Lay a series of nine rubber spots in a straight line on the ground/floor, spaced about 600mm apart.
Invite eight people to stand on the spots, leaving the centre (5th) spot empty.
Ask each person to face towards the centre (empty) spot, thereby creating two teams of four people facing the back of another team member.
Challenge each of the two smaller teams of four people to swap places with the other team of four, ie so that they all end up facing away from the middle.
All moves must adhere to three strict parameters:
– An individual may only move into an empty space directly in front of them;
– If two people are facing one another, one of them may move around the other provided there is an empty space to move into; and
– Only one person may move at a time.
No backward moves are allowed, nor may one person move around another if they are facing their back.
Allow your group many attempts until they discover the solution.
How To Play Narrative
This is one of those group initiatives that only has ONE solution. It can be tough to solve sometimes, but most groups willing to be patient will see it through to the end.
In advance, lay a series of nine rubber spots or carpet squares in a straight line on the floor/ground, spaced about 600mm (2′) apart.
Ask a group of eight people to now stand on the spots, leaving the centre (5th) spot empty. Invite each person to now face towards the centre (empty) spot, thereby creating two teams of four people facing the back of another team member.
It will look something like this diagram:
Announce that the group’s task is for each of the two smaller teams of four people to swap places with the other team of four, ie so that they all end up facing away from the middle. With only one empty spot, we now have all the ingredients of a traffic jam.
Of course, there are strict parameters about how this jam can be fixed:
An individual may only move into an empty space directly in front of them;
If two people are facing one another (no empty space between them,) one of them may move around the other provided there is an empty space to move into (behind them;) and
Only one person may move at a time.
By virtue of these parameters, no backward moves are allowed, nor may any person move around another if they are facing their back.
Upon answering the inevitable questions and restated the parameters a few times, sit back and observe. Allow your group as many attempts as necessary until they (hopefully) discover the solution.
This is a difficult task, so don’t be surprised if it takes a few minutes before any moves are confidently attempted. And by virtue of the fact that your group is standing in a straight line, communication will be difficult, so expect some degree of frustration.
No doubt you want to know the solution. Refer to the Resources tab for a graphical illustration, but for those cognitively-inclined folks, allow me to paraphrase Karl Rohnke‘s (author of Silver Bullets) explanation …
“… when the first person moves (always one of the two people facing the empty spot), note whether he or she moves into an odd or even space. If this person moves into an odd space, all of their teammates must only move into odd-numbered spaces until each member reaches their final destination. And, the other team will only move into even-numbered spaces until each member of this team reaches their home…”
Got it? Now, give it a try.
Practical Leadership Tips
Now while this task ideally involves a group of eight people, you can conceivably involve more (to make it harder) or less (to make it easier.) In my experience, eight people strikes a good balance between setting an achievable goal and keeping as many people focused for as long as possible. Either way, you must have an even number of people for the solution to work.
If you have less than eight people, employ the use of an inanimate object (eg teddy bear) to do the trick.
Don’t have any rubber spots? Try sheets of newspaper, or draw circles in the dirt, etc. You could even ask everyone to take off one shoe and place it on the ground to mark the spots.
Like I said, this task is difficult, particularly as it only has one solution. Start off on the wrong foot (no pun intended) and your group’s attempt will fail. To this end, expect your group to fail, and fail often. There is nothing wrong with this outcome – there are valuable lessons to be learned here. But don’t expect to squeeze this exercise into the last 10 minutes of your class.
Facilitator’s note – I present this exercise irregularly. So, it is not uncommon for me to scratch my head as I watch my group struggle and try to recall the solution. If this occurs for you too, then you’re in good company. Go to the Resources tab to download the solution.
U-Shaped Jam: Form the line of nine spots into a semi-circle shape to enable more engagement and effective communication.
Stepping Off: Allow your group to come off the spots to discuss the task, before returning to attempt a solution.
Time Trial: Challenge your group, once they have discovered the solution, to complete the task over several rounds in the quickest time possible.
Lots of Passing: Take a look at The Passing Game to explore another task focused on traffic and congestion.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
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The Passing Game
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There are several options to create a virtual Traffic Jam board on a shared screen (take a look at Flippity and Jamboard – part of Google’s suite of free software built into its Chrome browser.) With group members, all glued to the same shared screen, one person can be verbally guided by all others to shift the tiles in an effort to solve the problem. In the case of Jamboard, if you share the URL of your board, it will be possible to permit all members of your group to manipulate the objects, as if they were meeting in person.
Useful Framing Ideas
Have you ever been in a traffic jam? Anyone who lives in a high-density urban environment will know what this means. Sometimes, as you observe the mayhem, you sit there wondering who could possibly move first to unravel the gridlock. Well, this is exactly the dilemma your group is about to face…
Due to roadworks, traffic through a busy central hub has been diverted to a side street into the path of oncoming traffic. The street is narrow with cars parked on both sides making overtaking extremely limited. There is no alternative, all traffic must pass through this side street with one set of cars travelling one direction and another set travelling in the other direction. As a team, you must develop a creative strategy to help each car travelling via this side street to their respective locations…
Most puzzles require a great deal of patience. Frustration is natural, but to let it take a hold of your concentration and focus, and you are bound to fail and/or give up. Know the feeling? Consider this may be a useful thing to remember as I invite your group to embark on a rather difficult task that comes with only one solution…
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 classic group initiative:
What feelings did you experience during the activity? Why?
How many attempts did your group need to finally crack the solution?
What particular skills did this task require of your group to solve the problem? How well were these skills executed?
Did your group strike an appropriate balance between planning and execution?
Passive ‘Team-Building’ Session
What You Need: 8+ people, 60 mins
Props: set of 9 rubber spots, pens & paper
Commonalities – quick & fun game that seeks lots of things in common