Broken Squares – The Game that Made us Whole

The game of Broken Squares amply demonstrates the value of giving.  I first played this game at a Team Training in 1997, conducted by Gagan Adlakha and Arjun Shekhar for the LSB Products team at Essex Farms.

The game goes like this…

The entire group, say 30 people, is split into teams of 5 each, and seated at their own round tables around the room.  Each team is handed five packets (one for each member) of plastic pieces cut from five squares.  When sorted out and put together correctly, they would make five squares that are identical in their dimensions.

Each member opens her/his packet and examines the pieces to see if they fit together to make a square.  The pieces have been distributed across different members so none of the packets complete a square, and people will need to exchange pieces to make their own squares.

The goal of the game:

Each team plays to complete the square with each team member in as little time as possible.  The team that completes all five squares for its team members first is the winner.

The rules of the game:

  1. No one can say anything or gesture in any way to communicate with fellow members.
  2. No one can take or pull a piece from another member, unless s/he gives it to them.
  3. You can give a piece to anyone you like.
  4. You cannot refuse any piece you are given.

The game is played with these rules once, and the timings of each team are shared with everyone.  The facilitator then debriefs the group, for them to share their experience, and what came in the way, what helped them to move faster.  Insights emerge from the teams that took less time to complete, as well as from the others.

Our team won! And as we talked about it during the debrief, it was because of a ‘breakthrough’ in thinking triggered by what one of us did.

To begin with, we were all looking at our own pieces and trying to see whether we ourselves had our perfect square or not.  Of course, none of us did.  So then we would look around our table at other people’s pieces and tried to imagine if they had complete squares (competition!).  Some of us imagined and tried to find those pieces in other people’s pieces that would complete ours.  As soon as we identified those, we would be blocked in doing anything to get those pieces by the rules of the game (Rule 2).  So while we waited for something to happen, we would also look at our pieces and imagine which of the  pieces did we NOT need, and tried to figure out who to give those to, for who they would complete their squares (charity?).  One or two giving of pieces happened where they certainly fit into the other’s jigsaw and the giver was sure they had no use for it, but in general, no one knew what to do.

Until one of us made a bold move!

Ruchika handed me a piece, which I had to take, but which I couldn’t fit into any configuration for my square.  I also observed she had actually broken her square and given a piece that actually she needed to complete her square.  I was wondering why she had given the piece to me when the rules of the game suddenly clicked, and I realized she was signaling to me to give!  I looked at the pieces I already had and gave one to another where it helped him make his square.  I also gave Ruchika’s piece back to her, and hers was as complete as it was before she handed me that piece.

The team quickly caught on to the convention.  Give, so that the other may give.  Give with the trust that if you really need something, it’ll come back to you for the other will give it to you.

As this convention crystallized and dawned on us around the table, we began to frantically give, watching more for what others needed and could benefit from, than trying to hold on to the incompleteness with our own pieces.  I suddenly realized I had four people caring for my completeness instead of just me being focused on myself alone.  In no time we had all five squares complete.

This became a turning point in the lives of many of us that day.


Competencies to Achievement

How often have we wondered – “Well, everyone who was on this project had the right competencies, the skills that were required.  Yet the project failed to meet its deadlines and ran over budget.  We seemed to have all the ingredients yet it didn’t fly!”

Let us not assume the immense potential that people have, will automatically lead to what they will achieve just by placing them in a situation.  Of course the goal that trainers have is to maximize the realization of potential, but how many times have we seen this succeed in our own experiences.  In fact, we trainers have to realize that the objectives we train people towards themselves are only enabling objectives.  We frame them as: “At the end of this training, the learners will be able to do xyz…”.  The phrase to notice is ‘will be able to’.  Being able to do something, and actually doing something are two very different behaviors.

 Possibility > Competence > Rea??lity > Achievement > Result/Outcome

To derive the benefit from our skill/competency we must know the factors that become the intermediaries between skill/competency and achievement.  This is reality.  Our reality becomes evident in our motives and choices.  What lie between skill/competency and achievement are our motives or wants, our choices of actions and plans, and our ability to implement.

Skill/Competency      >        Wants             >        Actions           >        Achievement

Skill/Competency (potential)

Lets see what Competency and Skill means.

a)  Competency/Competence:      an important skill that is needed to do a job (Cambridge)

b) Skill:      i) An ability to do an activity or job well, especially because you have practiced it (Cambridge)

ii) The ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice (Webster)

Fig. 1.  Many Competencies get together into a Skill necessary for a job-role.  Several Skills are necessary in a job-role, and several Roles get together in a Function, many of which get together to form a Business.

Each of us begins by intuitively knowing or believing the competencies we have.  We’ve also been told of our competencies ever since our childhood, through school and on the job by our parents, teachers, friends, supervisors and colleagues.  Our beliefs are reinforced by the feedback and responses of our environment, of people around us.  We must realize that the response of our environment is based on what they perceive as our skill, which is the result of the practice of a competency of ours.

Skills are a result of successful practice of our competencies, chosen by our ‘want’ to practice them, from the opportunities presented by our environment, and in the ways we want to practice.  Assuming responsibility for our ‘wants’ gives us choices to make.  We choose our wants, our objectives.

Wants (Objectives)

WANT = Wish to Acquire Necessitated by Thought

What we want is typically driven by our values and the opportunities we perceive to increase our fulfillment of our values, of what we value, of our value.

VALUE = Virtuous Aspects of Life Ubiquitously Established

We identify objectives we want to achieve.  This choice of objectives is driven by our values, our environment, as well as what we believe our competencies and skills are.  We choose objectives that are meaningful for us, as well as which will be possible for us to achieve with our competencies and skills.

We work out plans for us to act on the objectives.  The more important the objective for us, the more commitment we have to the plan.  To be the best, the plan needs to break down the objective into a work breakdown structure that most effortlessly fulfills our objectives in the least time.  The choices we make at this time are about what the individual and interrelated tasks will be, and at what level of detail we will visualize and describe the tasks.

Do action (implement)

With the plan towards our objectives, we start working at the tasks outlined in the plan.  As we get into the execution of our planned tasks, we make choices about detailing the steps for ourselves, which sometimes happens deliberately, though usually it might happen the way we have always done those tasks, organically defined and flowing into the next tasks, etc.

The most important aspects to focus on in this stage are to focus, to execute, and to persist in making the effort to execute, always verifying whether we’re moving closer to our objectives as we think we should.  Many a time, reflecting occasionally on our Want can rejuvenate the focus for us.

We’ve all been in situations where an action we had decided to do seems to be failing to meet the objectives.  We have a choice at that time, of whether to continue, to stop and choose a different/modified action.  It is therefore important to be able to project the effect(s) of the actions we do.

Achieve (closure)

Finally, to keep doing something until the objective is met, is what becomes achievement.  The closure of action, the point after which the action is no longer needed, is possibly the most important to arrive at.  If we don’t achieve closure, our energies will continue to need to be spent in sustaining/continuing the action we were doing.

As we find our way to achievement, it becomes important for us to know how to modify (if required) the action so that achievement is brought closer.

Fig 2.  Achievement results from focusing our competencies into skills, setting objectives, planning, and then executing the plan with commitment to ourselves.

Fig.3.  S: Skills,  C: Competencies,  W: Wants,  A: Action plans, T: Training


Let’s take this example (Fig. 3.) where we are considering the hiring of candidate X, for working at and accomplishing the WORK of developing a working MIS.

In many situations you as the recruiter will not know how the outcome can be achieved.  You may not know what competencies and skills are required to achieve the outcome in the best possible way, in the least time and cost possible.  You may also not know what possible methods could be employed to arrive at the outcome.  We may assume you know some of the attributes and desired standards of development of the outcome.

At the point you start assessing the candidate, you also do not know much about them.

How should you go about selecting the best candidate for the job?

Competency, Performance, Achievement, Growth

Over time we all realize that the most important competency we need is the competency to assess competence. Without it we have no hope of leveraging the unfathomable potential of humans towards any achievement, and we become limited in what we can achieve ourselves.

In the beginning of our contributing and being useful in life, we contribute with our own achievements, driven by our own competencies. As we achieve more in response to the perpetual need to achieve more, we reach the thresholds of our own limitations. It becomes imperative then to be able to help others achieve more with their competencies, to stay together on the growth path, growing in what we achieve together.

We shall soon explore how competencies lead to achievements, what are the intermediate stages and steps, and how we can direct them better.