The smiley face game — seeing the power of second thoughts

By Ruka

14 February 2014


Smiley face ball against a leafy background. Photo by chaitanya pillala on Unsplash.

In most cases your first idea will not be your best idea. In order to illustrate this concept, we recently did an exercise with our Agile Coaches. We first came across this activity when some of our team members attended Jeff Patton‘s Passionate Product Ownership course. Jeff calls it Circles, we called it the smiley face game. It’s a great way to show teams the benefits of consciously considering new approaches.

How to play the smiley face game

This exercise is best for 3+ people.

Materials you’ll need

  • one sheet of A3 paper per person
  • a sharpie for each person



  1. Ask participants to fold their A3 paper lengthwise, then in half, and half again until they have folds that form 16 squares.
  2. Give them 2 minutes to draw different smiley faces in each square. If you see people are stuck, mention that they can be creative and think of animals etc when drawing smiley faces.
  3. After the 2 minutes is up ask them to pass their paper clockwise to the person next to them and ask them to tick the smiley face they like and cross the one they don’t like. Ask them to keep passing the papers clockwise until they end with their own paper.
  4. Once they have their own paper in front of them ask everyone to put their hand up if they have ticks in the first row of squares, then the second, third and fourth.
  5. Then ask if they have any crosses in the first few rows and ticks in the latter rows.


Usually you’ll find that people get either few or no ticks in the first row of smiley faces, this nicely illustrates that the first idea (or smiley face in this case) is not their best idea. You can see this when you look at the page as a whole as well, the lower half of the page tends to show better, more creative smileys.

The smiley face game shows how consciously pondering a problem can get past the cognitive biases that Daniel Kahneman talks about in Thinking Fast and Slow.

This makes it handy way to get the creative juices flowing at brainstorming sessions for things like project kick-off workshops.

Learn more

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