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Coping with Change: An Experiential Exercise

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This exercise utilizes a five-piece puzzle1 to provide participants with an opportunity to experience the mental and emotional complexity of change first hand and to demonstrate graphically how volunteers "fit" into an organization's resource mix. I have used this exercise countless times, always with powerful results and always as an exercise which generates considerable group discussion.

Preparing the Puzzle and Equipment Needed:

We have given you a template for five (5) pieces of a puzzle at the end of this article. Photocopy enough copies of the master to be able to give one puzzle to each person attending the session. However, it is critical that you follow these instructions:

  1. Cut all the puzzles apart into their pieces.

  2. Take only the pieces numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 and either paper clip these together or place them into individual envelopes. These are distributed for the first round of the exercise.

  3. Hold all the number 5 pieces in a separate envelope until later in the exercise.

When presenting the puzzle, it is easiest to use an overhead projector. Instead of a transparency, place the actual paper pieces onto the projection plate. This will show the puzzle pieces as shadows. Leave approximately one-quarter inch of space between each piece so that light may show between the pieces and the participants will see how the puzzle is constructed.

Process Description


We often speak of volunteers as being on the "cutting edge" or challenging the status quo - both descriptions that represent change. Likewise, the presence of volunteers within an organization may also represent change, a new way of doing things, or a new way of conceptualizing the work delegated to a staff person. Again, change becomes a key variable within the equation.

I am frequently invited to talk about the role of volunteers within nonprofit organizations. The participants, often students, are generally familiar with the idea that volunteers work within nonprofit organizations. They expect my lecture to focus on the platitudes and virtues of volunteerism. They rarely expect a discussion of substance. It is my job to make them think and to help them see the importance of volunteers, as well as the complexity inherent in a well-formulated volunteer initiative.

The best way to use this exercise is when you want participants to re-think the way in which they generally view volunteers, particularly if you want to demonstrate that volunteers are more than a "simplistic" addition to an organization.

Set the Stage

To set the stage, talk about the basic components of a "standard" nonprofit organization or government agency. Tell the participants that they will be "constructing" their own organization in the form of a puzzle. As you articulate the four basic components of an organization, hold up a different piece of a sample puzzle to illustrate each component part. For example (you can select your own elements):

  • mission or mandate
  • finances to operate the organization or to fund projects
  • paid staff or members
  • program, services, activities

If a participant identifies volunteers as one of the components of the nonprofit, ask that person to hold that idea until later in our discussion. The point here is to connect the four puzzle pieces to the most common aspects of a standard nonprofit organization or government agency.

Distribute the 4-Piece Puzzle

With this shared understanding in place, distribute the four puzzle pieces clipped together or in an envelope to each participant. If the group is particularly large, the paper clipped 4-piece puzzles can be distributed in advance. Instruct participants to arrange the pieces into a square, representing a "typical organization."

The four pieces fit together easily into a square (see figure #2). Most participants will have the puzzle together before you have finished giving the instructions! For those people who are struggling with the puzzle, a little teamwork usually provides the assistance that is needed.

Please note that some people abhor puzzles. To recognize their discomfort, try to make light of the fact that some people are "puzzle challenged." The focus here is not to make anyone feel out of place, but rather to make a point. Participants are encouraged to help each other.

The 5th Puzzle Piece

With the puzzle assembled into a square in front of each person, introduce the topic of volunteers and how it is that volunteers fit within an organization. Indicate that many people think that it is easy to work with volunteers - after all, you only need to recruit them! At this point, hold up the fifth piece of the puzzle. Note that this new puzzle piece represents volunteers or the community that you hope to engage in the work of the organization.

Tell the participants that the puzzle in front of them can actually be re-organized to incorporate this fifth piece and that, when it is put back together, it will make an even bigger square.

If the group is a reasonable size - 40 or under - distribute the fifth piece to each person as you are discussing re-forming their puzzle. With larger groups, request assistance from someone in distributing the new puzzle piece.

As you distribute the fifth puzzle piece, assure the group that the puzzle [can] be re-constructed. Further, stress that origami or other forms of paper folding are not an acceptable option, nor will scissors be distributed to retrofit the puzzle. Likewise, simply placing the new square on top of the existing square is not allowed. Note that many organizations, in fact, do just that. They really don't think about how volunteers truly fit into the larger system and treat the volunteer program as simply an add-on. Then, when trouble erupts or budgets are cut, this "loose piece" is expendable.

Now the fun begins! As a trainer, you must allow the group to struggle with this assignment. I generally don't provide additional instructions and allow the process to become the teaching arena. For instance, some people may elect to work together, others may simply not try at all, while still others become engrossed in the challenge. Each behavior becomes an opportunity for reflection and discussion.

Of course, the participants have now become accustomed to the puzzle (their organization) constructed out of the original four pieces. They can't imagine a way to reconfigure the puzzle with all five pieces. This cognitive dissonance is exactly the situation that you, as trainer, are looking for. Suddenly this "easy volunteer initiative" just became complicated. If the organization is really going to engage volunteers in meaningful ways, staff are going to need to re-think the standard, accepted ways of looking at and thinking about their organization. The fifth piece of the puzzle provides just that opportunity.

This puzzle exercise also speaks to what we know about adult learning. It is always more difficult to "un-learn" an action or behavior (turning a 4-piece puzzle into a 5-piece puzzle) than to learn the behavior the first time. If, in my example, all nonprofits or public agencies engaged volunteers in meaningful work from the point of inception, this exercise would not be needed. But back to the exercise….

Remember, the solution to the 5-piece puzzle is the template from which you cut the puzzle pieces in the first place. To my knowledge, there is only one way to construct the puzzle with the five pieces. There is a close second option, but if you look carefully it is not a true square. Have your template with you until you get to know this exercise so that you can spot the "imposter" design. In some groups, a person will emerge with the correct solution in 4 to 8 minutes. When this happens, ask the puzzle expert to bring his or her puzzle forward and to construct it on the overhead projector so that all may see the solution.

In other cases, no one seems to find the answer. In these situations, start providing hints. One useful hint to form the new puzzle is to visualize the "outside" edges from the 4-piece puzzle as the "inside" edges of the larger one (again a good metaphor for the way an organization re-thinks its work with volunteers). If necessary, show a few people how to connect a couple of pieces, but then allow them to continue their struggle with the remaining pieces. (I have never had a group not have someone who can eventually re-construct the puzzle, especially once I start randomly placing puzzle pieces into their correct configurations.)

Debriefing the Exercise

First, be sure that everyone has the chance to form the 5-piece puzzle. You may find it necessary to actually put the puzzle together for some participants. I have no hesitation doing this as no one enjoys looking dumb in front of one's peers and, after all, this is an experiential exercise, not an IQ test!

With the new puzzle now in front of the participants, debrief the exercise. Questions you ask may include:

  • How did you feel when confronted with this change?
  • Do you think this is typical of how staff or members might feel when asked to engage volunteers?
  • What happens when you are asked to do something in a new or different way?
  • Did you want to throw in the towel, or were you energized by the challenge?
  • Did any of you work as a team? Did that help you solve the puzzle?

  • Did you consider asking for help?
  • How does working with volunteers represent a "change" for many people?
  • With your puzzle experience in mind, how might you help people gain comfort in working with volunteers?

The questions are endless. The point is to use this exercise to explore the ramifications of the change process. Engaging volunteers, or rethinking their role, is a change process. It is seldom easy, but it can be rewarding. You may also want to introduce change theory into the discussion.

You now have the participants' attention. They have experientially grasped that working with volunteers requires that they rethink their accepted assumptions about the way they operate their organizations and engage volunteers.

A Few Pointers:

  1. Work with the puzzle pieces thoroughly yourself before attempting this exercise with a group of participants. When I was first given the pieces of this puzzle, I did not have the "solution" to its construction. It took me [three days] to put all five pieces into a square. That knowledge is most appreciated by my participants, especially when they are struggling with their pieces in a time-limited format.
  2. Consider duplicating the template in a variety of colors. It livens up the exercise. It is not necessary that the fifth puzzle piece be the same color as the other four when distributed to the participants.
  3. You may want to have a small prize for the first person(s) who completes the puzzle.
  4. Be clear about the points you are attempting to make with this exercise. It has proven exceptionally useful for me, but remember it sets the stage for a discussion; it is not the topic itself.
  5. Definitely allow yourself plenty of time to cut and organize the pieces of this exercise prior to your workshop. You will find that most participants will want to keep the puzzle following the exercise.
  6. Let me know through the response section below how the puzzle works for you.
  7. And yes, you may duplicate and use the exercise, but please provide credit to the author and to e-Volunteerism!

Figure 1: Template for the Five-Piece Puzzle

Use this page as the master to create the puzzle pieces. It also shows the "solution" to the second part of the exercise.

Note: You may want to remove the numbers from the puzzle template prior to duplication.


Figure 2: The Four-Piece Puzzle

This is the solution to the first part of the exercise, without puzzle piece number 5. Reserve that piece until later in the exercise.




1 I am indebted to the IBM Transformational Leadership Program for the design of this puzzle. The five-piece puzzle was distributed at the end of their training program as a "key chain" to each participant completing the day's event. The IBM program did not utilize the "key chain" as part of their instructional process. The author is solely responsible for the design of this training exercise.


Incredible! And it comes at a time when we are being asked to constantly re-define the role of the volunteer here- THank-you soooooo much.

Wow! What a great idea! I'm such a fan of hands-on experiential learning when I facilitate discussions about volunteer mgmt. I'm leading a session at our Idaho Recreation & Parks Association conference this year. I'm definitely going to try this. Thanks so much.