Tinker Toy Exercise/Builderific

The Tinkertoy exercise is simple but exposes students to a variety of issues linked to formulating and implementing strategy. This deeper application of the common ice breaker has been published by Coff & Hatfield (2003) in JSME (Click here for full text). There are a number of slight modifications that make the exercise very valuable for different topics in a strategy course. For example:

  • The exercise can demonstrate key features of the resource based perspective and first mover advantage by having the teams execute in waves and watch how much imitation occurs (often team stick to their planned strategy even if they watch another team fail using that plan).

  • Strategy process. The discussion proceeds along the lines of what the vision, key result areas, goals and action steps ought to be. Students often focus on engineering and architecture and ignore management tasks.
  • Scenario planning. Ask the students to identify what might go wrong and develop a contingency plan. Even highlighting this, they will be prone to stick to their first plan until it fails completely (something that Eisenhardt notes with respect to “slow” decision-makers).

I have used Builderific toys (picture to the right) instead of Tinkertoys for a number of years. They are cheaper but also, the flimsy nature makes them less predictable — a good attribute for this particular exercise. Almost any cheap building toy set will work for this exercise (knex, tinkertoys, blocks) — however, you might need to modify the building time if the pieces go together easily. Here are Coff’s slides as well as Coff’s spreadsheet which will help you administer the exercise more efficiently. These are oriented toward using Builderific and scenario planning (to address strategic uncertainty).

Contributed by Russ Coff

9 thoughts on “Tinker Toy Exercise/Builderific

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    • Unfortunately, the site no longer has them cheaply since the toy is no longer made. However, many other building toys would work for this and I have modified the post to that effect.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Coff. I have a follow-up question. I have 18 students in my undergrad capstone course to whom I want to introduce your Builderific exercise. I am thinking about 4-5 teams. Would 118 piece Builderfic building set toy (available at amazon) work for this size? Or would a few of 78 piece Bulderific building set toy work better? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • I have used the 78 piece sets and taken out the big pieces that make for a more stable base (so they have to build the base). You might do this with 3 teams of 6. I have done the exercise with as many as 100 students (with 18 sets). Its a little crazy but it still worked…

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