Posted on by Brandon Klein


Inventions is one of the quintessential DesignEvent modules. It creates an energizing experience that can have a powerful effect on the dynamics and mindset of a group.

The Inventions module gets people to work together successfully in an attempt to overcome an extremely difficult challenge. This process of working together successfully is critical to the development of a new working culture at the DesignEvent. Many modules have this built into their design, but few if any have more potential to achieve it than Inventions.

Often, the Inventions module includes a second round, with different teams required to combine their inventions. This brings home an important lesson as each team learns that that the ownership and pride they draw from their solution must be based upon its contribution to the success of a larger solution.

Another important aspect of the Inventions module is the way in which participants focus upon the rules and assumptions built into their assignment. In other modules, a team will spend thirty seconds or so reading the assignment and then get to work — in most cases never looking at the assignment again.

Because the challenge of the Inventions module is so difficult, they go back again and again to the language governing that challenge. They question it. They interpret and re-interpret the rules. They look for loopholes. They push the boundaries of the meaning of words as far as they can.

By engaging in this process of questioning rules and examining underlying assumptions of language, the participants exercise problem-solving muscles that will prove useful as they later attempt to create a solution to the central challenge of the DesignEvent.

Finally, no module calls for more intense, iterative self-organization than Inventions. This self-organization goes through a succession of phases, especially when the module requires individual inventions to be combined. In that case, there can be two major phases.

The first phase occurs within the teams, as each one organizes around its challenge. In some versions of this module, a second phase occurs as the full group must organize to integrate their inventions into a larger system. Within these major phases, there will be sub-phases, as the team and/or larger team struggle to problem solve.

If you are interested in learning about self-organization, group dynamics, the emergence of group genius, language, structure, environment, and all of these in relation to the participant group at your event, then do not miss the opportunity to become involved in facilitating this module.

All that said, this is like any module. It can be very powerful when used appropriately (and in the company of licensed professionals).



(Note: A good way to introduce this module is to play the clip from the movie "Apollo 13" where the Ed Harris character dumps a bunch of junk onto the table and says they have to use it to build a device that enables them to put this square peg into that round hole (or something like that). In addition, it can be useful to tell the participants that the assignments they are about to be given have all been successfully completed by seventh-graders.)

The Inventions module has nothing to do with the focus of a DesignEvent. Not overtly, that is. Each team is told to build a thing-a-majig. The most popular version of this module involves moving a tennis ball from here to there wihout human intervention, sometimes involving simple, associated tasks — like raising a flag or making an audible noise.

It is a challenge for which the participants have little to no training or background. Even if there are mechanical engineers in the group, they will have had little experience designing and building devices with no practical value.

To heighten the challenge, the teams are given limited resources, materials, and, most importantly, time. In fact, they are after the facilitator introduction, they are sent from the radiant room to the materials table to select four items each. This is before they have an idea of what they are being asked to do. It is only when they proceed to their breakout areas that they read the assignment and understand what their objective is.

This objective is simple enough (simple, not easy, mind you) that they give it a try.

Once they begin to try, amazing things happen. People from different areas of the company, who may have shown no ability to work with each other in the past, who may, in fact, have shown a tremendous capacity to work against each other, start collaborating.

They begin taking this seemingly trivial challenge so seriously that old working habits and animosities are set aside.

When there are five or fewer teams in an event, each usually receives a different challenge. If there are six or more teams, then each challenge is usually given to two teams, which are located far apart in different areas of the space.

Each team expends an incredible amount of work and ingenuity in achieving a solution to the difficult challenge they have been given. The people involved in that effort develop a tremendous amount of pride and ownership in that solution.

Believe it or not, many teams are successful in assembling an invention that achieves its goal within the time frame allotted. Their sense of accomplishment is tremendous. Even those teams that do not create a device that works, will derive powerful learnings from their failures. Sometimes, their device may actually work, but simply does not perform up to the requirements of the design specs.

At this point, the module could be over, and the teams would assemble in the Radiant Room to debrief what they learned from the experience. In fact, this module has been very successful in the past when only taken this far.

But there is the option of a second part to the module, which can teach even more lessons. This version is particularly appropriate for organizations that have strong silos or rifts between different cultures. It is also useful when the group is facing an extremely daunting project, like an ERP implementation.

In this version, the teams receive a second assignment that tells them they must connect their individual inventions to make one device. This device must perform all of the tasks of the individual devices yet also meet the criteria specified for the integrated invention.

When the teams learn that their ultimate success can only be achieved by integrating their solution into a larger solution system, each has to make a huge psychological shift. Up until that point, they have created a system that is optimized to achieve its defined goal. Now, they must refocus their sense of ownership and pride upon the larger system. They must optimize their subsystem for the success of this larger system. In fact, they must join a bigger team — the team creating the whole system — and figure out how best to contribute to its success.

This module is a good one to schedule at the end of the Scan day with the second part of the module (if used) and the debrief taking place the following morning.

Critical Success Factors

Good selection and organization of materials. You must assemble a good selection of materials, tools, and expendables (tape, string, fishing line, etc.) The materials will be a hodge podge of junk, arts and crafts materials, and various other odds and ends you might find squirreled away in a basement or the back of a kitchen drawer: doweling rods, funnels, styrofoam, mousetraps, pulleys, foamcore, flexible clothes dryer conduit, etc., etc., etc. All of this material needs to be gone through and organized in advance. You need to make sure that there is plenty of stuff and good variety. It should be set up just before the beginning of the module on tables that are clearly marked as to their contents: tools or expendables or materials. Read the assignment, and you will see why this is important.

Involvement of the facilitation team. It is very important that as many of the facilitation team members as possible become involved in the Inventions module. Some must monitor the materials tables during the initial selection and then subsequently as materials are exchanged. Others will need to serve as compliance officers, answering questions about the assignment and then evaluating inventions to make sure they meet their criteria and perform to their specifications. Still others will record the module with video and still photography. Make sure that everyone on the crew reads the assignment, because participants will seek out any and all facilitation team members to help them interpret the rules.


Start Writing

First of all, be very careful with the writing for this module. The tennis ball assignments provided on this site has been iterated over a number of years. The participants examine and re-examine these assignments like attorneys interpreting legal statutes. The language and rules have been adapted and adjusted based on experience. If you don't have experience with this module, beware of the unintended consequences that may result from any changes you make.

One change that I would make the next time I offer it would be to Specification 1: "Your invention must be portable: you must be able to pick it up and move it to the Radiant Room." I would remove the words "to the Radiant Room." We don't demonstrate the inventions in the Radiant Room. We move around from invention to invention. However, the inventions do need to be built portable if you intend to do the linking

One client wanted to do the Inventions module. They had been here before, however, and had already done the tennis ball version. We drafted a new set of inventions challenges. These all revolved around building a clock that measured periods of time and performed certain actions. Unfortunately, we made them much too difficult. The teams had so much trouble that we never even handed out the assignment for the integration round (where teams must integrate their inventions into one big invention).

That said, in the spirit of the MGTaylor axiom that says, "Everything that happens is planned," the module was still very successful. The lessons the clients drew from the experience were were ones we hadn't foreseen.

If you do decide to change the assignments, you're looking at the following possibilities:

  1. If you are just tweaking the rules and language of the assignment, it should only take fifteen minutes to a half hour to compete the work.
  2. If you are keeping the rules pretty much as is, but are coming up with a new set of inventions challenges, allot yourself a couple of hours for the work. Get at least two people involved in this effort, so that they can bounce ideas off each other.
  3. If you intend to conceive of an entirely new way of handling this assignment — new inventions challenges, new rules, new everything — then a minimum of two people should devote four hours at least to developing this new approach and drafting the assignment(s).

A key thing to remember when writing the assignments (and when facilitating the module, as well) is that you should not guide, help, or lead the participants in any way. Stay neutral! You and they both will learn a heck of a lot more if the self-organization and discovery is left up to them.

Debrief. Early versions of this module included a team debriefing session in breakouts before the full group breakout in the Radiant Room. While that may take more time than you would like to budget for this module, you may want to look over the questions and evaluation criteria that was used for this purpose. 


Team Approach

The facilitation team plays a number of important roles in the setup and running of the Inventions module:

  1. They need to assemble and organize all of the materials, tools, and expendables (tape, pipe cleaners, fishing line, etc.) that the teams will use in building their inventions. Then these must be set up while the participants are in the Radiant Room before the module begins.
  2. One or two team members need to position themselves at the materials tables in the early stages of the module, where they can answer questions and make sure participants are following the rules.
  3. Two to four other team members should circulate among the teams, answering questions participants may have about the rules, observing how the teams are working, and serving as compliance officers who validate that completed inventions comply with the rules.
  4. The facilitation team should also take video and still pictures of this activity. This is a powerful experience, and still pictures on the knowledge wall and in the deliverables will help the participants reconnect with it. The video clips can be used on a digital knowledge wall, or are sometimes requested by the client for a video.

Assemble and Organize Materials. The materials the participants use to build their inventions from scratch is an unpromising mixture of household odds and ends, workshop leftover, and downright junk.

Gathering these raw materials can be like a scavenger hunt for the facilitation team. Most centers have a collection on hand from past Inventions modules, but this needs to be looked through, augmented if necessary, and organized.

The rule of thumb is to have about 15 items in the Materials category on hand per person. That is about three times what actually will get used, but it ensures that there is a good selection for everyone to pick and choose from at the beginning of the module. It also ensures that there will be plenty of "useful" materials for teams that want to trade in materials they don't want.

It is usually best to bundle together a variety of some of the smaller-sized items (baggies work well for this). This then counts as one item. The items should then be organized on tables that are clearly marked with signs. If you a large group of participants (more than 40), set up a couple of materials tables. That way, there will not be a huge bottleneck as participants select their four items before heading to their team areas.

Here are lists of items that can be provided in each of the three categories:


  • Wooden strips/boards
  • Sticks, dowels, poles, etc.
  • Metal or cardboard cans, milk cartons, plastic bottles baskets and/or buckets of various sizes
  • Balloons of various sizes
  • Pieces of styrofoam of varying shapes and sizes
  • Pieces of foam core of varying sizes
  • Sections of light chain and/or rope
  • Various balls
  • Legos / other connectible toys (bag several of one kind together to make one item)
  • A brick or four
  • Magnets
  • An old fishing pole
  • Toys and small gadgets (e.g., toy phone, doll, wind-up toy, baby rattle, rubber duck, radio, opera glasses, etc.)
  • Mousetraps, springs, pulleys
  • Miscellaneous hardware (e.g., nails, nuts, bolts, screws, wing-nuts, brackets, hasps, etc.)
  • Cassette tapes, CDs, LPs
  • A wind-up clock
  • Odds and ends / junk (e.g, ping pong ball, unidentified mechanical parts, old bicycle tire, keys, roller skates, a campaign button, picture frame, hat, etc.)
  • Etc.


  • Staplers
  • Scissors
  • Hole punches
  • Screwdrivers
  • Hammers
  • Rulers and/or yard sticks
  • Pliers
  • Sewing kit
  • Etc.


  • Glue (white and super glue)
  • Tape (different kinds)
  • Fishing line
  • String
  • Rubber bands
  • Twist ties
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Pieces of cloth
  • Velcro strips and/or dots (self-sticking)
  • Magnetic tape
  • Plastic wrap
  • Tin foil
  • Etc.

Watch This Module Unfold. As always, the facilitation team's presence has an effect on the participants (and vice versa). Try to be present as much as possible during this module.

As the module unfolds, observe how the participants are working, the ebb and flow of their self-organization, how their group genius emerges, how they interact with and adapt the environment, how they deal with constraints, how they manage resources and time, what pattern languages they invent. You can focus this observation within the individual teams as well as upon the group overall.

In particular, if your module includes the second part, where inventions must be integrated, watch how this assignment is absorbed by the groups, how they react to it, and how they self-organize as one team.

The music during the first part should be fairly loud and high energy. During the second part, you may want to start with little or no music. Then use your judgment as you see how the group self-organizes.

One thing in particular that I have learned from observing this module is that you can never give up on a group. They may seem to be working extremely ineffectively, exhibiting all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors, and yet something can suddenly click, and the group will begin functioning at a whole new order of effectiveness.

The point is that they need to discover this on their own. You may be tempted to interject suggestions or to trigger more effective or "healthy" modes of working. Resist these impulses. Let the emergence happen. Allow the debrief to extract the important lessons about what the group did and didn't do.

Debrief. There is usually a scribe at the front of the Radiant Room during the debrief.