Our mission statement, copyright notice, and cast of characters.

Card Sorting Experiment Explained
An interactive metaphor for facilitated training.

Guest Gamer
Interview with Todd Packer
Soap bubbles, finger paint, freedom of speech, and human rights.

Simulation Game
The Last Straw by Todd Packer
Wooden blocks as a metaphor for workplace violence.

99 Seconds
Listen to an audio clip.

99 Words
Wisdom from a Shampoo Bottle by Catherine B. Tencza, Tencza Designs
Listen, reflect, and repeat.

Check It Out
Learning Landscapes (
Your gateway to simulation games on the internet.





To increase and improve the use of interactive, experiential strategies to improve human performance in an effective, efficient, and enjoyable way.

Editorial Roster

Editor: Sivasailam (Thiagi) Thiagarajan

Assistant Editor: Raja Thiagarajan

Associate Editor: Jean Reese

Editorial Advisory Board: Bill Wake, Les Lauber, Matt Richter, and <type your name here>

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Reprinted from THIAGI GAMELETTER. Copyright © 2006 by The Thiagi Group, Inc.

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Card Sorting Experiment Explained

Did you try the online card sorting experiment in last month's TGL?

I had conducted this “experiment” in my face-to-face workshops for several years before the online version.

This is how I would do the experiment in facilitation skills workshop:

In The Beginning

Before the start of the workshop, I randomly pick a card from a deck of playing cards. Let's say that it is the five of clubs. I memorize the name of the card and then prop it up on a flipchart easel showing only the back of the card.

When the participants arrive, a few of them notice the back of the card. But most participants do not pay any attention to the card. I don't draw anyone's attention to the card, either.

I keep reminding myself that the card is a five of clubs.

After welcoming the participants and briefly explaining the agenda for the day, I talk to one of the participants. Let's pretend that her name is Heidi.

Colors And Suits

“Heidi, playing cards come in two different colors. Which color do you prefer: red or black?”

The other participants become curious about this unexpected question.

Heidi says, “Black”.

Since my hidden card is a black card, Heidi's choice is on the right track.

So I say, “Thank you, Heidi. So let's work with the black cards that you selected. These cards come in two different suits: clubs and spades. Which suit do you prefer?”

Heidi says “Spades”.

My hidden card is not a spade. So Heidi's choice is taking me away from my card. But I don't react negatively to this fact. I just smile and say, “Good choice, Heidi. I want you to keep all of the spades cards. That leaves behind cards of the other black suit, which is clubs.”

I now turn to Peter and continue as if everything is proceeding according to my plan.

Pictures Or Numbers

I tell Peter, “Heidi's giving you all the clubs. These cards are of two different types: those with numbers and those with pictures. Which do you prefer, Peter: pictures or numbers?”

Peter thinks for a moment and says, “Pictures, please!”

Another detour. But I still keep smiling and turn to Stella, another participant.

I tell Stella, “Of the clubs cards, Peter has decided to keep the picture cards for himself. What does that leave you with?”

Stella thinks for a moment and answers hesitantly, “Cards with numbers?”

I nod my head and say, “That's correct. You have 10 clubs cards with numbers. We can divide your cards into two categories: Cards with odd numbers and cards with even numbers. Which category do you prefer: odd or even?”

Stella says, “Odd.”

We are on track toward the five of clubs.

Final Details

So I say, “Good. Let's narrow the choice a bit more. Do you want an odd number that is above six or below six?”

Stella says “Below six.”

More progress. I continue my conversation with Stella. I ask her, “There are three odd numbered cards below six: ace, three, and five. Which card do you like among these three?”

Stella chooses the ace.

Even though this is a “wrong” choice, I tell Stella. “After you have taken the ace for yourself, that leaves two cards: the three and the five. Which of these two cards do you want to give me?”

Stella says, “Three”.

Mission Accomplished

I recap what happened so far:

“We started with a full deck of 52 playing cards. We gradually distributed all of the cards except one. After I have taken the three of clubs, the only card left from the original deck is … the five of clubs.”

I ask Heidi to walk up to the flipchart easel, pick the card, and turn it around so everybody could see it. There's a collective gasp of surprise when people see the five of clubs.

What if

What if Stella selected the five of clubs for me (instead of the three of clubs)? No problem. I would have thanked Stella and proceeded with my glib patter, slightly modified:

“Let me recap what happened: We began with a full deck of 52 playing cards. Different players selected different categories of cards. After eliminating almost all the cards, Stella finally presented me with a single card. She gave me the five of clubs.”

I would have then asked Heidi to turn over the card at the flipchart to produce the same magical effect.

What's the Point?

I explain to the participants how the trick is done—and how it illustrates the power of flexible facilitation.

I always carry an envelope with me with a playing card inside. Whenever the opportunity arises, I perform the experiment with individuals or with groups.

My addiction to the CSE is not because I crave to be the center of attention all the time. (Actually I am a shy introvert.) I perform this magic trick because every time I do it, I get valuable practice, feedback, and insights on key skills related to effective facilitation: thinking on my feet, changing my behavior to respond to participants' choices, focusing on the goal, encouraging active participation, and building upon all types of responses.

I strongly recommend a daily regimen of the card sort experiment to anyone who wants to improve her facilitation skills. I especially recommend it to people who are reluctant to accept my advice to let the inmates run the asylum. These folks are frightened about letting go of control and not being able to cover all the training content in a structured fashion.

Try this exercise: Carry a playing card inside an envelope. Nonchalantly place the envelope on the table (or on the floor) without any explanations. Go through the card sorting exercise. Repeat the exercise frequently in a wide variety of contexts: with individuals, small groups, and large groups; with adults and children; and with friends and strangers. Of course, you have to modify your procedure to suit the different situations.

I can tell how to modify the card sort experiment to accommodate different situations, but it is more challenging and useful for you to figure out these modifications yourself. You learn a lot more by working out the variations than by following my detailed instructions.

If you are too shy or if you are a recluse or if you are meditating alone on the top of the Himalayas you can still practice the card sort experiment as a thought experiment. Just pretend that you are performing the magic trick at different situations. Visualize what is happening and how you would react to different choices.

Choices, Choices

Here are the types of choices that I offer to gradually narrow down to a specific card:

Red or black?

If red is selected: Hearts or diamonds?

If black is selected: Clubs or spades?

Numbers or pictures?

If numbers are selected: Odd or even?

If odd is selected: Below six or above six?

If even is selected: Below five or above five?

If pictures are selected: Male or female?

These are just some sample choices. Work out the other choices to suit different randomly-selected cards.

The Basic Principle

Compare each choice with the hidden card. If the choice helps your progress, make some suitable comment, and move on to the next choice. If the choice hinders your progress, welcome the choice. Tell the participant to keep the cards of her choice. Move on to another participant and offer the next choice.

If you are working with a single participant, after an “incorrect” choice, ask her to put away the chosen cards in a safe place. Return to the remaining cards and proceed with more choices.

Remember the hidden card all the time. If you forget it, you are in big trouble.

A Metaphorical Analysis

How does the card sort experiment relate to facilitated training in which you act as a guide by the side instead of pontificating as a sage on the stage?

Think of the hidden card as your instructional goal.

Think of participant choices as contributions to group discussion: ideas, questions, responses, comments, sarcastic remarks, and skeptical opinions.

You can divide participant comments into two major categories: those that help you toward the training goal and those that hinder you. This is similar to participant's choices during the card sort experiment that may lead you toward the hidden card or away from it.

Accept and use both helpful and hindering choices. During facilitated training, accept, incorporate, and leverage all types of responses from participants.

List of Principles

Here are some powerful principles that we learn from conducting the card sort experiment:

Try It Out

The best way to learn how to perform the card sort experiment is to perform it. Go find a playing card—and a suitable audience—and see if you can pull it off.

Guest Gamer

This column features interviews with outstanding designers and users of interactive experiential activities. Our guest this month, Todd Packer, combines performance art and performance technology in his consulting work to provide research, writing, and training in organizational development, creative problem-solving, and human rights. With a decade of work experience with refugees and colleagues from many countries, Todd's strategies utilize diversity and creativity. His training techniques use finger paints, music, crepe paper, poetry, and soap bubbles. His organizational development techniques integrate training and consulting to co-create effective work settings. Currently, Todd is developing creative approaches for understanding and preventing workplace violence.

Interview with Todd Packer

TGL: Todd, what exactly is the concept of “human-rights-based organizational development”?

Todd: I ground my approach to performance improvement with research and experience in empowerment and cross-cultural communication, particularly from more than a decade of work with survivors of state-sponsored torture and persecution. Guided by the universal principles of freedom, justice, compassion, and community, I apply concepts that are traditionally used in international political advocacy and grassroots social activism to organizational structure, relations, and behavior. My goal is to help workplaces establish patterns of behavior that support the free expression of ideas and build trust among managers, workers, and customers. I am also working with my clients to ethically and creatively respond to ambiguity and change.

TGL: How does this approach relate to the use of interactive training activities?

Todd: The free expression of ideas is the basis of interactive learning and of successful innovation. To help people express their ideas freely, I advocate the creation of safe workplaces that support the human rights, responsibilities, and relationships for all employees. Simply put, if we treat people with dignity and respect, then we will all excel. My interactive training activities help create safe environments for participants to explore new possibilities.

TGL: You use many materials and techniques that are from children's play. How do you respond to concerns that these activities are not appropriate for “serious” business problems?

Todd: I communicate the belief that any creative problem-solving exercises that are properly facilitated and grounded in a language that has meaning and value to organizational members will have measurable results. While some people are wary of my style, most are also curious about how I connect playful methods to specific organizational issues and performance-based outcomes. As part of my initial meetings, I spend time listening to the client's assessment of their workplace, then adapt the activities to their specific concerns. As for child's play, if we adults could learn at the rate of a toddler from birth to three years of age, our capacity for constructive change would be astronomical. The toddler learns through play, and so can we all.

TGL: Are your clients skeptical about your use of playful activities like finger painting to explore such controversial topics as workplace violence?

Todd: In any training technique it is crucial to understand your audience. Some of these activities use the same materials and methods as art therapy, but I repeatedly emphasize to both participants and clients that we are using the activities to examine serious organizational issues. If the participants are from a high-stress context, I work with co-facilitators and counselors. For example, when I conducted a session with music, bubbles, and finger paints with traumatized Cambodian refugee women, I designed the session with a psychologist and a drama therapist. If it is appropriate, I provide follow-up resources such as crisis hotline numbers to participants. If the organization has specific resources like an employee assistance program or a confidential incident reporting procedure, I would inform participants of these options.

TGL: How would you suggest that trainers prepare themselves if they wish to use games and simulations with potentially controversial topics?

Todd: As a trainer who uses interactive techniques with such controversial topics as race relations or sexual harassment, you should be prepared for a deluge of traumatic stories that can overwhelm participants and facilitators. Free expression of such emotion-laden personal experience stories may derail everyone's good intentions and even create unexpected new hostilities. So it is important for you to take time to learn something about the background experiences of potential participants and tailor all activities accordingly. Also, you should gather as much valid, reliable, and up to date information from the research literature and subject-matter experts as possible before undertaking experiential activities on controversial topics.

TGL: What types of activities do you use in your training sessions?

Todd: Basically, I like activities that permit participants to get their hands onto—or into—the topic. The messier, the better! Some of my training sessions have included representing the organization system with gumdrops and toothpicks, getting entangled in multi-colored yarn, and crossing a river in a crepe-paper jungle model of diversity. I borrow activities from visual artists, improvisational actors, musicians, slam poets, and schoolchildren. I then spend time to find academic and business research to substantiate and improve the effectiveness of the activities. As an example, finger paints work as a brainstorming technique because they, like most organizational problems, are messy; participants enjoy the activity; and the multi-sensory modality integrates visual, tactile, and auditory input to create a nonverbal representation of organizational chaos.

TGL: Are there any particular resources you have found valuable in your work?

Todd: I am a big fan of James P. Carse's book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (Ballantine Books: New York, 1986). I also read children's books, especially by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) and Daniel Manus Pinkwater. I constantly review cartoons and comic strips to remind me that important messages can be conveyed in simple, direct, and entertaining formats. I wander through museums, gardens, theaters, and children's parties, always with pen (or crayon!) and paper to take notes. I would also suggest that trainers read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations ( . The 30 articles in this declaration cover a variety of international, civil, political, economic and cultural rights which I believe are profoundly important for creating safe, productive, and innovative teams, organizations and a global society.

TGL: What are your final words of advice on the design and use of interactive training strategies?

Todd: As trainers and facilitators, we need to go beyond traditional training approaches to creatively embrace participatory learning and decision making. In order to inspire transformational change, we should behave in a way that exemplifies Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Simulation Game

The Last Straw
by Todd Packer

Because of the potentially controversial nature of the topic explored in this activity, review the flow of this game with key stakeholders prior to the training session. If any violent incident has occurred recently in the organization, collaborate with internal employee-assistance professionals or external mental-health specialists to modify the activity to suit the specific setting.


To identify factors that cause workplace stress and to reduce these factors through group problem-solving.


1 to 2 hours


Eight to thirty, organized into teams of three to six members.



Set up a table in front of the room (on a stage, if possible).


Brief participants. Explain that in this activity, participants will listen to a story of workplace violence, identify a series of stressors that contribute to such violence, select a key stressor, then brainstorm approaches to reduce the potential impact of this stressor.

Present the case material. Read the item slowly and clearly. Ask participants to reflect for a moment on the story, then to take up to 10 minutes to discuss and identify a list of stressors that could have contributed to the violence. Encourage teams to try to identify at least five possible stressors.

Begin the activity. Explain that each team will pile their “bales of straw” (wooden blocks) on the front table, one on top of the other. Teams take turns sending their representative to the front. This team member announces the stressor that the block represents, and places it on the table on top of the earlier blocks. Encourage teams to come up with stressors that have not been previously identified. As team members announce each stressor, record it on the flipchart.

Wait for the toppling. Eventually, as the tower of blocks gets taller, it becomes more unstable, and finally one block causes the structure to collapse. To alleviate any embarrassment at causing the tower to fall, give the team member (whose block toppled the structure) a gift of value (such as a book on workplace violence).

Identify the last straw. Explain that the stressor that caused the tower to fall is the “last straw”. Invite participants to help you to reconstruct the escalation from the first stressor to the last straw.

Conduct a brainstorming activity. Ask teams to generate strategies for reducing the possibility of violence. Invite participants to help you come up with an alternative case in which the situation is de-escalated and the specific stressor is defused. Repeat this activity to come up with two more cases with a peaceful ending.

Connect to workplace. Ask teams to brainstorm ideas on how they can address this particular stressor in their workplace. Repeat the activity with a few other stressors listed on the flipcharts. If time permits, ask team members to bring blocks forward, place them on the table, announce their de-escalation strategies, and build a stable structure. List the ideas on the flipchart.

99 Seconds


In a format called 99 Seconds, the presenter makes a brisk, self-contained presentation that lasts for less than 99 seconds. For more details about this format, check out the Tool Kit section of our April 2002 issue.

One effective type of 99 Seconds presentation uses mnemonics. Since the 99 Seconds presentation is primarily an auditory experience, we decided to experiment with a sample 99 Seconds online audio presentation about an interesting mnemonic. (Click the link to hear the audio file at )

For non-auditory learners, here's a text version:

Transcript of the Audio Recording

Can you say “ABCD”?

You are now ready to make a 99-seconds presentation.

A is for “auditory”. Your presentation is an auditory experience. So let your spoken words carry your message.

B is for “blending”. Blend education with entertainment. Don't be pedantic and boring. Don't be comical and distracting.

C is for “complete”. Don't just present a teaser and ask everyone to read the handout. Present a complete message.

D is for “deliberate”. If you are running out of time, reduce the content instead of increasing your speed. Make a presentation in an unhurried fashion.

Remember, A is an auditory presentation, B is blending education and entertainment, C is complete content, and D is a deliberate pace.

Thank you.

99 Words

Wisdom from a Shampoo Bottle
by Catherine B. Tencza, Tencza Designs

In last month's TGL, we introduced the concept of 99 Words as a printed variant of our 99 Seconds presentations. The idea is to provide useful content in exactly 99 words—no more, no less. We invited our readers to contribute their 99 Words articles.

Catherine B. Tencza, a performance consultant from Alpharetta, GA sent a delightful piece using an intriguing metaphor. Thanks, Catherine.

How about your contribution? Send your 99 Words article to .

What makes an effective training consultant?

The shampoo instructions say, “rinse and repeat.” The consultant's say, “listen, reflect, and repeat.” Start with a list of general questions about the organization, individual and group performance, strategic and tactical goals, and learner characteristics. Reflect your understanding. As you listen and reflect, ask additional probing questions.

Your goal should be to fully understand—and demonstrate your understanding of—the client's vision. Once you are on the same page with the vision, the door is open for discussion of possible interventions or solutions. You have two ears and one mouth; use them proportionately.

Check It Out

Learning Landscapes (

It's getting more and more difficult to keep track of articles on games and actual simulations and games that keep popping up on the Internet. Instead of doing a Google search and plodding through the results (today I got 12 million hits for the search phrase “training games and simulations”), I have discovered a shortcut: I periodically visit Learning Landscapes ( ) and check out the main section called “Simulation Sightings”. Today, for example, I found a set of games for Certified Public Accountants, a bird flu simulation game, links to articles on game-based learning, and Professor James Paul Gee's “Cliff Notes on Games and Learning”.

You can also click on a treasure chest of archived pieces (beginning with December 2003). Wait, there's more! Click on the Resources section to read a collection of articles, job aids, and instructions for simulation games.

There is no obtrusive “About Us” section in this easy-to-navigate website, but I know the wonderful couple who are behind Learning Landscapes. If you want to communicate with them, there is a convenient email link under the logo on the left.