Team Building Exercises – Problem Solving and Decision Making
Fun Ways to Turn Problems Into Opportunities
Whether there's a complex project looming or your team members just want to get better at dealing with day-to-day issues, your people can achieve much more when they solve problems and make decisions together.
By developing their problem-solving skills, you can improve their ability to get to the bottom of complex situations. And by refining their decision-making skills, you can help them work together maturely, use different thinking styles, and commit collectively to decisions.
In this article, we'll look at three team building exercises that you can use to improve problem solving and decision making in a new or established team.
Exercises to Build Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Skills
Use the following exercises to help your team members solve problems and make decisions together more effectively.
Exercise 1: Lost at Sea*
In this activity, participants must pretend that they've been shipwrecked and are stranded in a life boat. Each team has a box of matches, and a number of items that they've salvaged from the sinking ship. Members must agree which items are most important for their survival.
Download and print our team building exercises worksheet to help you with this exercise.
This activity builds problem-solving skills as team members analyze information, negotiate and cooperate with one another. It also encourages them to listen and to think about the way they make decisions.
What You'll Need
- Up to five people in each group.
- A large, private room.
- A "lost at sea" ranking chart for each team member. This should comprise six columns. The first simply lists each item (see below). The second is empty so that each team member can rank the items. The third is for group rankings. The fourth is for the "correct" rankings, which are revealed at the end of the exercise. And the fifth and sixth are for the team to enter the difference between their individual and correct score, and the team and correct rankings, respectively.
- The items to be ranked are: a mosquito net, a can of petrol, a water container, a shaving mirror, a sextant, emergency rations, a sea chart, a floating seat or cushion, a rope, some chocolate bars, a waterproof sheet, a fishing rod, shark repellent, a bottle of rum, and a VHF radio. These can be listed in the ranking chart or displayed on a whiteboard, or both.
- The experience can be made more fun by having some lost-at-sea props in the room.
Flexible, but normally between 25 and 40 minutes.
- Divide participants into their teams, and provide everyone with a ranking sheet.
- Ask team members to take 10 minutes on their own to rank the items in order of importance. They should do this in the second column of their sheet.
- Give the teams a further 10 minutes to confer and decide on their group rankings. Once agreed, they should list them in the third column of their sheets.
- Ask each group to compare their individual rankings with their collective ones, and consider why any scores differ. Did anyone change their mind about their own rankings during the team discussions? How much were people influenced by the group conversation?
- Now read out the "correct" order, collated by the experts at the US Coast Guard (from most to least important):
- Shaving mirror. (One of your most powerful tools, because you can use it to signal your location by reflecting the sun.)
- Can of petrol. (Again, potentially vital for signalling as petrol floats on water and can be lit by your matches.)
- Water container. (Essential for collecting water to restore your lost fluids.)
- Emergency rations. (Valuable for basic food intake.)
- Plastic sheet. (Could be used for shelter, or to collect rainwater.)
- Chocolate bars. (A handy food supply.)
- Fishing rod. (Potentially useful, but there is no guarantee that you're able to catch fish. Could also feasibly double as a tent pole.)
- Rope. (Handy for tying equipment together, but not necessarily vital for survival.)
- Floating seat or cushion. (Useful as a life preserver.)
- Shark repellent. (Potentially important when in the water.)
- Bottle of rum. (Could be useful as an antiseptic for treating injuries, but will only dehydrate you if you drink it.)
- Radio. (Chances are that you're out of range of any signal, anyway.)
- Sea chart. (Worthless without navigational equipment.)
- Mosquito net. (Assuming that you've been shipwrecked in the Atlantic, where there are no mosquitoes, this is pretty much useless.)
- Sextant. (Impractical without relevant tables or a chronometer.)
Advice for the Facilitator
The ideal scenario is for teams to arrive at a consensus decision where everyone's opinion is heard. However, that doesn't always happen naturally: assertive people tend to get the most attention. Less forthright team members can often feel intimidated and don't always speak up, particularly when their ideas are different from the popular view. Where discussions are one-sided, draw quieter people in so that everyone is involved, but explain why you're doing this, so that people learn from it.
You can use the Stepladder Technique when team discussion is unbalanced. Here, ask each team member to think about the problem individually and, one at a time, introduce new ideas to an appointed group leader – without knowing what ideas have already been discussed. After the first two people present their ideas, they discuss them together. Then the leader adds a third person, who presents his or her ideas before hearing the previous input. This cycle of presentation and discussion continues until the whole team has had a chance to voice their opinions.
After everyone has finished the exercise, invite your teams to evaluate the process to draw out their experiences. For example, ask them what the main differences between individual, team and official rankings were, and why. This will provoke discussion about how teams arrive at decisions, which will make people think about the skills they must use in future team scenarios, such as listening, negotiating and decision-making skills, as well as creativity skills for thinking "outside the box."
A common issue that arises in team decision making is groupthink. This can happen when a group places a desire for mutual harmony above a desire to reach the right decision, which prevents people from fully exploring alternative solutions.
If there are frequent unanimous decisions in any of your exercises, groupthink may be an issue. Suggest that teams investigate new ways to encourage members to discuss their views, or to share them anonymously.
Exercise 2: The Great Egg Drop*
In this classic (though sometimes messy!) game, teams must work together to build a container to protect an egg, which is dropped from a height. Before the egg drop, groups must deliver presentations on their solutions, how they arrived at them, and why they believe they will succeed.
This fun game develops problem-solving and decision-making skills. Team members have to choose the best course of action through negotiation and creative thinking.
What You'll Need
- Ideally at least six people in each team.
- Raw eggs – one for each group, plus some reserves in case of accidents!
- Materials for creating the packaging, such as cardboard, tape, elastic bands, plastic bottles, plastic bags, straws, and scissors.
- Aprons to protect clothes, paper towels for cleaning up, and paper table cloths, if necessary.
- Somewhere – ideally outside – that you can drop the eggs from. (If there is nowhere appropriate, you could use a step ladder or equivalent.)
- Around 15 to 30 minutes to create the packages.
- Approximately 15 minutes to prepare a one-minute presentation.
- Enough time for the presentations and feedback (this will depend on the number of teams).
- Time to demonstrate the egg "flight."
- Put people into teams, and ask each to build a package that can protect an egg dropped from a specified height (say, two-and-a-half meters) with the provided materials.
- Each team must agree on a nominated speaker, or speakers, for their presentation.
- Once all teams have presented, they must drop their eggs, assess whether the eggs have survived intact, and discuss what they have learned.
Advice for the Facilitator
When teams are making their decisions, the more good options they consider, the more effective their final decision is likely to be. Encourage your groups to look at the situation from different angles, so that they make the best decision possible. If people are struggling, get them to brainstorm – this is probably the most popular method of generating ideas within a team.
Ask the teams to explore how they arrived at their decisions, to get them thinking about how to improve this process in the future. You can ask them questions such as:
- Did the groups take a vote, or were members swayed by one dominant individual?
- How did the teams decide to divide up responsibilities? Was it based on people's expertise or experience?
- Did everyone do the job they volunteered for?
- Was there a person who assumed the role of "leader"?
- How did team members create and deliver the presentation, and was this an individual or group effort?
Exercise 3: Create Your Own*
In this exercise, teams must create their own, brand new, problem-solving activity.
This game encourages participants to think about the problem-solving process. It builds skills such as creativity, negotiation and decision making, as well as communication and time management. After the activity, teams should be better equipped to work together, and to think on their feet.
What You'll Need
- Ideally four or five people in each team.
- A large, private room.
- Paper, pens and flip charts.
Around one hour.
- As the participants arrive, you announce that, rather than spending an hour on a problem-solving team building activity, they must design an original one of their own.
- Divide participants into teams and tell them that they have to create a new problem-solving team building activity that will work well in their organization. The activity must not be one that they have already participated in or heard of.
- After an hour, each team must present their new activity to everyone else, and outline its key benefits.
Advice for the Facilitator
There are four basic steps in problem solving: defining the problem, generating solutions, evaluating and selecting solutions, and implementing solutions. Help your team to think creatively at each stage by getting them to consider a wide range of options. If ideas run dry, introduce an alternative brainstorming technique, such as brainwriting. This allows your people to develop one others' ideas, while everyone has an equal chance to contribute.
After the presentations, encourage teams to discuss the different decision-making processes they followed. You might ask them how they communicated and managed their time. Another question could be about how they kept their discussion focused. And to round up, you might ask them whether they would have changed their approach after hearing the other teams' presentations.
Successful decision making and problem solving are at the heart of all effective teams. While teams are ultimately led by their managers, the most effective ones foster these skills at all levels.
Apply This to Your Life:
Consider how others around you solve problems and make decisions. Could your team members benefit from improving their skills? If so, think about whether you could incorporate any of these exercises into your next group meeting or team building event.
* Original sources unknown. Please let us know if you know the original sources.
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