In advance, draw up a large box divided into nine smaller squares, and write the numbers 1 to 9 inside them.
Challenge your group to identify the ‘key’ that unlocks the solution behind what number you are secretly thinking of.
Announce that everyone will know the solution in about five to ten minutes.
The key (to knowing what number you are thinking of) is the position you hold the marker the first time you place it inside any one of the squares of the box.
This position will equate to one of the nine invisible tiny squares, which will represent the particular number inside the smaller squares you have chosen.
To start, tell your group that you are secretly thinking of a number and you want them to identify which number it is.
For the first time, place your marker in any one of the smaller squares (deliberately on the position of the invisible tiny square which equates to the number you are thinking,) and say “AM I THINKING OF THIS NUMBER?”
Your group may answer Yes or No.
Keep placing your marker randomly on a series of the smaller squares (it doesn’t matter what position,) until you finally land on your secret number, at which point you announce that, in fact, this WAS your secret number.
Repeat this process for many rounds, remembering to always place your marker the first time on the tiny invisible square belonging to your number.
Gradually introduce more and more obvious clues, until everyone picks up on the ‘key.’
Video Transcript for Magic Nine Numbers
presented by Mark Collard
This will invite you to identify what is it that I’m doing. There’s a particular thing that’s happening. You might familiar with lateral thinkers or What’s The Key. It’s effectively something like that.
So there’s something I’m going to do every single time, and your objective is to try and find out what that is.
So for example I’m thinking of a number and you just need to say whether it is that number or not that I’m thinking of. So for example is it, is it number eight? Am I thinking number eight? Now at this point it’s trial and error. You have no clue what’s going on so feel free to say whatever, but do you think it’s number eight that I’m thinking of?
No. Why would I start with the number I’m thinking of? It’s much harder than that. So let’s go is it number five?
No, it’s not number five. What about number seven?
What about number four?
It is number four. Well done.
(people playing Magic Nine Numbers)
Now it’s either a fluke or you happen to know what’s going on. So without telling anyone else, like psst this is what he’s doing, allow them to discover it. Within a couple of minutes you will all know what’s happening. Okay?
Once you get it I’ll test your expertise in this area and see if you can actually replicate it. Alright so I’ve a new number in mind. Is it number five?
Definitely not number five. Okay, is it number three?
(people thinking about Magic Nine Numbers)
Yes it is. It is number three? Alright I have a new number in mind. Is it hmm, is it number seven?
Yes it is number seven. Now it’s possible Teck Kwang that you actually have a theory that’s working because you’ve said yes a couple times when it was the number. So let me just check the theory. So anyone else has a system that seems to be working? Okay, alright.
This is a clue, but Teck Kwang you tell me the number I’m thinking.
(Mark points to the number one, as part of Magic Nine Numbers.)
(people playing Magic Nine Numbers)
It is the number eight I was thinking. Alright, let try to test that again, and this is another clue. What number am I thinking?
(Mark points to the number eight, as part of Magic Nine Numbers.)
Yes it is number five. Now there’s something in what’s happening that will identify the number I’m thinking. Alright, let’s go to the original version.
I’m going to make this more and more obvious now.
I’m thinking of a number, is it number two? Yes or no?
No, definitely not number two. Is it number five?
Nope, not number five. Is it number nine? Yes or no?
(people trying to solve the Magic Nine Numbers)
No, but thank you for playing. Is it number seven?
Yes, it is number seven.
Okay, the clues are getting very big now. If you’re in the world of I didn’t see it when it was only small how could I see it when it’s even big? Don’t worry it’s about to be revealed. Alright so I have a new number in mind.
Is it number one?
Definitely not number one. Is it number two?
Nope. Is it number nine?
No. Is it number seven?
Yes, it is number seven. I’d like you to imagine that for each one of these squares there is nine squares, and start again. There’s still more to come, but that may be enough for you to get across the edge.
I have a new number in mind. Is it number four?
No. Is it number two?
No. Number eight?
Yes, definitely number six. In the concept of these nine squares it was definitely number six.
(people thinking about Magic Nine Numbers)
Alright, final round, you’re about to get it.
Again tell me whether it is the number of not. If you don’t have it at this point you’re in exactly the right place, that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be.
I have a new number in mind. Is it number two?
Definitely not number two. Is it number seven?
What about eight?
What about five?
Yes, definitely number five. Okay, answer those folks who have a theory that is working at this point. Well done, okay.
For those who don’t want to know the solution go la-la-la-la-la, or just listen to the tent for a moment, because here it comes.
What’s the kicker? What’s the key? For those who have a theory that’s working, what’s the key?
(Position of where you point.)
(The first time.)
(people understanding how to play Magic Nine Numbers)
First time. So the first time I place my pen on a square, note where I place it. So, for example, I say “I’ve got a number and I’m thinking of it right now. Is it number eight?” Where I’m positioning it is where?
It’s in the seventh box of that particular box remembering each one of these can be broken up into nine spaces. So the very first one, it didn’t matter after that. So on this occasion, the key was wherever I placed my pen the first time, didn’t matter what I did after that, that was the clue. And sometimes I went straight to it. For example…
(That was the clue, the number you were thinking?)
Yup, that was the clue of the number I was thinking. So right now I might go straight to it though. I’ve got a new number is it number four?
Yes, because I went straight for the number four, not a quadrant, but the ninth of that particular square.
Everyone got that?
How To Play Narrative
This Magic Nine Numbers exercise is a classic lateral-thinker, which can be designed to feature one of dozens of ‘keys’ to be solved (see Variations tab for options.)
In advance, draw up a large box divided into nine smaller squares (see illustration) and write the numbers 1 to 9 inside them. You may present this on a whiteboard, or flip-chart paper, a large piece of card, no matter. Just make it large enough that everyone in your group can see it.
Explain that you are about to present an exercise in which everyone will know the solution in about five to ten minutes. However, in the meantime, each person is challenged to identify the secret ‘key’ that unlocks the solution.
That is, instruct each person – individually – to identify that action or ‘thing’ that you do in exactly the same way every time which will point to the solution.
It’s okay if a few people look a bit vague at this point, once you get going, this will pass. Or get worse, if they do not pick up on the key quickly.
Now, here’s the key I often adopt (don’t share this with your group, just yet.)
First of all, you need to imagine that every one of the nine smaller squares can be divided into nine invisible tiny squares (I’m being deliberate in my language here.)
Wherever you place the marker or stick you are holding the first time you place it inside a square, this position will equate to one of the nine invisible tiny squares, which will be the ‘key’ to indicate which of the nine numbers inside the smaller squares you have chosen.
For example, if I touch into the bottom left-hand corner of a particular smaller square (doesn’t matter which one of the nine smaller squares I do this,) this will equate to the tiny square in which the number 7 belongs relative to all other numbers.
Or, if I touch the middle top of a particular smaller square, I will have indicated the tiny square in which number 2 is situated relative to all other numbers.
Do you get it? Just writing these last couple of paragraphs was tough enough, so I can appreciate that you maybe a little confused. Fair enough. Check the Video Tutorial and it will become clearer.
So, back to your presentation…
Announce to your group that you are secretly thinking of a number in your head, and you want the group to identify which number it is. At this point, for the first time, you place your marker in any one of the smaller squares (deliberately on the position of the tiny square which equates to the number you are thinking,) and say “AM I THINKING OF THIS NUMBER?”
Tell your group that the answer is either Yes or No.
It is rare for anyone to know the correct answer straight off the bat.
Keep placing your marker randomly on more of the smaller squares, until you finally land on the number you are thinking, at which point you announce that, in fact, this WAS the number you were thinking.
Note, it does not matter where you place your marker after the first time. This key only relates to the position you place your marker the first time you ask the question “AM I THINKING OF THIS NUMBER?”
You’ll need to repeat this process for many rounds (remembering to always place your marker the first time on the tiny square belonging to your number) before someone, hopefully, cracks the code.
Once you’re aware that a few people in your group have identified the ‘key,’ test their theory by placing your marker on any smaller square, and asking them “WHAT NUMBER AM I THINKING OF NOW?”
By virtue of the position your marker is placed inside the invisible tiny squares, these smarty-pants will either know the correct answer or not.
To speed things along a bit, gradually introduce more and more obvious clues. For example, I may circle my marker on the area of the tiny square inside the smaller square to give a hint. Or better still, trace out a square of the invisible tiny square to really highlight the key.
One by one, as more clues are provided, you should expect your whole group to finally pick up on the ‘key.’
As a final flourish, I like to place my marker anywhere inside any smaller square, and ask “WHAT NUMBER AM I THINKING OF NOW?” and enjoy the whole group responding in unison.
Practical Leadership Tips
Note, the key as described here is the position of the marker inside the smaller square the FIRST time you place it inside the box. It does not matter where the marker is placed later in the round.
This is an ideal game to play to occupy your group during those dreaded moments of down-time.
As a lateral-thinking exercise, this game is ideal for sparking critical thinking in your group. People have to look beyond what is obvious and discover another truth. As you can imagine, the connections one can draw from the experience of looking for the ‘key’ to the real world are many. For example, I like to connect the fact that while the ‘key’ is very subtle, it impacts significantly on the solution, in much the same way that subtle glances and mannerisms in a training group or classroom can often have a significant impact on people’s learning.
Please note, the point of lateral-thinking types of activities should not be to frustrate your group beyond enjoyment. They are designed to be fun, but don’t play for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Gradually introduce more and more obvious clues so that, eventually, everyone gets the ‘key.’
Ask your group to resist the urge to share the ‘key’ with others once they work it out. Assure everyone that they will ALL know the solution within, say, ten minutes, and it’s more powerful to discover the solution on their own, than have someone tell them the answer. Besides, whispering the answer to a neighbour only reinforces the fact that they couldn’t do it without help, and getting it will not change their lives.
That said, be aware that some people will reel at the very thought of trying to solve this sort of puzzle, because it involves ‘lateral-thinking.’ Often, these folk have had very negative experiences in the past with this sort of exercise, ie when the puzzle is worked on for hours, or perhaps the solution is never revealed. So, be prepared that some people will immediately ‘check-out’ of this exercise. To this end, note my comments below:
Be very careful in your language. Note two important factors in the presentation I describe above:
– The task is to identify what the ‘key’ is. This exercise has nothing to do with guessing one of nine numbers – rather, it seeks to sharpen observation skills and heighten awareness of subtlety.
– Everyone is aware that they will know the answer very soon. This is critical to maintain interest, lest some people (often those who never ‘get’ these sorts of puzzles) lose interest very quickly.
Do not present more than one or two of these types of puzzles in a row – seldom do the people who didn’t get it the first time, get it the second time.
You could integrate Magic Nine Numbers as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to understand their emotions, thoughts and values and how these influence behaviours in different situations.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
There is no specific health & wellness perspective to this activity other than perhaps promoting the benefits of exercising one’s cognitive faculties for a short while to solve a puzzle.
In a small way, you could argue that the focus required to read a range of subtle (social) cues to solve the puzzle may speak to the benefits of developing mindfulness and, in some cases, emotional intelligence competencies. For example, the ability to express empathy for someone who has not yet cracked the puzzle, or the ability to cope with frustration and ambiguity. These skills and many more can be explored in this lateral-thinking activity.
And don’t miss the opportunity to explore what effective leadership looks like (or doesn’t) as described in the Leadership Tips tab. While this is not the primary attribute of this exercise, I have facilitated many valuable conversations about leadership that was inspired by it. For example, the influence my leadership exerted over the ease with which individual group members could crack the code. Issues of consistency, repetition, reinforcement, framing, variety of communication styles, etc, can all feed into a conversation about what makes leadership effective.
If you can think of more explicit ways in which Magic Nine Numbers could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
Alternative Keys: There are no shortage of ‘keys’ you could adopt, such as:
– Clear your throat (with a little cough) just before you touch the secret number.
– Touching your marker into the tiny invisible square that matches the number belonging to the smaller square you happen to be pointing to.
– The number of words you use when you start a new round. For example, when you say “DO YOU THINK IT IS THIS NUMBER? to open a new round would indicate that 7 is the secret number, whereas “IS IT THIS ONE? would mean you have chosen 4 as your secret number.
While not strictly a lateral-thinking exercise, take a look at The Rock to explore a powerful, trust-building experience which focuses on subtlety.
Download a slide featuring the nine boxes of numbers from the Resources tab and share your screen to display it to your virtual gathering.
Use your cursor on the screen to indicate the number you are referring to at any particular point in time.
Alternatively, use the Annotate tool to add a stamp or mark on the square you are referring to in each round. Marking the screen with a virtual expression of what you did may assist some members of your group to work out what is going on. Be sure to clear the screen of all annotations before resuming a new round.
Inviting other members of the group to use the Annotate tool to display their prowess works, too.
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Useful Framing Ideas
It is said that ‘Truth is obvious to those who know it.’ That is to say, unless you know what’s going on, you feel as if you are the dumbest person in the room. In a few moments, I’m going to present an exercise, the solution of which will be obvious to some of you, but not to others. It is highly likely that if you fall into this latter category, you will quickly switch off, and start telling yourself that you’re not smart. If this sounds like you, hang in there, cos you WILL know the solution very soon…
Have you ever had the experience of not seeing something until it was pointed out to you. And then, you could not imagine how you missed it in the first place. I do this all the time, especially with my car keys – I can be staring at them, and still not see them. Well, this next exercise is a little bit like that…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this fun, lateral-thinking exercise:
How did you feel during the exercise, especially when you didn’t know the key?
Did you put yourself under any pressure to crack the code?
What was the trigger that finally unlocked the key for you?
How did you feel as soon as you unlocked the key?
How did you group react to those who were not ‘in the know?’
How might we show empathy towards others who are yet to grasp a critical skill or acquire certain knowledge?
The inspiration for Magic Nine Numbers, like many other fun, lateral-thinking games, was surely sourced from one of my esteemed colleagues whom I have worked with over the years. Which is code for, I can’t recall exactly how I first learned it.