A winning workshop warmup

A winning workshop warmup

I recently needed a warmup activity for our team conference day in Bali (yes, we had our annual company catch-up in Bali!). Many of our team had met face-to-face, but not all. Some had worked together remotely, but not all. I wanted an activity that would help people to start to get to know each other, and be a good start for a fun and productive day.

My warmup activity criteria were:

  • People should not have to speak in front of the whole room
  • Nothing about the activity should embarrass anyone
  • No-one should be made to share or disclose something they are uncomfortable with - this sounds like a no-brainer but so many warmup activities ask people to share personal information, like in ‘two truths and a lie’
  • Everyone should have the micro-skills for the activity - no drawing, nothing overly physical
  • Everyone should be able to participate equally
  • Small group activity, creating something with hands - hands-on problem solving is always a good way for a team to bond quickly
  • Light, healthy competition - good for motivation and activity speed
  • 20-30 minutes duration

The idea that came to me first was the ‘marshmallow problem’ where teams compete to create the tallest tower with spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow to go on top. This met all the criteria, but is easy to search the internet for solutions (which was not disallowed by the rules or my criteria, but is often considered not fair play).

I did a bit of poking around the internet and found a great activity (though now I can’t find where I got it) - a jigsaw puzzle competition.

Solving a (small) jigsaw puzzle met all my criteria - people can work with their hands, everyone is very likely to have the micro-skills (and if someone had never done a jigsaw, the skill is very easy to acquire) and everyone could participate equally. There is no public speaking involved. Win!

But of course it needed a twist :) The twist was that, while each puzzle has the right number of pieces, each is missing a small number of pieces and instead has pieces from other teams’ puzzles…

This sounded perfect. The substitute-pieces twist added just that something to make it more than just a puzzle-completion competition.

I needed to find 5 puzzles that were the same size and all of a theme, so the substituted pieces weren’t obvious. I managed to find a box of 10 small (60-80 piece) Transformers puzzles from K-Mart. And it was only $10! I removed 6 pieces from each puzzle and distributed them across the other puzzles.

Transformers - More than meets the eye

I introduced the activity by telling the groups that their job was to complete the puzzle. I said there was a prize for the first team that finished it and told me what the picture was (I didn’t give them a reference image).

Everyone got stuck in. I did my normal facilitator walk-around, checking that they were going OK. A couple of colleagues who knew me well asked if all the pieces were there. I could, with a straight face say. “Yes, you have the right number of pieces".

I watched them as they found edge pieces, made edges, made little sets of pieces that went together, chatted about what went where. The ‘work with your hands with a group and have a chat’ criteria was being fulfilled.

I watched them get close to the end and realise that the remaining pieces didn’t fit. And look at the other groups and see that they had different puzzles. And realise what I’d done.

Then my favourite part - how were they going to get all the right pieces?

One of my colleagues took the group's spares, walked to other tables and said “Hey, I think this is yours - here you are.” Some offered to trade. Some held the pieces hostage and asked other teams to go and find the ones they needed.

Checking for missing pieces

The volume in the room went up, the energy went up, the laughter went up. It only took a few minutes for everyone to do this last step, and then everyone was trying to figure out what their Transformer was. 

I let them off naming the Transformer (like, I didn't know anyway - that was just to make them feel like the activity was enough of a challenge). I also admitted there was no actual prize. No-one cared - they had a great 20 minutes, started to bond with their team-mates and had a laugh at my deception.

No-one had to speak in public, embarrass themselves or feel inadequate. Everyone got involved, and had a fun a-ha moment. A perfect in-person warmup!