Inventions: Raising hard conversations through play

Inventions: Raising hard conversations through play

If you've been working around large organisations as long as I have, you've no doubt heard complaints about how 'we work in silos'. This complaint is often paired with a side offering of 'we should be working as one team'.

The notion is that some outcome (e.g. the customers’ experience of interacting with the organisation) is damaged because the organisation is functioning as a sort of loose confederacy rather than a single entity.

One reaction to working in silos is a reorganisation of the organisation’s functions – aka, a restructure. Seasoned executives will notice that this often leads to a new set of silos. What needs to happen is for these functions and departments to find ways to work together.

Of course, effective working together is far easier to talk about than it is to do. Like most obvious things that don't happen, there are hidden constraints that prevent the organisation from acting as a single entity. Those hidden constraints are hard to perceive and even harder to resolve.

If you look at just one department, you'll notice that the leaders and staff are all acting rationally. They have targets (which have been signed off by even more-senior leaders), and they have statements about what they're trying to achieve (also approved). They are 'doing the right thing’ as defined by their context.

To begin operating as a coordinated set of functions, the people in those functions need to find ways to constructively discuss real interdependencies and trade-offs (i.e. which specific goals to compromise so that a different goal is optimised). They need to get into the specific detail of how they are interdependent. We often avoid these conversations because they're emotionally/politically/technically taxing and they distract us from our core mission of achieving our targets.

It's hard to find much success in tackling these issues head-on. What I've seen most often is a shared desire to avoid damaging the social relationship. This means the conversation usually ends up being about things everyone can agree with. Stuff like 'high-level principles' – e.g. let's work in the best interests of the customer.

People behave like this not due to a lack of intent, but due to a lack of the tools to have the conversation. It’s the type of ‘fraught’ situation where facilitation is required.

Creating the conversational tools involves a little stealth. The group is asked to engage in, what looks like, some fun team-building activity. They do the exercise and then, through a facilitated debrief, discover how the situation in the 'fun thing' is very similar to their circumstances. Of course, the activity is chosen to have similar dynamics to the real-life situation the participant group is facing (although they don't know that at the start).

That brings me to the Inventions activity.

What Inventions is about

The purpose of the Inventions activity is to allow the group to have a conversation about how they need to work together to achieve shared outcomes. This conversation isn’t just happening at the rational, intellectual, high level. This is about surfacing the real problems that groups working together face. Things like large group sizes being hard to manage, or environmental constraints getting in the way of progress, or how one team’s work connects to another team’s work.

There are three phases to the activity:

  1. Team-based inventions
  2. Combined inventions
  3. Debrief

Phase 1 – Team-based inventions

In the first phase of Inventions, divide the group into teams of 6–8 people. Give each team an instruction that reads something like this:

Assignment: Your team's challenge is to use the materials provided to design and build a device that accomplishes the following:

Your device moves a tennis ball a distance of 3 metres then raises a flag. The tennis ball must come into contact with five different surfaces.

Rules of Engagement:

  1. Your team may use any of the materials provided
  2. Your team can borrow tools from the toolbox – but these must be returned after use and may not be incorporated into the device
  3. You may not barter with other teams for materials
  4. After you trigger your device to begin its function, it must proceed to complete all functions with no further human intervention
  5. Your device must be portable
  6. Your tennis ball must not be attached to any part of your invention
  7. Your device must perform all requirements and have been inspected for compliance to be considered successful

You have 50 minutes to design, build and test your device.

nb: each team’s set of requirements is different

Along with their assignment, also give each team a set of materials. A possible list of materials is provided at the bottom of this article.

Each team works to make their invention (which is really a Rube Goldberg Machine) within their allowed time. In my experience, most teams succeed. Sometimes, succeeding means having a ‘broad’ interpretation of the requirement – that’s ok. Their inventions also may not have a perfect record of execution (again, that’s ok).

The moment a team gets their invention working is a one of celebration and pride. The team cheers and high-fives as they realise they managed to do something that 45 minutes earlier seemed impossible. They’re often keen to show others what they’ve done.

This jubilation is about to be cut short because here comes phase two.

Phase 2 – Combined Inventions

The most important thing about Phase 2 is that the participants don't know it’s coming. The instructions for Phase 2 usually read something like:

Assignment. Your invention will now become a subsystem of a larger system. You have roughly 60 minutes to connect your invention to the inventions of the other teams. These subsystems can be connected in any order to create the complete, functional system that meets the specifications outlined below.

Goal of Your System. Assemble your subsystems into a device that performs all of the requiremnets of the original inventions.

Each subsystem must perform its original tasks in their original order. You have 60 minutes to complete this task.

This assignment is usually met with confusion and tentativeness. The full group now begins the difficult task of figuring out how to make these overly-complicated devices all work together to produce all the requirements in a stringent time limit.

Once the timer runs out and the group has accomplished (or not) their combined invention it's time to return to the plenary area for a debrief.

Phase 3 – The Debrief

The type of activity I described above is all about the debrief.

I run this debrief in three sections:

  • How they went during the team Inventions
  • How they went during the combined Invention
  • What this means for their work going forward

The first section is all about the reaction to receiving the first instruction.

The kinds of questions I often ask during the debrief include:

  • How did you feel when you first got the instruction?
  • How did you progress from that first reaction?
  • Did you design first and then build, or get right into trying things?
  • How did you organise yourself? Were there defined roles? Was there a defined leader?
  • How did communication work? How did you make sure you all knew what was important to know?

The next section of the debrief is about the combined Invention. In this section I ask questions like:

  • How did you feel when you discovered you had to merge into one invention?
  • How did you organise yourselves as a full group vs when it was the small team?
  • How did communication work amongst the large group?
  • How did you coordinate the integration of the inventions?
  • How did decisions get made?

Facilitating a debrief is all about paying very close attention to the group. Follow the dangling threads. Share your own observations about how they worked and what you saw. Be present with them. Your questions should be work to find what makes it hard to coordinate a lot of people doing a large, complicated activity.

If facilitated well, it’s in this middle section when the group will reveal their challenges about their real work. However, they’ve done this by talking about a Rube Goldberg machine rather than their 'normal' work (although, from the outside, some organisations might look like Rube Goldberg machines!). You may even start to notice some folks getting thoughtful and quiet as they start to make the connection that what just happened in the Inventions experience is a mirror for what happens in their real work. That’s a great opportunity to move into section three of the debrief.

The first question in section 3 of the debrief is:

What does this all mean, if anything, for our work going forward?

I ask that question, or a variation of it, and take the conversation from there.

The debrief is also an excellent opportunity to have the conversation graphically recorded. A visible record of the conversation reinforces both the lessons and that it's safe to discuss these challenging topics.

The combined chemistry of the experience, connecting how the group behaved during the Inventions experience with their regular work, and making the debrief visible is very powerful.

Through this process, the group’s behaviour is revealed to them in a new way. Someone recently paraphrased this for me is as:

It’s a moment when the group can see objectively what they are usually subject to.

The tone of the workshop will be significantly different following this kind of intervention. The group now acknowledges a new component of their situation – their own set of default behaviours and responses.

Because they had that moment of objectivity, their behaviours and responses are now 'things' they can discuss and work with. In a way, the behaviours and responses are another design element. You will hear the group referring back to the activity when certain behaviours re-appear. The difference now is that discussing these behaviours isn’t seen as a radical transgression of a group norm – it’s just something that the group can discuss.

Closing Thoughts

The Inventions activity is a considerable investment of time but achieves a lot in a workshop. It often takes a lot to set up and 2+ hours to run. That said, the pay off for a group – particularly on a multiple day workshop with a large group who have complex interaction challenges – is profound. Not only will it shift a group dynamic for a workshop, but it can also alter a group’s entire worldview.

List of materials for the Inventions exercise


  • Wooden strips/boards
  • Sticks, dowels, poles, etc.
  • Metal or cardboard cans, milk cartons, plastic bottles baskets and/or buckets of various sizes
  • Balloons of various sizes
  • Pieces of styrofoam of varying shapes and sizes
  • Pieces of foam core of varying sizes
  • Sections of light chain and/or rope
  • Various balls
  • LEGO / other connectible toys (bag several of one kind together to make one item)
  • A brick or four
  • Magnets
  • An old fishing pole
  • Toys and small gadgets (e.g., toy phone, doll, wind-up toy, baby rattle, rubber duck, radio, - opera glasses, etc.) -
  • Mousetraps, springs, - pulleys -
  • Miscellaneous hardwar- e (e.g., nails, nuts, bolts, screws, wing-nuts, brackets, hasps, etc.) -
  • Cassette tapes, CDs, - LPs -
  • A wind-up clock -
  • Odds and ends / junk (e.g, ping pong ball, unidentified mechanical parts, old bicycle tire, - keys, roller skates, a campaign button, picture frame, hat, etc.)
  • Etc.


  • Staplers
  • Scissors
  • Hole punches
  • Screwdrivers
  • Hammers
  • Rulers and/or yard sticks
  • Pliers
  • Sewing kit
  • Etc.


  • Glue (white and super glue)
  • Tape (different kinds)
  • Fishing line
  • String
  • Rubber bands
  • Twist ties
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Pieces of cloth
  • Velcro strips and/or dots (self-sticking)
  • Magnetic tape
  • Plastic wrap
  • Tin foil
  • Etc.

How to prioritise

Collaboration and Play

Collaboration and Play