Counting from one to twenty

Just following up on that last post I’m going to talk about one of the improv games I find most fascinating. (I may have written about it before but can’t find it anywhere.)

The game is called One to Twenty. You get a group of players standing in a clump so that they’re not getting much or any eye contact with each other. The task for the group is then revealed. They have to count from one to twenty.

There are two constraints. Each digit can be said by only person, and the same person can’t say two digits in a row.

So if two players speak over each other, the count is reset to 1.

I add that there is to be no strategising; the group has to just start the count and see where it goes. Quite often this concept is quite challenging to some players who I guess operate on two assumptions: 1)That the key thing is to get to 20 as efficiently as possible and 2)That having an explicit strategy is the best way to get to 1). The second assumption often includes a further assumption like

I know exactly how this should be done and of course I only need to state this loudly enough and everyone in the group will want to follow my plan.

Anyway, like all great games it never goes exactly the same way. Generally what happens is that there are a lot of efforts that get part way to 20 but then fail because two people speak at once. Each failure is met with some noises suggesting disappointment/frustration. There may be periodic noises, not necessarily articulate, suggestive of an urge to give up.

Usually, in the end, a group gets there and then there is a rather loud celebration.

I usually shoot for a bit of a debrief after that: what was it like? what did you notice? – that kind of thing.

I sometimes ask: why did you celebrate? After all, it appears in many ways a pointless game contributing nothing to the sum of human achievement. By tomorrow most of us will have likely forgotten all about it. My own answer to this question is that there is something deeply satisfying about this experience – something that perhaps we’re not getting as much of as we would like in our lives. I think this points to why I think the assumption about efficiency I mentioned earlier is quite suspect. Without the struggle there would be no celebration and an even greater suspicion that the facilitator is some kind of idiot.

Another thing that often comes up a lot is something like this. A player will explain very carefully how the game was eventually won. He or she then describes the pattern or strategy that the group eventually understood. Quite often there will be a suggestion that the player him/herself had spotted this winning pattern earlier and was very relieved when everyone else got it. There is then a pause, before someone else says, oh, but I wasn’t doing that, I was doing something else. This usually comes as quite a surprise to people.

We humans love to post-hoc rationalise and see strategies were there were none – or at least none as simple as we think. And we often get to our goals without ever explicitly agreeing on what our strategy is. That’s an idea though should terrify those who like to talk about “alignment” in organisations.

I’m not even going to try to summarise the discussions that happen about what leadership means in the context of this game – and who was, or wasn’t, leading.

One to Twenty is a pretty simple game. But I would argue that it points to the real complexity of human collaboration – and I think it suggests that we need to have a strong sense of the ridiculous when offered any grand theories of how organisations work and how they can be “transformed”.

(I think it might also connect to ideas about messy coherence.)

Update: Viv tells me of a version where the players stand in a circle and do have eye contact. Apparently this flushes out a lot more strategising and attempts at leadership.

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