Posts Tagged ‘training games’


the string game

There seem to be a number of myths about learning: that it’s fun, that it comes naturally, that once you learn something you never forget it (like learning to ride a bike), that it’s gratifying –  its own reward. The truth is, learning is hell, (which was the alternative title for this post).

We often ask our trainee innovation faciliators to solve a problem we call the string game. We ask them to “manacle” themselves with a piece of string, and then link themselves to a partner by threading one person’s “chain” through their partner’s before securing their wrist. The objective is to separate from your partner without untying or breaking the string, and without slipping the “cuffs” off your wrist. The overall purpose of the exercise is to get people to think about why people need facilitators when they are required to work with other people.

The exercise usually goes like this:
  1. Each pair will start by confidently trying to twist themselves free of each other. They will persist with this strategy even when it’s clearly not succeeding because it’s sort of fun.
  2. Frustration sets in: from total confidence that the puzzle can be solved in a jiffy each pair will declare the challenge impossible. We haven’t got all day, so I tell them it isn’t. They twist and turn some more.
  3. After a while I ask them to stop and define the problem. Someone obligingly describes it as being like trying to separate two links in a chain. This prompts me to challenge them to re-examine and re-frame the problem: “But is it two links?”
  4. They figure out that the solution might have something to do with the loops around their wrists. One pair manages to free themselves from each other. I ask them to tie themselves together again and solve the problem again. None of the other pairs is ever interested in watching the pair that’s solved the problem do it again. Sometimes the successful pair actively tries to conceal the solution from the other pairs.
  5. 50% of the time the pair that’s trying to replicate their solution only succeeds in further twisting up their strings together rather than freeing themselves.

fig.2 emotional ups and downs during the string game

In fig.2 I have tried to describe the emotional states people typically go through during the string game: it takes about 3 minutes to go from total confidence to frustration through to hopelessness; there is a split-second high when you solve the problem which is often accompanied by a Homer Simpson forehead-slapping “d’oh!” moment, after which you stop caring very much, especially when you discover that the solution is quite hard to replicate and learn.

Here are 10 of my conclusions from my anthropological observations of the string game:

  1. People don’t seem to want to learn from each other. They’d rather worry away at a problem on their own rather than see if anyone else has a solution. In fact, in some cultures that would be considered copying or cheating.
  2. People are jealous of  and secretive about their solutions and don’t want to share. Points 1 & 2 seem to go against what David Attenborough says about mammals, that our competitive advantage derives from our ability to teach and learn from each other.
  3. Learning is an emotional roller-coaster. You can experience feelings of confidence, frustratration, hopelessness and, once you’ve found the solution, you may feel like an idiot for not having seen the blindingly obvious answer.
  4. At first the problem seems familiar and the solution obvious, then it seems that this is a new problem with no solution, and most people are ready to give up at this point, and will without some encouragement.
  5. The initial assumptions people make about the problem they are trying to solve are always wrong. I believe this to be a universal truth, although it doesn’t apply to my own assumptions.
  6. If the problem really was “to separate two links of a chain” then the solution people immediately opt for, to try and twist themselves out of the link, is clearly doomed. This in no way affects their initial supreme confidence that they know what to do.
  7. Once you’ve found out what the solution is, it’s often difficult to replicate, and if you do it wrong, you can actually make the situation worse.
  8. If you don’t use the solution regularly you forget it. Faced with exactly the same game six months later, people have no recollection of what the solution is.
  9. Teaching the solution to others is difficult (not least because of points 1 and 2). A manual would probably help, but who reads those?
  10. Calling something a game does not make it fun.

This challenge is a lot like some types of problem one encounters in life (I wonder if there’s such a thing as a taxonomy of different problems?). Certain kinds of situations and tools require regular practice or exposure to really learn how to deal with them.  Things from my life that spring to mind are card games, HTML, Excel; using the computer to watch TV and manage DVDs and video and audio files is a lot more complicated than just using a TV and a DVD player and this is one of the areas where I struggle for technological independence from my partner. Come to think of it, skill sets such as facilitation would fall into this category.  Facilitation requires constant experimentation, learning and practice – and if you do it wrong, you can make things worse.


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