For a simple and quick way to demonstrate the effects of collaboration to a large group, here’s an ice-breaker exercise that I sometimes use at the beginning of talks and guest lectures.  It’s a slight variation on the paperclip exercise designed by Tony Buzan, mind and thinking expert, to help people engage in creative thinking.

It works for anything upwards from 8 people.

one red paperclip

(Image from Kyle MacDonald via Compfight)

The paperclip exercise

  1. Ask people, on their own, to come up with as many uses of a paperclip as possible. Give them 2 minutes.
  2. Then ask them to turn to the person next to them and do the same – again 2 minutes
  3. Ask the pair to then turn to the couple next to them and repeat. Give them slightly longer this time – around 4 minutes.


Participants will see that it becomes easier to generate more (and more interesting) ideas as they progress through the task, and will quickly experience the benefits of collaboration.  What I’ve found fascinating though is how, as a facilitator, you see the energy change in the room with each part of the exercise.

With the first part, people seem a bit confused and stuck – it takes them a while to get going. When they turn to the person next to them, the tension breaks immediately, there’s often some laughter and smiles, and the pair look like they’re having fun with the exercise. Then for the final task, something else happens – the group seems to become a bit more cerebral and serious, they really start to think about their responses. When you ask people to feed back, it’s clear that the final discussion has helped them stretch their ideas further.

Of course, ideas will always grow the longer people have to think about the exercise. But it’s good to observe how people move through the exercise when they have others to work with, and how this can be applied to team projects – 1) individual time to digest the problem or brief and ‘get their head around it’, 2) a bit of time to play around and have fun with the question, and 3) finally, “getting down to business”…

Let me know if you try out the exercise and observe the same results.