Lost at sea

25-40 min
Level of difficulty
5-30 (5 people per group)
A large private room and a ranking chart

When to use this exercise

Use this exercise when you want to improve problem solving and decision making in a new or existing team. By developing your team's problem-solving skills, you can improve their ability to get to the bottom of complex situations. By refining decision-making skills, you can help a team work together better, use different thinking styles and commit to decisions as a group.


This exercise builds problem-solving skills as team members analyse information, negotiate and cooperate with one another. It also encourages to listen and to think about the way decisions are made.


  1. Divide participants into their teams, and provide everyone with a "lost at sea ranking chart. This should have 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.
  2. 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.

  3. Give the teams a further 10 minutes to discuss and decide on their group rankings. Once agreed, they should list them in the third column of their sheets.

  4. 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?

  5. 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 food supply.)
  • Fishing rod (Potentially useful, but there is no guarantee that you're able to catch fish. Could also 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.)

The ideal scenario is for teams to arrive at a consensus decision where everyone's opinion is heard. However, that doesn't always happen: assertive people tend to get the most attention. Less forward 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 certain techniques 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."

Note: 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.

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