Team Building Activity: Gordian Knot

Posted by Kristin Arnold on May 9, 2024

Gordian Knot

To creatively demonstrate problem-solving skills try this exercise with a group(s) of 5-15 people and allow 10 to 15 minutes. No materials are needed.

Start with a space large enough for the team/groups to stand in circle(s). Introduce this activity as a method to demonstrate problem-solving techniques with a “Gordian Knot” and share the story of the Gordian Knot:

According to Greek legend, the Oracle prophesized that the next king of Phrygia would arrive by oxcart. Gordius and his wife came strolling into town, and Gordius was made king. In gratitude, Gordius dedicated his oxcart to Zeus, tying it with an intricate knot to a pole in the public square. The oracle declared that anyone who succeeded in untying the knot would be the conqueror of all Asia.

Many years passed, and the knot stayed tied until Alexander the Great traveled to Phrygia. Alexander attempted to untie the knot like everyone else. When it became apparent that conventional means wouldn’t work, he drew his sword and sliced the knot in half. Hence, “cutting the Gordian knot” came to mean solving a difficult problem.

Let the team know that they will be solving a difficult “knotty” problem of their own! Ask the team members to gather around in a circle, so that people are standing shoulder to shoulder. (You may also warn them that you won’t be asking them to sing Kum-by-ya anytime soon!)

If any women are wearing high heels, ask them to remove their shoes.

Ask each person to stick out one hand and “shake” or “grab” just one other person’s hand – not standing beside him or her. Walk around the group(s) and make sure it is just one hand connecting to one other hand – not a five-hand pileup!

Ask the group to take their other hand and “shake” or “grab” another person’s hand. Again, emphasize one hand connecting to just one other hand.

Ask the team to “untangle” itself – in other words, to make the circle “bigger” without breaking the connections between the hands (or pulling out a sword to slice the knot in half).

Then stand back and watch the fun!

Most teams are able to figure it out; either they untangle themselves into one large circle or two or three interconnected circles. A true “Gordian” knot cannot be untied.

Debrief and Summarize

After each team has had a chance to untangle themselves, debrief the activity:

  • What worked well for your teams?
  • How did team members help each other?
  • How did you go about solving your problem?
  • What did you have to do differently to solve your problem?
  • What did you learn from this activity?
  • How might we apply these lessons to our team’s work?

If you like this activity, check out my book, Team Energizers, for 49 other team activities!

Related Articles:

The Unmistakeable Benefits of Teamwork (Even the Non-Believers Can’t Deny!)

It’s Not About the Problem. It’s About the Solution!

Team Activity: Marshall Goldsmith’s Feed-Forward Exercise

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

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