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Learning Activities Using This Resource Kit:

General Learning Activities, Demonstrations, Games, Etc.

Paper Tear


Show the futility of trying to provide maximum specifications to guide desired performance on even a simple task.

When To Use:

When you need to illustrate minimum specifications and draw out the contrast to traditional approaches.

Group Considerations:

Appropriate for any size group; larger is better.

Learning Styles:

Another quick exercise where learning styles are not much of a consideration. Activists will simply enjoy the fun of the exercise, Reflectors and Theorists will want to have a little bit of debrief to talk about the concepts, and Pragmatists will need to answer the "so what?" question.

The Leader:

Needs to be able to conduct the demonstration and debrief quickly, being satisfied that the point is there and available for the participants to chew on without having to be driven home.

Supplies Needed:

Several sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper for each participant.


Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows, The Systems Thinking Playbook. (Available from IPSSR, Thompson Hall, University of NH, Durham, NH 03824 Tel: 603-862-2186, Fax: 603-862-4140,
E-mail: ipssr.games@unh.edu. Used with permission of the authors. The System Thinking Playbook contains several good exercises that bring home in a practical and fun way key ideas from systems thinking.)


Give several (3-4) sheets of paper to each participant and keep one for yourself. Ask everyone to pick up one sheet.

Explain these rules: no talking; everyone is to close their eyes throughout the exercise and listen closely to the directions that will be given; everyone is to follow the directions exactly. State that the goal is for everyone to produce identical patterns with their pieces of paper.

When everyone's eyes are closed, read the directions below slowly and carefully. If any one asks for clarification or opens their eyes to see what to do, remind them sternly of the rules of no talking and eyes closed. Simply re-read the last direction and continue on.

  • Fold your paper in half and tear off the bottom right corner of the paper. (Pause to allow the group to do this.)

  • Fold the paper in half again and tear off the upper right hand corner. (Pause)

  • Fold the paper in half again and tear off the lower left hand corner. (Pause)

  • Open your eyes, unfold you paper and hold it up for all to see.

These directions produce many different patterns, depending on the choices one makes at each "fold in half" point.

You could stop here and go into a quick debrief about how hard it is to truly specify how even the simplest task should be done.

Some people may think that you manipulated them with the directions. So do a few more rounds. Let anyone who wishes to be the leader come forward. (You'll probably get an Extroverted Activist!) Read the rules again: eyes shut, no talking, do what you're told. Restate the goal: identical patterns.

Ask the volunteer to turn his or her back to the group, or to shut their eyes. Then let the volunteer take over and give directions. They can use your directions or make up their own. The only constraint is that it must involve at least three steps, each with a fold and a tear. Enforce the rules throughout.

Typically, the volunteer uses a lot more words than you did (i.e., they go in the direction of increasing the specifications.) They might get lucky and get identical patterns if the group is small, but the chances of success are not great. Nearly always, there is at least one pattern that is different from the rest. Repeat the exercise with another volunteer if one is willing.


The point of the exercise is reasonably easy to see. Specifications just do not always result in consistent output. The key point is that there is a natural (learned) instinct to increase the specification when the initial specifications fail to produce the desired result.

Ask "What would help us get the desired result of identical patterns?" Describing the desired output simply and leaving the method up to the person, allowing more information flow (talking, being able to see what others are doing), the flexibility to alter the directions based on feedback about what happened with the last direction, and so on. Point out that all of these suggestions are consistent with the theory of CAS.

To bring it home for the Pragmatists, start a discussion around one or more of these items:

  • Can you think of cases in the past where we maybe applied maximum specifications and still failed to get the result we were looking for?

  • Have we ever had success with something like minimum specifications; where we have supplied minimum directions and maximum freedom? Explain.

  • Are there any currently open issues where it might be a good idea to try minimum specifications and see what will happen?

You might want to refer participants to the Minimum Specifications write up in the Aides section of this kit.

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Copyright 2001, Paul E. Plsek & Associates,
Permission to copy for educational purposes only.
All other rights reserved.