The Grocery Box Packing Challenge @ Conversion Hotel 21

Charles Meaden and Ton Wessling at Conversion Hotel

Of all the conferences that I attend, Conversion Hotel is my favourite. 48 hours on the Dutch island of Texel, great speakers and the chance to chat with some of the smartest minds in the industry means it’s worth every penny

At the 2019 conference, Arnout Hellemans and I hosted a unconference session called “What can we keen cooks take from our experiments in the kitchens and apply to our clients sites”. We’d realised a lot of people in CRO industry were also keen cooks, and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to chat about cooking and food

As part of the session , I asked the question, “How many of you repack the dishwasher when your partner goes to bed?” and 20 out of the 30 attendees put their hands up. What then followed was an animated conversation on what was the best way to pack a dishwasher.

The Original Dishwasher Packing Idea

The mastermind behind Conversion Hotel,Ton Wessling then suggested that at the next Conversion Hotel we run the dishwasher challenge. All we needed to do was source an old dishwasher and he’d put a room aside.

Covid19 meant that Conversion Hotel 2020 didn’t happen, so everything was set up to run this at Conversion Hotel 2021.

Just as I was getting ready to fly out from the UK, a WhatsApp from Arnout arrived announcing he’d got Covid and therefore couldn’t come, which was terrible news we were all looking forward to catching up with him. The other minor catch was that he had the dishwasher

Time to Pivot

With no Arnout and no dishwasher, the easy route would have been to not run any session at all.

But with so many great minds around, I thought we must be able to come up with something similar.

It was my wife, Meagan Tudge who came up with the idea of packing a box full of different groceries. As she pointed out it requires similar skills to packing a dishwasher.

The dream team of Tim Stewart, Abi Hough and Daphne Tideman and Arnout (via WhatsApp) then helped me to refine the idea. This included several trips to the local Jumbo supermarket to work out what we needed to purchase

Conversion Hotel Box Packing Dream Team

After several iterations, we came up with the following

The Grocery Box Packing Challenge

The aim of the challenge was to pack the grocery box as neatly as possible within a certain time frame.

Each participant would be judged on how well they packed the box

As the pictures below show, there were around 30 items of different sizes that had to go into the box

To make things more fun, we added some interesting items

  1. A cream cake in a rectangular box (fragile)
  2. Celeriac (even stranger shape)
  3. Basil plant (fragile / strange shape)
  4. Prawn crackers (even easier to break)

Participants could then choose to pack the box

  1. With their eyes open in 21 seconds
  2. With their eyes closed in 60 seconds

Over the afternoon, around 30 people took part in the challenge

So what lessons could we learn from this?

Lesson #1: There is no ‘best’ way to pack the box

As with dishwashers, everyone had their own way of packing the box.

We told everyone that we’d be judging their box packing based on a couple of rules

  • How many items did they manage to get into the box in the timescale
  • How many items got damaged
  • How did they stack the items

Apart from the people who ‘flexed’ the rules (see Lesson 2), there were some very creative ways to pack the box once people had realised that two things needed to happen

  1. The heavy bulky items such as tin cans and the celeriac had to go on the bottom
  2. The more fragile items such as the cream cake, prawn crackers and the basil plant had to go near the top

Ton box packing


Lesson #2: Optimisers will always find loopholes

We really shouldn’t be surprised by this

While we’d made it really clear that we’d be judging them on how well packed the box is, the third participant placed the box on the floor and pushed all the items into the box.

While no prizes for them as the fragile items were at the bottom, gold star for initiative and fast packing

This meant the rules to evolve to catch all the edge cases.

Lesson #3: Past experience gives an advantage

One of the first participants, David Weaver managed to pack all the items into the boxes both eyes open and closed. He revealed that as a teenager, he’d packed boxes in the local supermarket and clearly the skills had never left him

Lesson #4: System 2 thinking sucks when you need to pack quickly

Most people started off with trying to pack the box with their eyes open as they assumed it would be easier

We had deliberately chosen 21 seconds for two reasons

  1. People are not very good at estimating how long it is in their minds
  2. It’s 2021, so it seemed appropriate

With 30 items to pack into the box, there is virtually no time to stop and think about where items should go.

This is where System 1 and System 2 thinking came into play

System 1 and 2 comes from the work by Nobel prize winning Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and popularised by his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”

A good example of this asking someone to add 4+3, which they can do straight away without having to think about it. That’s system 1 thinking.

Ask them to subtract 39 from 103 and they need to stop and work it out. That’s system 2 thinking

It soon became clear, that once people stopped to think about their packing choices, there was no way to complete the challenge in 21 seconds.

One of the best examples  was the cream cake in the rectangular box.

Because of it’s shape, people would

  • Instinctively place in the box first
  • Realise that it was fragile
  • Stop and take it out

By this time, precious seconds had been lost which meant they couldn’t complete the challenge in time.

Our favourite though was the person who picked up the bread and uttered the words “Hmmm, Baguette’ thus losing precious seconds, but the gained most laughs in the whole event

Because it’s so hard not to think about the choices, only 3 people managed to successfully complete the ‘eyes open’ challenge in 21 seconds

While the 60 second ‘eyes closed’ challenge seemed harder as you didn’t know what was in front of you (at your first attempt), you had more time to deploy System 2 thinking.

Box being packed

Lesson #5: People learn fast and adapt quickly

While some people only tried it once, there was a hardcore of 10 people who kept on trying the challenge, two or more times.

These ten quickly worked out the best option was the ‘eyes closed’ challenge as it gave them more time.

While the items were rearranged each time, they quickly learnt by touch which items were which and whether they should go into the box at the beginning, middle or end

Prize to the most persistent participant goes to Marijn Kuiper who did the challenge ten times and ended up winning the prize for the best ‘eyes closed’ packing

Lesson #6: Team building doesn’t need to cost big bucks

Several people said that they would run this as team building exercise in their organisation

  • They’d had a lot of fun
  • It would be something unexpected that their teams hadn’t done before
  • That it was really fascinating to see how each person approached

One additional factor, is that it’s a really cheap exercise as all you need is a box and some groceries

Dishwashers Next Year

Covid permitting, Arnout and I will hopefully be back at Conversion Hotel 2022, this time with a dishwasher

Hope to see you there

Big thanks to Michael Aagaard for the excellent photos