The tower-building simulation is a good team-building activity. In about
an hour's time, participants practice a development continuum, which involves
planning, making tradeoffs, decision-making, and inter-personal interaction,
much as would occur in an actual project. The technique has been used
successfully in both college and business environment seminars.
The rules of the game. The task is to, as a team, design and construct a free-standing tower using only 3- × 5-inch cards held together by scotch tape. Allow four or five participants per team. The customer requires that the tower be at least 24 inches high, and must be strong enough to support a stack of 15 pennies whose base is at the 24-inch level for at least 15 sec. Anything less has no value to the customer.
The goal is to design and construct a tower that meets, or exceeds, the customer's requirements while achieving as much profit as possible.
The cost is $100 for each 3 × 5 card purchased by the team. Unused cards are not redeemable. Each team shall be given one small role of scotch tape, a stack of 15 pennies and a ruler.
Project revenue of $1,000 will be earned when a tower is completed which will support 15 pennies at the 24-inch level. $1,000 will be paid for each additional inch supporting the pennies.
The team completing the tower first during the construction phase will receive a bonus of $1,000, the second-place finisher will receive $500, the third-place finisher will receive no bonus or penalty, fourth place will be penalized $500, and fifth place will be penalized $1,000.
Let the project begin. Allow 30 minutes for a preconstruction phase. Before construction starts, loan each team twenty 3 × 5 cards and give them 30 minutes to design their tower and decide how they will build it during the construction phase.
Near the end of this 30-minute period, each team shall: (1) return the 20 loaned 3 × 5 cards, (2) purchase whatever number of 3 × 5 cards it will need to build its tower, and (3) provide an estimate of the amount of profit it expects to earn, as well as an estimate of its tower construction time.
Give the groups 10 minutes to work on the actual construction phase. This phase starts when all of the teams have completed the 30-minute preconstruction phase. All towers shall be constructed at the same time, and each team shall record the amount of time it uses to build its tower.
Take 10 minutes for the post-construction phase. Each team shall list its profit (loss) vs. its estimated amount, its actual time vs. its estimated time, and provide explanations for any differences. Each team shall also prepare to describe and critique their group process, and the tradeoffs they considered.
Finally, spend 10 to 30 minutes on post-simulation discussion. During this segment, teams present and discuss the materials they prepared in the post-construction phase.
As another variation on this project, see what happens when you transfer one person from each team to one of the other teams about half-way into the 30-minute preconstruction phase.
Ask the Manager
Q: How has this tower building simulation been successfully used and what does it teach participants?
A: As you are aware, project teams are being used more and more to implement product development. Their principle advantage is that they can effectively and efficiently combine the efforts of people with unique skills and knowledge into a team that can deal with complex, value-added work in a way that combines innovation, quality, low cost, and a reduced risk of failure.
This simulation is often used at the beginning of a seminar (1) to provide a common frame of reference for subsequent activities, (2) to serve as an ice breaker with some substance, and (3) to provide the opportunity for a new group of people to practice communication and teamwork.
At a deeper level, it can also be used to demonstrate, and perhaps convince, the participants of the changing nature of a project as it proceeds along its continuum, which is initiated at one extreme with research and feasibility analysis, and concludes at the other extreme with production and distribution activities. Along this continuum, its organization and its people should change from being relatively organic, which encourages innovation and the generation of ideas, to being relatively mechanistic, to assure that the project focuses on the agreed upon design, especially during that last 5 or 10% of the program that is often difficult to complete.
Unfortunately, many participants in a project development cycle do not recognize, or acknowledge, the metamorphosis of the cycle from organic to mechanistic or that such a shift requires a change in perspective as well. Consequently, this can become a source of project confusion and disruption. Tower building helps the participants to grasp this concept.