Thursday, February 5, 2009 by Dave Blum

One of my favorite corporate team building activities is a quick icebreaker involving paper airplanes.  It’s fun and high energy, as well as a great way to generate team building ideas and discussion.  Here’s how it works:

Take some masking tape and create a large “X” on one wall of your meeting space, then inform everyone that they’re all going to take part in a paper airplane building session.  Each person has 3 minutes to create their plane; they must then step up to the designated launch point (fairly far away from the “X”) and attempt to fly their plane across the room, hitting the “X”.  The entire game will take 7 minutes, so they should have time for a second or even third attempt, either with the same plane or a new design. At 7 minutes, yell “Stop” and begin the debrief.

Inevitably what happens is that someone (often with an engineering bent) creates an excellent airplane model that hits the “X” on the first try.  The question is, what do they do afterwards?  More often than not, that person simply sits down and retires from the activity — after all, they’ve succeeded…why continue?  What I always ask that person during the debrief is, “Once your challenge was completed, why didn’t you move around and help others with the design of THEIR airplanes?”

It’s important when explaining this game to refrain from uttering the words “competition” or “contest”.  This is a paper airplane flying “session”, a fairly neutral term.  Human nature being what it is, however, people will assume this is a competition — which means “me against them”.  In such a paradigm, why indeed would you help “the enemy”?    If, however, you position this as simply a session to create “the best airplane”, then cooperation and collaboration can flourish.  It becomes a project about ideation, adding each person’s trials and errrors to the group’s collective knowledge base.

Try it sometime and you’re bound to have a very lively discussion about competition vs. collaboration (two of my favorite topics!).