Three Clever Brainteasers to Get Your Meeting Off to a Productive Start

By on November 29, 2012 in Leadership, News

The best work meeting I’ve ever attended (admittedly a very low bar) began with an interesting surprise. It was a small thing, but it improved the mood of the group right from the beginning and made us feel relaxed and comfortable. As a result, the meeting generated real progress and great ideas, and it even strengthened the bonds among the team.

The surprise was waiting for us as we walked in. Written on the white board at the front of the conference room was this question:

Which are worth more: 1978 pennies or 1987 pennies?

I’ll get to the answer later (no peeking). But if you have to run meetings, or if you just need to gather a few co-workers for an informal brainstorming session, here’s the key lesson that this brilliant little riddle can offer you.

Your attendees will almost always come to your meeting distracted – thinking about emails they have to answer, tasks they have to complete, calls they have to make, other meetings they have to prepare for.

If you want your group’s full attention, one great idea is to start your meeting with a mental exercise that’s both enjoyable and calls on as much of your attendees’ brainpower as possible.

The more the riddle or brainteaser mentally taxes them, the more your attendees will need to focus on it – rather than that distracting mental to-do list they walk into the room thinking about.

Now for the answer to that brainteaser above:

Answer: 1987 pennies are worth more.

Why? Because those aren’t dates – they’re amounts. One thousand nine hundred eighty-seven pennies are worth more – nine cents more – than one thousand nine hundred seventy-eight pennies.

In addition to helping your attendees set aside the mental distractions they bring into your meeting, starting with a riddle or brainteaser has other benefits:

  1. It lets your attendees stretch their creative muscles and get into the creative process, which will help generate better ideas and insights in the meeting.
  2. It puts every attendee in the room in the same situation. For those few moments while everyone is wrestling with your brainteaser, there is no hierarchy. Anyone in the room could be the one who discovers the answer first, and your junior employees can see that even the most senior-level person doesn’t always have the answers. That’s valuable, because it lets the more junior employees feel comfortable speaking up later in the meeting.
  3. It can help strengthen your team. When everyone is facing the same tough questions, and no one has the answers right away, your attendees will inevitably feel a little closer to each other. And that can be invaluable for your team’s ongoing productivity.

In the meeting I attended with that pennies question, I remember people walking in, spotting the question on the board, staring at it, and then looking around the room at the other attendees and… laughing. It was a hard riddle, and everyone seemed to enjoy trying to solve it. That’s why that meeting was so productive – we were all acting like more of a team than we normally did.

By the way, in addition to offering them at the beginning of your meetings, riddles and brainteasers can also be valuable at other points during a meeting – right after a break, for example, or as you transition from one topic to another. You can even send them to your team in email, if you think they need a creative jumpstart, and offer a prize (or even just recognition and bragging rights) to the first to get the answer right.

Okay, sold on brainteasers? Here are a couple more I’ve seen used in meetings – and both times the meetings that followed were quite productive.

The five-cups brainteaser

Arrange five cups or glasses on a table, three in a vertical line and then two horizontally to the right, forming an L shape.

See the first picture below for the layout of the brainteaser. The second image shows how it’s solved. (No peeking.)

The three cups lined up vertically each have some juice (or any liquid) in them, and the other two are empty.

Five-cups brainteaser – SETUP

The objective is to rearrange this set so that every other cup has juice. So, from top to bottom, and then from bottom left to right, it should go juice… empty… juice … empty… juice.

And the rule is, you can touch or move only one cup.

Think about it for a few seconds. Now, if you were running a meeting, every attendee would be completely focused on this brainteaser. They’d be looking at each other. Maybe laughing. Maybe shouting out guesses.

Ready for the answer? Look below.

Five-cups brainteaser – SOLVED

Answer: pick up the filled cup in the middle, and pour it into the empty cup on the far right.

Remember, the riddle says you can touch or move only one cup, so most people think about rearranging the cups in their existing form – filled with juice, or empty. It doesn’t occur to most of us to empty the contents of one cup into another.

Try that one on your staff. They’ll love it!

Here’s one more.

The light-switch brainteaser – SETUP

On a wall are three standard on/off switches, side-by-side-by-side, each switched to the “off” (or down) position.

One (and only one) of these switches controls a light bulb in a closet in the next room. The other two switches do nothing.

The objective: figure out which of the three switches turns on that closet light.

You can open the closet door only once, and you cannot touch or change any switches after you’ve opened the closet door. Damaging or disassembling the door, walls, or switches is also against the rules. And no cheating – assume the closet is light-tight, so you would not be able to see the light from where you’re standing.

Within these constraints, can you determine which switch controls the light bulb?

The light-switch brainteaser – SOLVED

Answer: turn on switch 1, and leave it turned on for about five minutes. Then turn it off and flip on switch 2. Then open the closet door.

If the light is on, obviously it’s switch 2.

If the light is off, touch the light bulb. If it’s hot, then it’s switch 1.

And if the light is off and not hot, then it’s switch 3.

Try these in your next meeting. I promise a much more lively, creative and productive gathering than normal.

And finding more of these is simple. Just google “brainteaser.”

© 2016 Robbie Hyman. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Robbie Hyman.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.

Robbie is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies. Visit for more information.

16 Replies

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  1. Katy W says:

    These are the worst games I’ve ever seen.

  2. Munchsgrammy says:

    I took the cup and penny brain teasers home for my grandson (12 yrs old).  Thought it would amuse him.  He had both done within  5 seconds.  When I told him they were suggested as ice breakers at the beginning of a meeting to get people focused, he was not impressed.  I came away with the feeling that he thought  we should be hiring some new people. 

  3. Frank Ramsey says:

    are three closed doors.   Your host tells
    you one door hides a wonderful prize and there is a goat behind each of the
    other two doors.  Pick one.


    pick a door.  The host then opens one of
    the remaining doors and shows you a goat. 
    He offers to let you trade the door you selected for his unopened
    door.  Do you do it?  Why? 
    Figure it out, then scroll down for correct answer.






    correct answer is yes, you trade your door for the host’s.  You do this because then you have a better
    chance of winning the prize.


    • USPS Letter Carrier says:

      The ole Monty Hall / Let’s Make a Deal puzzle. The door you select has a 1/3 chance of being right or 2/3 chance of being wrong. There’s a 2/3 chance that one of the 2 remainder doors contains the prize. If the host Monty Hall reveals a goat behind 1 of the 2 other doors, the door you did not pick still has a 2/3 chance of being right. Remember that your door still has only a 1/3 chance of being right or a 2/3 chance of being wrong. The math says pick the other door.

  4. HR Manager (Retired) says:

    Come on – meetings should be to conduct necessary business otherwise you are wasting your and your employees’ time.  Effective meetings are those which have a specific purpose, and known agenda so that the participants come prepared and a time limit.  What the author suggests is best suited for the office Christmas party. 

    • P Curley says:

      The best thing for effective meetings is to remove all chairs, even for the manager. This would insure that everyone stick strictly to pertinent matters and stop the usual windbags from getting everyone bogged down. Also, you could hold them just before end of workday. Either way, most people would want to get out of there like rockets.  

      • HR Manager (Retired) says:

        No, removing the chairs will only make the removal of the chairs a topic of extended and unnecessary conversation thus taking time away from the work related agenda items.  Also for the time of day the meetings are held you will find that the most productive meetings are those were the time limit is  set by the subject matter and not the ” it’s time to go home or lunch” clock. Meetings should only be held when absolutely necessary and will strict parameters as to subject matter, participants and time.  As one who spend most of his career in managerial positions I can tell you without hestiation that most managers have a much greater dislike for meetings than do most employees.   

  5. grannybunny says:

    These would certainly improve our current meetings!  🙂

  6. Paulmurray15901 says:

    I would disagree.  The English language usage for writing dates would dictate that the year be written 1987; however, numbers would be written with appropriate commas, e.g.,   1,987.  Therefore someone would have to look up the intrinsic value or numismatic value of coins from the particular years. 

  7. Different opinion says:

    I would disagree with the 1978 versus 1987 pennies.  If you take it literally then pennies with a date of 1978 have more copper content (almost 95%) and are worth more than those produced after 1982 when the content became mostly zinc.

    • IMHO says:

      Stores don’t care if the metal content of the pennies are copper or zinc – they are of the same value to them.  Therefore, 1987 pennies are worth more than 1978 pennies.  (But, your point is well taken!)  🙂

      • Unfair says:

        I think you’re misleading them – 1987 and 1978 should be written 1,987 and 1,978 if they are numbers and n0t dates.

    • Ed Harris says:

      Really? Someone must work in the Logic Free Zone in DC.   Come on.

    • Copper says:

       This is correct.  The copper content of U.S. cents was reduced in 1982.  1978 cents actually contain a few cents worth of copper based on today’s copper prices.  However, the government has made it illegal (for now) to melt down U.S. cents for their copper.  Nonetheless, some people pull the older, higher copper content cents from circulation with the idea of profiting later….or even now: it is possible to sell 5,000 pre-1982 U.S. cents for more than $50 on numerous venues.