The Mad-Scientist-Meets-MacGyver Approach to Solving Impossible Problems

crazy chemist with cure

How do you solve a seemingly impossible problem? Sometimes the answer is to try something that sounds a little nuts. This is an approach that has worked well for Dave McKinney, the VP of HR at C.H. Robinson, who also spent 23 years at Nike. One of his first bosses described him as part mad scientist and part MacGyver: Ready to take the risky, uncharted course but also able to quickly build something elaborate out of whatever’s at hand.

Dave says these two personas work hand in hand. As a mad scientist, he often has “wacky” ideas he wants to try. But to sell the organization on his idea, he finds a way to jerry-rig a prototype first, often on a shoestring budget.

A MacGyvering mad scientist is unusual in a leader, but McKinney’s specialty is mixing duct-tape ingenuity with a futuristic dreamer to get results. McKinney explains below how he balances those roles to create short-term results and build in long-term sustainability.


Mad scientists know that any solution can be used in a new, unexpected way. They’re the people who do crazy-sounding things like repurposing game controllers to train medical students.

I love finding new ways to use existing ideas. For example, when I needed to find out which leaders were the key developers of talent in the organization, I wound up looking to the world of sports.

People in the organization had a general impression of who was good at developing talent, but there was no data to back it up. I needed to change that. That’s when I came across an NFL coaching tree showing which coaches spun off the most successful leaders.

I noticed that one coach mentored several assistant coaches who went on to coach elsewhere but who weren’t particularly successful, while another coach produced more successes. My mad scientist idea was to create a tree that showed which leaders at Nike were successfully creating new leaders.

But to bring that tree to life, I needed my MacGyver side, because we had no tools to build it. We had to figure out how to display it, how to talk about it, and how to gather the data. And we needed to cobble together something from our available tech and talent that would get people in the organization interested enough to fund it.

First, we extracted some data from our system, filling in the gaps by interviewing leaders about their history with the company. Then, we looked for a compelling way to display our data. The coaching tree I’d seen was beautiful, but it was custom-drawn, which wasn’t practical. So we found free software designed to identify critical social networking hubs and social connections and downloaded our data into that to create a presentation, which leadership loved.

Once we got leadership’s buy-in, that’s when I switched back to mad scientist mode and looked for sustainable ideas to improve upon my MacGyvered presentation. We eventually found some subscription software that gave us great results while using fewer resources.

That’s the balance: Mad scientist your ideas and MacGyver a prototype. Then, mad scientist your prototype into something built to last.

The most important thing is to get something working regardless of what mode you’re in. Often, projects, products, or programs get hung up on trying to be 100% perfect out of the gate. I go for the 85% solution. We can make it better later, but first, we just have to make it.

You also need to accept that there will be trial and error and you’re not going to have 100% success. I’ve had ideas fail spectacularly. Once, during a significant organizational restructure, we tried to bring in new tools to help us monitor and track proposed changes across the organization. I thought the tools would help us eliminate redundant work and allow us to track the changes accurately.

After a week and a half spending more time trying to make the tool work versus actually working with the tool, we had to pull the plug and go back to tracking changes in an “old-fashioned” spreadsheet. It’s important to recognize that your solution might be causing more problems than it’s solving.If that’s the case, you need to figure out if you can fix it quickly, or if it’s time to move on. You just need to recognize when it’s time to pull the plug. If you succeed often enough, people will roll with your failures.

That’s why it’s so important to leverage the skills and expertise of the people around you. I used to have an office with whiteboards on all the walls, and I would make terrible, crazy drawings. Members of my team would come in, erase my drawings, and draw what I really wanted—and it would be way better than what I had in my head. That iteration of ideas is crucial, especially when you’re going from that MacGyver stage to the more sustainable side of things. You need different perspectives and points of view on what you’re doing.

Never oversell a MacGyver product. Be clear that it’s a prototype. The tricky part is creating something so good that they want it all the time and then convincing them to invest in a sustainable solution. MacGyvering is never built to last. People thrilled by what you show them are often less thrilled when you tell them the investment needed to make it a regular thing.

You want to MacGyver it just enough to wow them into investing in your mad scientist. If you can hit that balance, it’s amazing what you can create.

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