Here is your task in your group of four or five people, to take these twenty sheets of paper and in the course of the next eight minutes is to form the tallest free-standing tower. You’re going to use those twenty sheets of paper without any form of adhesive.
They can only touch or that is be sitting on the base of this floor. They cannot lean against anything. Nothing can support it. There are no skyhooks in this room to allow it to stay up in the air. But you and your ingenuity and the collective resources you have between you is to identify how do we use these twenty sheets of paper to form the tallest free-standing tower.
It’ll be identified as and I’m going use a very clinical method to be able to identify which is the tallest but it’ll be clear. And at this eighth minute when the time is up and I’ll keep giving you that timeline, there’s two minutes left, one minute left, thirty seconds left, when we get to those last few seconds you must step back from your tower. It’s at that point if your tower remains standing you remain eligible to become the tallest tower.
If during the course of construction it relies on you always propping it up, maybe there’s an alternative strategy you could use. So I’m kind of telegraphing a little ahead. Understand that when we get to the eighth minute your group must step back. We’ve turned the air conditioning off so there’s no wild winds in this space.
To repeat, each of your groups is going to take twenty of these sheets of paper. They’re in groups of twenty already. And as soon as I say go you have eight minutes to use those without any form of adhesive to form and build the tallest free-standing tower.
(Does the paper have to stay in its original condition, intact?)
You could do all of those things. You just have nothing else available to you to be able to solve this problem. Okay. Go.
(people building paper tower)
Six minutes remaining. Six minutes.
(people building paper tower)
(people building paper tower)
Ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Hold it there. Step back.
We clearly have a winner over here, a five-story tower …
How To Play Narrative
When you hold 20 sheets of paper in your hand, it’s hard to imagine that they could become something as tall as 150+ centimetres – but it’s totally possible.
Begin by dividing your group into smaller teams of three to five people. Much more than five, and the teams become a little unwieldy, with little for some of the group to do.
Then, armed with a ream of regular (A4 or US Letter) paper, distribute exactly 20 sheets to each group. Nothing else.
Explain that the aim for each group is to construct the tallest, free-standing tower using only the 20 sheets of paper they are holding. No adhesives can be used, nor can the tower be supported in any way such as leaning against a wall or be propped up in some manner.
Allocate ten (or more) minutes for each team to plan and construct their towers, then sit back and observe the creative juices flow.
Once the time elapses, measure each tower and announce the winner of the tallest tower.
Like all group initiatives, allow a few minutes at the end of the exercise to invite your group to reflect back on their experience, especially in regards their planning and decision-making processes.
Practical Leadership Tips
The base of the paper towers is not relevant – table tops or the floor, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the air is stable (building in front of an air-conditioning duct is not advised) and the surface is stable (wonky tables are prone to being knocked).
Free-standing means standing free of any supports.
Typically, I advise that when the time expires, all teams must step back from their towers immediately. Invariably, there will be a few people who insist on adding the finishing touches or propping up a leaning pillar after the time has expired – it’s up to you if you choose to play hard-ball and disqualify these teams or not.
In an effort to keep waste to a minimum, try to re-use paper which has been been previously used and discarded, such as one-sided photocopies.
Fewer Sheets: As above, but using fewer sheets of paper, eg 10 sheets.
Adhesives: As above, and permit the use of a limited supply of an adhesive or fastener such as stick-tape, paper clips or even staples.
Specific Roles: In advance, allocate certain roles to the members of each team. For example, permit only one-half of the members to touch the paper, and/or prohibit them from talking.
Arty Towers: Add an artistic angle to the exercise and ask each team to decorate their building as well.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
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Ask each person to grab 10 to 15 sheets of paper. If possible, after you have described the challenge, instruct each person to focus their video camera on the area they plan to build their tower. You’ll need to rely on the honour-system to trust the final measurements which each person will deliver to the group. Or ask each person to photograph their tower (next to something that will provide some height perspective) at the allotted time and upload it to the group.
With all towers appearing in the gallery view of your online meeting software, take a snapshot of your screen at the conclusion of the allotted time, lest one or more of the towers collapse soon after. It happens!
Alternatively, challenge your group to construct just one tower (ie only one person has the paper) and invite the contributions of all other group members to help the person who can touch the paper to manipulate them.
For large groups, divide first into smaller breakout rooms (ie 2 to 5 people) asking one person in each room to grab the paper.
Useful Framing Ideas
When you hold a few sheets of paper in your hand, it’s hard to imagine them turning into something as tall as a metre, or even a metre and a half. But, that is exactly what may happen in the next few minutes if you plan carefully…
Sometimes looks can be deceiving. You know the old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover. The same could be said of this next exercise, transforming a small number of sheets of paper – that when stacked one on top of another – measure not more than 2 millimetres in height, but will soon stand as tall as a metre or more…
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 creative team-building exercise:
Describe how your team worked together.
Did everyone on your team participate equally?
How were the different roles assigned on your team?
How did your team make decisions about the form of your tower?
What would you do differently next time?
The inspiration for Paper Tower came from Stephan Turnipseed, Destination Imagination, who presented a number of unique group initiatives during the 2nd China Camp Education Conference, October 2016.