The Secrets Of Thiagi, Master Of Creativity

Master trainer Sivasailam Thiagarajan, a.k.a., Thiagi, challenges learning processes with creative, thought-provoking games that rewrite the way we learn.

Hopefully, each person who is reading this column has had the opportunity to experience Sivasailam Thiagarajan, a.k.a., Thiagi. For those who have not, and for those who have had only a small dose or want a booster shot, I am devoting this column to his insights and experiences. He is the quintessential facilitator (by the way, he is not paying for this endorsement, though he has offered me all his other-worldly inheritance).

The first time I trained with Thiagi was in 1993, for a group of 120 high-potential leaders from the “old” AT&T, which, at the time, was our biggest and most important client. This was a “high-risk” intervention on global diversity. After introducing myself as president of Global Dynamics, Thiagi immediately told the audience I was the chief and I brought him along because I needed an Indian. Many times since that fateful day long ago, I have had the opportunity to play straight man for him. It has been a wicked combination of subject matter expert (SME) and master trainer!

START YOUR ENGINES!

Necessity is the mother of invention. Thiagi first realized that learning did not come from him, but from his students. One day in the early 1960s, while teaching a class of physics to a group of 50 at-risk high school students, he was trying to teach the concept and operation of a combustion engine. The students were sleeping and unengaged. Suddenly a light bulb went off in Thiagi’s head. He would break the class into five groups of 10 and tell them to go out and “borrow” a carburetor from a car on the street. When each team returned with their carburetor, he then told them to disassemble it and explain how it worked based on the chapter in their book on combustion engines. They were being timed to answer the questions and after doing so, the teams had to reassemble the carburetors and put them back into the cars. Their team would “win” if they were not caught by the police! Brilliantly, the students had all taught themselves. Thiagi only had to frame the learning into a game.

As a result, Thiagi stopped lecturing and has been creating games ever since. Here are Thiagi’s “Principles of Learning”:

  • Let the Inmates Run the Asylum: Let learners generate the content, ideas, and solutions.
  • Always Build the Airplane W hile Flying It: Design the program while delivering it. The students are also the instructors.
  • It’s the Activity, Stupid: Don’t focus on the content. People learn the content by doing something. The trainer is the manager of the activity.
  • Be Authentic: As the instructor, learn as much as possible about the “real world” of the participants. Develop cases based on their experiences. In a program on managing decision-making, Thiagi took actual decisions made in the past by leaders of the organization. He then asked participants to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision-making process and whether the decisions made by prior leaders led to successful or unsuccessful outcomes.

FLIPPING THE SWITCH

An example of how Thiagi has applied these principles in a technical training program occurred when he was asked to teach a group of 14 engineers how to work on a new model of a complicated telephone switch, a topic in which he had no expertise. The engineers had to be certified on the product at the conclusion of the five-day training program. Thiagi divided the class into four teams and told each team their final exam on Friday would be to use the switches on an actual client request. They then would have to take a certification exam. The winning team was the one that finished first, with each team member passing the certification exam.

At the onset of the training, each team was “given” $20,000 to reach their goal. The funds could be spent the following ways:

  1. There were five live technical lectures, which cost $1,000 each; only one person per team could attend and then teach the rest of the team.
  2. Books and technical manuals could be “checked out” at $250 per item.
  3. Instructional videos were available at $500 each.
  4. A subject matter expert was available for advice at $3,000 for every five minutes.

By Friday afternoon, each team completed the task, and each person passed the certification exam. One team said they should have won since they had the most “money” left over, to which Thiagi replied, “Those who spent the least were the most stupid.” By turning the learning experience into a game, the students learned, developed camaraderie, and enjoyed the learning experience.

Thiagi has published numerous books and provides new games through his blogs. He may be best known for his ingenious game, Barnga, which helps groups learn about how they deal with uncertainty and unfamiliar rules. He created this game when faced with a situation where he was incarcerated for no apparent reason and wanted to simulate a situation where the rules were ambiguous or contradictory. I would not be surprised if more than a million students have enjoyed this learning experience over the years. Such is his legacy of challenging learning processes with creative, thought-provoking games that rewrite the way we learn.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.global-dynamics.com.

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