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Pipe Cleaner Team Building Game

I just happened upon the Pipe Cleaner Team Building Game, a popular  STEM development challenge created by Dr. Laura Bottomley & Heather Smolensky, of NCSU.  I quickly read through the very clever facilitation notes, and thought the game would also be an excellent, low-cost team building activity for adults.

With the plethora of team building games available out there, I got to thinking about what makes this one so appealing. It isn’t just the low cost and ready availability of the supplies, but rather the care taken to construct a scenario–a reason for playing. In the case of the Pipe Cleaner Challenge, the situation is fun, engaging, believable, and can be easily be applied to real-life situations. In fact, many of my favorite team building games share these characteristics:

FUN: Creating a scenario that’s different from people’s day-to-day work challenges will free players to “try-on” different roles and approaches. People are more likely to take risks when they are playing a low-stakes game, rather than trying to prove themselves in a job they already do. Moreover, the more fun and creative the scenario, the freer your group will feel to take risks.

ENGAGING & BELIEVABLE : Beyond taking the time to create a story line that brings the challenge to life, stay “in character,” layering on additional  detail and nuance to your story line.

APPLICABLE: For any team activity, the true learning comes in the debrief, when you take the time to break down the details of what happened and why. Identify and discuss the productive behaviors that led to success and the actions may have side-tracked the team.

The challenge

In this quick, 10-minute exercise, teams of “engineers” are challenged to build the tallest free-standing structure possible with only 15 pipe cleaners.

The facilitation

First 2-4 minutes: tell the teams “there have been budget cuts and each team member must place one arm behind their back!”

Next few minutes:  stop the teams again and explain, “as engineers, you work in a global marketplace where people speak different languages. To symbolize this challenge, you can no longer speak.”

Final 1-2 minutes: tell the teams that “business is booming and you now have the funds to hire translators, so you can speak again!”

The debrief

After a team building game, ask questions such as: if they all had similar ideas at first; how they came to agreement; the way they developed a process for building; ideas for how they could do a better job; roles  they each played; was it helpful or detrimental to have (or not have) a leader; etc.

Access the full facilitation notes here.

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