Identify a large open space with a clearly-marked perimeter.
Invite your group to stand inside the chosen space.
Explain that you will soon place a large nail inside the perimeter while everyone has their eyes closed.
When ready, ask everyone to re-open their eyes and challenge each person to find the nail as quickly as possible.
Instruct all those who find the nail to depart the space without alerting anyone else where the nail is located, ie no pointing, no sudden intakes of breath, etc.
When everyone is standing outside the perimeter, invite the group to reflect briefly on their experience.
Next, announce a second round.
Repeat the set-up, this time placing the nail in a less conspicuous location, resting alongside the perimeter.
Repeat for a third and final round, this time placing the nail behind your ear and stand inside the perimeter.
Process your group’s experience, especially in this third round to discuss issues of accountability, integrity, assumptions and listening.
How To Play Narrative
This is an extremely simple, yet powerful activity to present if you want to start a conversation about integrity, assumptions and listening.
In advance, identify a flat, wide-open space in which your group can gather with ample room to move around. An area of about one square metre (10 square feet) or more per person is about right.
It’s useful to lay a rope or draw a chalk line on the ground to clearly delineate the edge or border of the space. The reasons for this will become clear shortly.
Invite your group to stand inside the space and explain that, in a moment, you will place the nail (you are brandishing) in some random place within the perimeter of the area while everyone has their eyes closed.
Let me just emphasise this instruction – to find the nail “…WITHIN THE PERIMETER OF THE SPACE.”
Naturally, you do not want anyone to see you place the nail because this will make the task too easy. The challenge, you will describe, is for each person to locate (view) the nail as quickly as possible once you ask them to re-open their eyes.
Instruct all those who find the nail to calmly step outside the perimeter of the area and observe everyone else as they continue to look for the nail.
To govern fair play and squeeze the most juice from this exercise, instruct those who find the nail to do nothing that will alert others to the presence of the nail, ie no pointing, no sudden intakes of breath, etc. The response of all those who find the nail is critical to the impact of this activity.
In your first round, place the nail in a relatively easy-to-spot location, eg the centre of the space. Naturally, there will be those who spot it immediately and those who will take a little longer. The round concludes when everyone is standing on the perimeter of the chosen area.
Invite your group to reflect briefly on their experiences and then announce that there will be a second round.
Invite everyone back into the space, ask them to close their eyes and this time, place the item in a less conspicuous location, eg sitting alongside the perimeter rope. This time, you can expect the task to take much longer before all individuals have seen the nail.
Once again, invite your group to reflect on their experience. What made it more difficult this time? How did it feel to be one of the last few to see the nail, etc?
And now, one final round. With eyes closed, you intentionally stand just inside the perimeter of the area and stick the nail behind your ear so that it is precariously balanced. Importantly, you must remain inside the perimeter of the space even if you do choose to move around a bit.
Without a doubt, you can expect that as soon as everyone re-opens their eyes, they will be entirely focused on the ground. It may take some time before the first person sees it behind your ear. You can certainly expect a lot more people to struggle to see the nail.
Okay. There is so much to process at this point, I refer you to some of the questions I describe in the Reflection Tips tab for starters.
Issues of integrity (Did you really see the nail before you departed the area?) assumptions (Why did you think the nail was on the ground in the third round?) and communication (What did you hear in the instructions compared to what was said?) are all valuable topics for conversation.
Practical Leadership Tips
When choosing or looking for a nail, make it at least 100mm (4″) long. Too small and you really make it difficult for your group to see it easily.
Your language and the words you use are critical. Never say that the object will be on the ground, ie it is always located somewhere within the space. Also, be sure to be standing inside the space when you place it on your person, lest you open up the possibility of being accused of deceit.
If you stand inside the perimeter of your chosen space for all three rounds, your position will raise any alarms in the third round.
You could use any ordinary object to play this game, such as a pen or pencil. Whatever the object, it must (a) contrast with the colour of its background within the chosen area and (b) it is useful if it can easily be slipped behind your ear or tucked into a pocket (with some part of it visible.)
Direct attention to those who have stepped outside of the area as proof that the nail is placed within the area, ie some may question if they are being tricked.
Observe the anxiety and raw emotions of those last few people who are yet to view the nail. Beware not to exacerbate these feelings – direct your group’s attention to the impact of peer pressure, and less on the stress experienced by certain individuals.
You could integrate Find The Nail 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 their behaviours in different settings.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
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 promoting the benefits of sharpening your group’s observation skills.
In a small way, you could argue that the focus required to successfully find the nail speaks to the benefits of being mindful, ie being present of mind to focus on one thing at a time. Also, given the pressure some people will feel for not having found the nail when most others have may provide an opportunity to explore a variety of emotional intelligence skills such as empathy and compassion toward others. For these and other purposes, take a look at the Reflection Tips tab for some useful conversation starters.
If you can think of more explicit ways in which Find The Nail could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
Group Relocation: After your first round, invite one or more members of your group to hide the nail. This will be fun, but you consider only opting for this variation after you have conducted the exercise (as described above) first.
Where In The Room: Leverage the entire space of your room or hall to hide the nail.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Swap the nail for a small sticky note. Briefly switch off your group’s videos (as host, you can normally control this globally) to place the sticky note in a very obvious spot within the panorama of your video thumbnail. Instruct people to place their hands on their heads as soon as they spot the note. Make each of your next two rounds progressively harder, perhaps even affixing the sticky note to the side of your head or on your clothing because, much like the original in-person exercise, most people will not think to look there at first.
Very entertaining group game to test one's determination.
Simple & powerfully emotive processing strategy.
Useful Framing Ideas
Have you heard the phrase, you can’t see it for looking? It means that somehow even though we think our brain is switched on and looking for something, we have inadvertently blocked the vision of the object from our view. This is a curious phenomenon and is perfectly illustrated in this next exercise…
When was the last time you lost something and discovered you had been looking at it all the time? In some ways, this is like ‘not seeing the forest for trees’ because you are so focused on the detail. This is exactly what happens in this next activity if you’re not careful…
Social proof is a powerful motivator for our behaviours. For example, when the ‘wave’ starts up at your local sporting arena, more often than not you will be swept up in the building euphoria and perform the wave with all those around you. Or, when everyone else laughs at a joke that you just don’t get, do you laugh along because you don’t want to be the odd one out? These are both very ordinary situations, and maybe exemplified in our next activity…
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 intriguing group game:
How did it feel to be one of the last people to locate the nail? Why?
If you felt any pressure, where did it come from? You, others or both?
Were you tempted to depart the space without finding the nail? What stopped you?
Is anyone willing to admit that they stepped outside of the space without seeing the nail? Why?
If you struggled in one round to see the nail, how did you manage your emotions in the next round(s)?
Why did (most of) you immediately focus on the ground in the final round?
Did you consider that I was tricking you, ie the nail was not inside the space?
Where else does ‘social proof’ pack a powerful impact in our lives, for good and for bad?
The inspiration for Find The Nail is hard to define exactly. This simple problem-solving exercise was first created in 1996 during a facilitator training to focus my group’s attention on subtlety.