary Geology 101, a required class for Petroleum Engineers, but not a favorite.  We were aiming to become engineers and many of us resented being forced to study geology.  “It’s not a real science like physics or chemistry” we’d grumble. “You could never recreate the conditions of millions of years ago to test your theories so you’d always be guessing!”  We were typical engineers; math and physics focused with little time for what we considered “pseudo science”.  So when presented with a lab that was frankly impossible to get done in the time allotted to us, we teamed up and collaborated.

This was an assessed lab that counted towards our grade.  The task: sketch and describe 100 rock samples in 3 hours.  We quickly did the math in our heads (we were typical engineers).  “That’s 1 minute 48 seconds per sample.  Impossible!”.  Then Jack and I looked at each other and light bulbs went off.  It was as if our minds were connected and brilliant ideas were flowing forth.  “Ok, you take the first 50, I’ll take the second 50.  We’ll get back together with 30 minutes to go and collect our work together.”  Brilliant! And we almost got away with it.

As the rest of the class made their way to leave, Jack and I made our way to the front of the class.  The Professor had our lab reports laid out on the desk with both of them open to the same page.  Sample number 50, the first one I sketched and described, was at the top of the page with a big red circle around it.  Jack’s report was also open to the same page, with the same big red circle.  I can see the sample clear in my mind nearly 2 decades later.  It was a set of small ripples, deposited on a slow flowing river bed.  Ripples are asymmetrical, indicating the direction of water flow in the river.  This was easy for me to answer. I had grown up in the water and observed this very phenomenon at a young age.  However, in my excitement to get started, I had draw the direction of flow the wrong way.  Jack’s lab report showed the same, obviously, and the Professor pointed out that we were the only two in the class to get this one wrong.  This caught her attention and she started comparing our reports.  Busted.  We were sure that we’d be kicked out of the university for this.

The Professor listened to our pleas for mercy, our explanations and our excuses.  She admitted that the task was impossible, and that in fact very few people had completed it.  That was the point.  Then I asked her “Prof, why are we here?  Why are Jack and I attending this University?”.  She replied as though she was stating the obvious “I assume you’re here to learn geology?”.  I replied “Well, not just that but can we agree that Jack and I are here to learn?”  She seemed to accept that as a given so I pushed on asking “What is that last time you really learned something?  When you had a real a-ha moment?”  She decided to entertain this question and thought for a few moments before replying “Last month I was describing a core for a client and couldn’t piece together one section.  It just didn’t make sense.  I was talking it through with my colleague and he saw things differently.  After a few hours we had a clear explanation.”  Perfect, that was exactly what I was looking for so I replied “so you learnt from one of your peers by collaborating with them?”

She saw where I was heading and quickly added that she was not competing with her peers for grades.  I countered that we agreed that the objective of the class was to learn, not to compete, and that Jack and I would never forget the direction of flow indicated by ripples as long as we lived.  She agreed that I had a point, then gave us zero for the lab report and made us promise never to cheat again.  She did not report us to the Dean, which surely would have resulted in expulsion but we did notice that future assessments became much more collaborative.  She started encouraging us to work in teams and learn from one another.

This lesson stuck with me as I entered the work force as an engineer.  While others would focus on the work, I would focus on the objective of the work.  How could I achieve the objective as fast a possible with the least work possible.  I never forgot that as a a team, Jack and I were able to complete the “impossible” lab by collaborating, by leveraging each others work.  Yes, we got a zero on the lab but I still learned from it, which was the ultimate objective of University after all.   These days, I have a renewed respect for Geology and love the interpretive nature of the science.

A few years into my career I was asked to write an extensive reservoir management plan for a new field the company was starting up.  I gathered all the equivalent documents that had been written for other fields, comparing and contrasting the approach being taken at each of the company’s fields.  I questioned the differences, called the experts on these topics, assessed what was appropriate to my field then copied and pasted the best parts of each.  Using mostly other people’s work, I had an 80% completed product within a few days and my boss was shocked.  He expected the project to take about 2 months with countless meetings and drafts.  My first draft incorporated the collective learnings of all the smart people that had come before me, allowing our team to spend more time on thinking through the sections that were really important to our field.  The result was an exceptionally well thought-out plan.  But I’m sure the next one was even better.  When we build on the knowledge and work of those that came before us, we become more effective and can achieve what originally seemed impossible.

Unfortunately, most organizations save files in a maze called the “Shared Drive” and communicate via email where knowledge is marooned in the inboxes of individuals.  I’ve not forgotten the lesson I learned all those years ago, that collaboration and knowledge sharing is the key to effectiveness.  That’s why I started Exigo.  We help teams in oil and gas be more productive.  Our message, file and information sharing app frees knowledge that would otherwise be marooned in email inboxes, capturing it for the benefit of the whole company.  We want you to be the best you can be by helping you leverage the knowledge of your entire organization.

Exigo – Collaborate. Execute. Deliver.

By | 2016-09-28T17:32:27+00:00 September 28th, 2016|News and Musings|0 Comments

About the Author:

Rohan is Co-Founder and CEO of Exigo. A petroleum engineer by background, he has spent the past 10+ years working for oil and gas operators in Australia, India, the Middle East, California and Texas. Rohan holds a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Western Australia and a Master of Petroleum Engineering from the University of Southern California. In his spare time, Rohan enjoys interviewing the leaders and legends of the Oil and Gas industry on his podcast Crude Conversations.