Human Knot

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What it is:

A physical-participation disentanglement puzzle that helps a group learn how to work together (self-organize) and can be used to illustrate the difference between self-organization and command-control management or simply as a get-to-know-you icebreaker. Standing in a circle, group members reach across to connect hands with different people. The group then tries to unravel the “human knot” by unthreading their bodies without letting go of each other people’s hands.

Why you’d use it:

As a management-awareness game to illustrate required change in behavior and leadership on a management level (e.g., illustrate the change from ‘task-oriented’ management towards ‘goal/value-oriented’ management).

Timing: 15-30 minutes

Materials and environment: space (indoor or outdoor) big enough for a groups of 7-16 people (can scale for up to 200 people)

Instructions (from Holden Leadership Center):

  1. If necessary split the entire group into smaller groups of 7 to 16 people (too many people in a human knot becomes extremely difficult). Groups of 10-12 are ideal.
  2. Arrange group members in a circle, standing shoulder to shoulder.
  3. Tell everyone to put his or her right hand up in the air and then grab the hand of someone across the circle.
  4. Everyone then puts his or her left hand up in the air and grabs the hand of a different person.
  5. Check to make sure that everyone is holding the hands of two different people and that not holding hands with someone directly next to him or her.
  6. Tell group members to untangle themselves to make a circle without breaking the chain of hands.
  7. If group members break the chain they need to start over.

Notes: 

  • To illustrate the concept of centralized, top-down decision-making vs. self-organizing, run the activity twice: The first time, have a “manager” tell the participants how to solve the knot (they must obey); the second time, remove the manager (or let the manager observe and answer questions for the team) and let the participants solve for themselves.
  • You can give teams a time limit on this activity to make it more challenging.
  • You can also mute/ blindfold participants throughout the activity.
  • Instead of making groups start over when the chain is broken you can create penalties like blinding or muting a group member.

Debrief/ discussion questions:

  1. How did it feel to be successful/ unsuccessful?
  2. How did it feel to be mute? Blind?
  3. What strategy did your team end up using to complete the task?
  4. Who were the leaders in this activity?
  5. Did the team reach consensus on a plan of action? What process did the team go through to reach consensus?
  6. How do you feel your team communicated during this activity?

Links:

  • http://leadership.uoregon.edu/resources/exercises_tips/team_builders/human_knot
  • http://wilderdom.com/games/descriptions/HumanKnot.html
See also:
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4 Responses to "Human Knot"
  • Tim Yevgrashyn November 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    It seems the simillar game was already described under different name: Tangled Mess
    http://tastycupcakes.org/2009/06/tangled-mess/

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  • Matt Philip November 22, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for pointing that out, Tim. I went ahead and added a link to it in the “see also” section, though it’s possible that the two entries should simply be merged.

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  • [...] and Juan’s Agile retrospective talk. And the game they are playing with the string is the Tangled Mess game Like this:Like [...]

  • Kenny Grant September 25, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Ran this at a workshop yesterday with 16 people. We found that 16 was too many hand-to-hand (people too squashed up to each other) though I’ve seen some use some duck-tape to help with this.

    We found that splitting the groups in to 2 at 8 each worked better.

    Great game – especially the 2 pass process with the manager the only person allowed to control things in pass 1.

    Kenny

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