Paper Fight Exercise

Having a paper fight in class can really shake things up. It also allows you to demonstrate some simple competitive dynamics principles in a very short exercise. I use this with evening, executive and BBA students — generally on the first day of class to shake things up and introduce the topic.

Learning Objectives:

  • Industry evolution and performance targets.
  • Strategic resources & competitive advantage
  • Dynamic capabilities and hyper-competition
  • Competitive dynamics and game theory
  • Improvisation and strategy
  • Shake things up!

Process/Setup (<5 min):

  • Call 2 teams (of 4) to the front. Give each 200 sheets of scratch paper.
  • Give them 1 minute to strategize. I only tell them that there are two rules: 1) Do not inflict any bodily injury, and 2) Do not damage any property or equipment.
  • “GO!” (Be sure to step out of the way so you are not a target)
  • Stop (before any serious damage occurs – 30 seconds 😉

Debrief questions (20 min):

  • Who won? In nascent industries, objectives vary & firms may seek different outcomes (hits vs. throws).
  • What happened? Moves & counter-moves. Most strategies have a viable counter strategy. For example, if they hide behind a desk, the other team may do a flanking maneuver. A more extended version would have to cycle through multiple strategies.
  • VRIN Resources? In this context, what might confer a competitive advantage? Resources (throwing arm, speed)?
  • Are dynamic capabilities evident here (e.g., ability to execute a sequence of moves)? Alternatively, is there hyper-competition such that a sustainable advantage is not possible?
  • Planning/Improvisation? How effective were initial plans? A typical plan is a division of labor between throwing and crumpling. This is often obsolete after about 4 seconds (once there are paper wads on the floor)?

Here is an article about this exercise and the lecture topics around it (click on it for the pdf):

Maggitti, PG, Coff, RW, Hatfield, DE, and Ferrier, WJ. 2012. Dynamics of Rivalry. Journal of Industrial Organization Education. 6(1): 1-10.

JR Keller introduces the exercise with a video from “Saved by the Bell” which you can find here. He uses the clip from 12:38 – 14:45 which depicts a paper fight in class tied to a lesson on the civil war.

Contributed by Russ Coff

6 thoughts on “Paper Fight Exercise

  1. Works very well with undergrads, evening and executive MBA students. Sometimes full time MBA student think class should be more serious than this (even though there is a serious message to the exercise).

  2. This is a great exercise to do on the first day of class. It sets the tone that participation is expected and it foreshadows concepts we’ll cover during the semester.

    I do three rounds with new volunteers (3 per team) in each round. The first two rounds are similar to what Russ describes. In the third round, the new volunteers are allowed to ‘acquire’ any of the teams from the previous two rounds, so there are 6 people per side. It provides for a good debrief on a) why they acquired that particular group and b) division of labor (the bigger groups talk more and ‘specialize’ their tasks).

    I’ve also added the use of google finance during performance measures part of the debrief.

    Takeaways that I emphasize include …
    1. Resources – tangible (e.g. paper) vs. intangible (e.g. leadership, aggression)
    2. Strategy evolution
    3. Strategy – developing vs. implementing (sometimes groups have a plan but can’t implement it)
    4. Performance (What is it? How do we measure it in the fight? In business? Use google finance.)
    5. Acquisition (why do it? How do you choose partners?)
    6. Innovation (some students have made paper airplanes, paper swords)


  3. I use this more broadly to illustrate the key components in a strategic audit and the course framework:
    – goal setting and its importance (many ask : why are we doing this? How do we know if we won?)
    – resources analysis (as per above) with highlights on innovation, hidden resources, transforming resources/capabilities (crumpling paper vs planes), dynamics..
    – competition (sometimes students send spies or go steal the other group’s papers)
    – performance analysis (how do we know if we won: performance measurement)
    then implementation..
    It works amazingly well.
    I debrief by also outlining the wide range of responses to highlight how seemingly identical resources can lead to very different strategies and outcome.

  4. I wonder if there would be benefits if the two teams were competing to make and sell paper-based products to the rest of the class. More aspects of strategy and execution to explore, but more complexity too.

  5. Pingback: Deflategate: Letting the air out of strategic planning | Carpenter Strategy Toolbox

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