Some Lessons From Biology
The Technology Steward and Communities of Practice

A Great Teambuilding Exercise

Sass Hat asks:

"A small nonprofit organization I assist on occasion is in the midst of a communication crisis among the members of its very small (<10) staff - infighting and communication breakdowns are happening with increasing frequency. I suggested they try some team building/communication exercises to get the (highly stressed) staff members to open up and understand each other a bit better.

They asked me to try to find some resources for them online, as they don't have a budget to bring in an outside consultant or anything fancy like that. I've googled around and found a lot of garbage - do you have any tried and true resources you could share with me? Bonus points for direct links to materials like worksheets and activities. TIA!"

I'm a big believer in experiential exercises as the best way to teach appropriate team behavior. Ideally I'm able to do this by facilitating a team through a project and during the project helping them focus on their communication and conflict resolution skills. But in the absence of that kind of time or as an introduction to team building, I've had tremendous success using "The Puzzle Exercise."

The activity takes about an hour to do and works well with groups of all sizes, although it's better if the group is under 50. In it, team members participate in putting together simple puzzles, but there are several twists to what they're doing that ultimately lead them to the realization (among others) that even when we think that we're working in teams, we have a tendency to compete.

This exercise has always resulted in several "AHA!" moments for participants and some really hilarious, sometimes disturbing behavior that's great for learning. It's easy to do and the materials you need for it are minimal.

If you're interested in using it for a team-building session, I'm including a download here. If you have any questions on how to run it, let me know.

Download puzzle_activity_lesson_plan.doc


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Hello Michelle,
I would like your permission to add this puzzle activity to my collection of Leadership Lesson Plans
Although I use these for teaching leadership to Grade 8's some of them are very usable with adults too. I have both participated in, and led this puzzle activity before, but don't have it written up.
May I have your permission to add the puzzle activity?

Also, this is a fantastic resource that I have used countless times:
Click on the teacher's guide. I reread the "Getting Started" and "Guide for Leading Initiative" sections again and again- before running activities. Hope this helps!
[ps. my blog upgraded a short time ago and I have been having a few html issues- you may need to scroll down to see the activities on my files page.]

I e-mailed with David about this, but also just wanted to make clear to anyone who wants to use the exercise that it's covered under my CC 2.5 license, which means you're free to use it under those terms.

Michelle some great tips and team buiding suggestions. Thanks for sharing.

Great! Glad these helped!

For me it's a nice find. Thank you for sharing your brilliant idea. While I was reading the article, I remembered one activity we had in one of our team buidling sessions. I don't remember the exact process but it's more of a conflict resolution activity which targets I guess communication aspect of the organization.


Michele, I used your team building exercise in a supervisor's meeting this morning and it went so well! Since there were only 7 participants I ran it with each individual getting their own 24 piece kid's puzzle. I only slightly adapted your instructions, switching ALL the boxes of puzzles instead of just two. Also, two members of the group didn't show up and they were still expected to solve all the puzzles, I got to show how what happens when a team member isn't present.

Thank you so much for this, I can't wait to use it again!

Hi Marianne--so glad to hear that this worked well. I have to tell you that it's one of my favorite all-time activities and I learn/experience something new every time. I've used it with "adults" and with students--and should add that the students are usually much less competitive! Love that you were able to incorporate the real-life issue of having some people not show up and how that impacts the work! Thanks for sharing!

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