3×5 Card Game

Materials Need For this Exercise

  • Two tables or flat surfaces
  • Four unopened packages of 3×5 index cards (lined or unlined, any color). With a felt tip marker, write on two of the packages “DO NOT OPEN”
  • Timing device: stopwatch, timer, or watch with seconds measurement


The point of the first exercise is to break the ice and to vividly demonstrate the power available to teams that work together. The first part of the exercise is designed to draw out participants’ natural tendencies and reactions under stress. Be careful NOT to give too much information or instruction—you want them to be a little uncomfortable with the small amount of direction given.

Place one package of unopened 3×5 cards on each of the two tables. Use the packages you have labeled “DO NOT OPEN.” When the participants have arrived, divide them into two teams, assigning each team to a table. Begin by saying something like this: We’re here to build an even closer team, and to begin that process, we’re going to do a quick exercise. Your instructions are simple. You have a minute and a half to build the tallest freestanding structure, using only these 3×5 cards on your table. Ready, Set, Go!

As the facilitator, don’t answer any questions at this point, just smile and urge them to start building. If someone presses you for more information, just say things like, Let’s go; there’s not much time or I can’t answer any questions right now. At several points during the next minute, spur them onward with time announcements like, Just one minute left! Hurry up! Only thirty seconds! After one and a half minutes, call time and stop the game; ask teams to step away from the tables. Say something like this: Look around and take a few mental notes about what you just experienced: how you felt, what role you played, and what you observed.

Now tell them this: For the next three minutes, I want your team to talk about and to plan building as high a structure as you possibly can, using only these 3×5 cards. I’ve been told that the world record is four feet, six inches. However, for the next three minutes you can’t touch a card or the table; you can only talk about what you can do to break the world record and the opposing team. At the end of the three minutes, I’ll give you another minute and a half to build a taller freestanding structure than the opposing team. Do you have any questions? Time their planning window of three minutes, and stop them by saying: Before we start building, please knock any structure down that is currently half stop the teams by saying: Step away from the tables. Look around and take a few mental notes again about what you see and what you just experienced. This too will be discussed later in this session. standing on your table. Here is a new set of cards that you can add to the existing cards. You now have a minute and a half to build the tallest freestanding structure. Go! There should be significant pressure on the teams and a certain amount of chaos present during both exercises. At a minute and a half stop the teams by saying: Step away from the tables. Look around and take a few mental notes again about what you see and what you just experienced.

Explore the following question with the team.

  1. During the first round of the “3×5 Card Game,” how did each team member react?
  2. What was different the second time your team built the tower of index cards? Why?
  3. Did you see any differences in the way team members approached the problem?
  4. Did you see any differences in how they dealt with other team members?
  5. Did you see any differences in how they responded to limited information? Time pressures? The “DO NOT OPEN” labels?
  6. What are some specific ways you will use the information you learned in this exercise to strengthen the team?

What To Expect

No matter what size the group, the amazing thing is the consistency of what happens during the second attempt. After just three minutes of planning, almost any group will double the height they reached on their first try. The difference will amaze people! Some team members with high Structure strengths will argue that no one should open the package of cards because of your written instruction “Do Not Open.” That team will use up most of their time during the first round discussing or arguing over that issue. Others will begin to fold the cards in half and stack them on top of each other to build a tower. The more aggressive team members will take over; some will be shy. Some will cheer on those taking charge. Remember that there is not a wrong way to conduct the exercise. It is merely a game to demonstrate the great variety of approaches and behaviors among team members. As a facilitator, try not to give too much direction, but observe the different behaviors to help them see the value of each team member.