A fast and fun Doughnut-shaped game that explores systems and collaboration
Overview and setup
This is a fun, fast and energising activity that takes around 20 to 30 minutes and demonstrates some of the qualities and challenges of systems and ways of working towards a common goal.
The aim is for a group of people to lower a ring down to the floor to help their team member escape (step out of) the ring. The golden rule is that everyone must have their finger touching the underneath of the ring at all times, whilst trying to lower the ring - which turns out to be much harder to do than you might think!
The activity is based on the systems thinking game Avalanche, developed by Dennis Meadows (just without the person in the middle and fewer people). Here's a video of people playing Avalanche.
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It's a game that requires collaboration and strategy. Often (and ideally) teams fail first time, so that the ring rises when they want it to go down. This failure opens the possibility to talk about why it went up when they wanted it to go down, and there are many parallels to be then made between real world goals and barriers to collaboration (see the step called Group Discussion below)
It takes about 20 to 30 minutes - depending on how many rounds you have - and works best with between 8 to 12 people per ring.
You can do it as just one small team of 8 to 12 people. Or if you have more people than this, you can do it as a race between teams. So for example, if you have a group of 16 you can have two rings. If you have a large group of 40 to 50 you can do it with four larger rings.
You can either use a hula hoop or make your own doughnut shaped ring from cardboard.
If you create the ring from cardboard it needs to be a) rigid and b) lightweight. The lighter the better as it gets easier to lower the ring with more weight. Tip: Source some large cardboard from a bike shop so that you can get hole sheets large enough without any folds.
Small = 60 cm inner diameter and 80 cm outer diameter ~ 220g for 8 people
Medium = 70 cm inner diameter and 90 cm outer diameter ~ 250g for 10 people
Large = 80 cm inner diameter and 100 cm outer diameter ~ 280g for 12 people
If you like you can also paint it green so it looks like the Doughnut!
Set up (2 min)
The following set up is for the 'race' scenario. But if you're doing this with just one group of 8 to 12, then just do steps 2 to 4.
Ask everyone to get into even groups (ideally between 8 and 12 people), then ask groups to stand apart from one another.
Place a ring by each group and say that no one must touch the ring until invited to.
Ask their groups to stand round the ring, standing an even distance apart.
Invite one volunteer from each from each group to step into the middle of the ring - these are the people who need to be rescued!
Explain the rules (3 min)
Explain the following steps:
The objective is to get the person out of the ring in the quickest time possible.
The ring will start high up, then with everyone keeping one finger on the underside of the ring, you have to lower it together
The golden rule is that whilst lowering the ring, EVERYONE'S FINGER MUST STAY IN CONTACT WITH THE UNDERSIDE OF THE RING AT ALL TIMES
The process starts by the person in the middle lifting the ring to their elbow height (without anyone else touching the ring)
Once the ring is in position, everyone in the group will point their index fingers towards the person, then move into position with the ring hovering just above everyone's fingers.
Emphasise again that no one's finger must touch the ring until you say 'GO!'
Once you say 'GO!', then everyone must raise their fingers so the ring is lying along the length of their index finger
Then everyone must try and lower the ring to the floor
Only when the ring is completely on the floor can the person in the middle be rescued by stepping out
Ask for any clarifications about the steps / rules.
Round 1 (5 min)
Invite the person in the middle to lift the ring to elbow height without anyone else touching yet
Invite everyone else in the group to point their index fingers towards the person, then move into position with the ring hovering just above everyone's fingers.
Now say 'GO!'
Watch and see what happens
Do people find it hard?
Does the ring stay where it is?
Does the ring begin to rise up?
Does the group try to work together or as individuals?
Do some people try and take their time?
Do some people rush?
Do some people start cheating and remove their fingers?
Do some people start shouting orders?
Do some people get shouted at?
Do some people go quiet?
After a while of trying, bring round 1 to a stop / alternatively the group succeeded
Group discussion (7 min)
Ask the group how it went.
Facilitate a group discussion and follow up with prompt with questions, such as:
If you wanted it to go down, why didn't it? / Why do we think it went up when we were all trying to make it go down?
How did it feel (to want the ring to go down but it didn't)?
Did you have or develop any strategies?
Listen to the responses and reflect them back to the group. Likely responses are: lack of teamwork, lack of communication, blaming others in the group.
An additional (ethical) line of questioning you might wish to bring is
What was the golden rule?
What was supposed to happen if this rule was broken?
Was everyone in contact with the ring at all times?
If so, what did you think to yourself to justify this behaviour?
More generally, when do you feel justified in breaking rules in a governed process?
Invite people to think of real life parallels of attempts at collaboration and how the behaviours and outcomes are reflected in these.
Invite them to think of how to do it better and then have another round.
Round 2 (2 min)
Repeat as per round 1
Group discussion (7 min)
If successful this time, facilitate another conversation:
What was different this time?
Did you use any strategies?
Did people have specific roles, and if so, how did people feel about these?
At what point did you stop thinking about your individual role and start thinking about everyone's roles together?
Invite them to think again in groups to improve their strategy based on the conversation and continue to a final round if they'd like to improve their times.
Systems thinking (5 min)
Share and discuss the following ideas:
The system has an inbuilt, reinforcing feedback loop. It goes up, you have to go up too.
The system has limits - the ring couldn't keep rising even if you wanted it to.
To bring about change (the ring going down rather than going up) you need to change the design of the system.
Change to the system requires coordination, and therefore communication.
Systems thinker Donella Meadows said that systems work best when knowledge is shared
What conditions could you create in future that would make it easier for a group such as this to learn a new approach more quickly?
What might this mean for collaboration around an idea such as the goal of the Doughnut?
This activity was created in collaboration between Rob Shorter of DEAL and Jacob Rask of Copenhagen Doughnut. The activity builds up on the game 'Avalanche' by Dennis Meadows.