True Collaboration: Thiagi and the Telephone Game

We learn through play.  And learning collaboration need be no different.  Thiagi (aka Sivasailam Thiagarajani) is a master at creating engaging games for learning collaboration.  Below is one of his games, ‘Surprising Sentence’, that I’ve re-printed (with permission of course) from his latest newsletter.  I thought it a great example of learning by playing.  And, it can be easily adapted by facilitators to a workshop or training session.


Surprising Sentence (by Thiagi)

Here’s a challenge:

Come up with a lengthy sentence that contains intriguing twists and turns.

Here’s the response:

Once upon a blue-moon day when I was swimming nonchalantly in the Ganges River which was slowly meandering through a rippling and sensual set of buoys anchored to the gooey mud located at the bottom of an ancient slow-moving glazier that flowed for unknown centuries at the center of a blue delta and capsized many a ship that carried alien assassins who were on their 87th secret rendezvous looking for some innocent and attractive and young men returning from a workshop on unarmed combat techniques for unmarried men who can cook rice 17 different ways without boiling off their little fingers or toes because that would not have been a pretty way to treat one’s own body parts, although it could have been exciting to a masochist or to someone with a Ph. D. in self-mutilation whose great grandfather probably gargled with salt water while singing Nordic drinking songs that has guttural lyrics and many.

If you thought I couldn’t do that, neither could I. I did not create this sentence, but only one half of it. My friend Tracy Tagliati created the other half.


To explore the requirements for and outcomes of true collaboration.


10 to 15 minutes


  • A telephone
  • Paper
  • Pencil


Find a friend. Call her on the telephone and invite her to play a fun game with you. Wait until she finds a piece of paper and a pencil.

Explain the procedure. Tell her that the challenge is to create the world’s longest sentence. You and your friend will take turns supplying two or three words at a time to construct a meaningful and lengthy sentence. Both of you will separately write down the jointly created sentence to keep track of what is happening.

Play the game. Invite your friend to supply the first couple of words. Then supply your words. Take turns to grow the sentence. Keep writing down the new words, adding them to the sentence as the game progresses.

Conclude the activity. Stop the activity when you have used up about 3 minutes or run out of paper. Ask your friend to read the sentence and have a good laugh.


Okay, that was great fun, but what’s the point?

This activity is a demonstration of true collaboration. Here are the key features of such collaboration:

  • There are no hidden agendas. You are not trying to control the other person’s contribution.
  • The focus is on the process and not the result.
  • No one dominates the activity. You take turns.
  • Both of you own the final product. It is impossible to figure out who contributed more.
  • Both of you have equal status.
  • Each person brings her own unique perceptions, preferences, and experiences to the activity.
  • You build upon what the other person offers.
  • You listen actively. You have to be mindful of what is happening every moment.
  • You are spontaneous. If you begin to plan ahead, the activity does not flow smoothly.
  • The final product is unexpected and surprisingly delightful.
  • A playful approach results in you and your partner reaching a flow state in which you feel that you can read the other person’s mind.

Of course, you can play the game in a face-to-face situation. But the telephone call makes it more spontaneous and fun. You can forget about writing down the sentence, but then you will regret your inability to recall the brilliant creation and impress your other friends.


(back to Ben…) Notice the game structure; simple rules, engaging activity, and a robust debrief.  And, I like the short duration of the game… perfect for our distributed attentions!  It makes an excellent Participant Engagement Tool, for either an in-person or virtual workshop.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  How would you want to learn more about collaboration?  I think the telephone game way is a heck of way.

Check out Thiagi’s website.  Follow Thiagi on Twitter (@thiagi )… that’s where I first encountered him.  His creative well seems to be always full.  I’m grateful.

How about you?  Got a favourite collaboration game?

Photo credit: Mr. Thomas on Flickr


  1. Roy Leaman says

    Hi Ben. This could be easily adapted into a group activity to encourage collaboration and minimize the influence of hidden agendas. Thanks for the info.

  2. Roy, I agree. The game idea is a good one, and should be configurable for a group workshop… perhaps setting it up as an activity to be carried out, in groups of 2 or 3 people (in-person) or perhaps in a teleconference format, as another way to explore virtual collaboration?

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