4 Problem Solving Activities to Grow Your Team Brain

Problem solving activities for teams

There are many ways to get your team to problem solve and come up with different kinds of creative solutions.  The following problem solving activities offer a way to get your team thinking outside of the box and on the road to growing your team brain.

9 Dots Exercise

Challenge:  To connect all 9 dots on the page by drawing 4 straight lines without lifting your pen from the page.  

This exercise is an old exercise, but can be very effective to help people begin to think creatively.  I would encourage you to do this exercise in three phases.  There’s little preparation you need to do for this exercise, other than to understand the problem and know the solution.

The 9 dots exercise looks like this:

You can have these already printed out, or you can just have your team members draw it on their own (this is the method I prefer).  If you have the pre-printed, you will need to print several to a page, because people will mess up and will try over and over.

To set up the exercise, say, “We’re going to do an exercise called ‘9 Dots’.  The object of this exercise is to figure out how to connect all 9 dots by drawing 4 straight lines, without lifting your pen from the page.  Go ahead and see if you can figure out how to do it.”

Give your team a chance to struggle a bit (a few minutes).  If no one is getting it (or if few are) suggest, “Your challenge is to draw 4 straight lines to connect all the dots; however, I did not say you couldn’t draw lines outside the dots.”

Hopefully, at this point, some people will begin to get it and come up with the solution.  Give them 3 to 4 more minutes to struggle, and then ask for volunteers to demonstrate the solution (don’t just have them show their piece of paper, but actually draw a new one on a whiteboard, chalkboard, or flip chart).

Here is the solution:

Takeaways:  The main thing to

Rope Handcuffs

Challenge: To get untangled from your partner without removing the rope from your hands.

This activity requires a little bit of preparation.  The first thing you need to do is to make the rope handcuffs.  You will need one set for each participant.  They are easy to make, but you need to make the middle section (the piece of rope or string between the circles for the hands) long enough.  If this section is too short, it’s impossible to “solve” this challenge.

You’ll need some thin rope or string about 2.5 feet long per person.  I like to use thin p-cord (it’s soft but also a good size for participants to work with).  Tie a circle in each end of the rope big enough for people to stick their hands through, without being tight.

Have your group partner up and have one person from each pair put on their cuffs.  The other person puts on one side, puts the other end around the middle section of their partners cuffs and then puts the other side on.  Each pair of people should be “connected” by the middle section of their ropes (not looped around each other, but unable to separate if they try to pull apart.)

The object of the challenge is to free yourself from each other without taking the ropes off.

Here’s how it should look with the solution:

With this exercise, it is important to know the solution.  I will usually have the pairs struggle a few minutes and try to figure it out on their own before offering to show them the solution.  After I show the solution to them, some continue to struggle.  As pairs get untangled, have them do it again and see if they can repeat the results.  Once they “get it”, then they can assist the other pairs (if asked).

Takeaways: The big takeaway from this is asking for help.  Even after offering to show everyone the solution (I ask if people can see me before showing everyone), people either can’t see me well enough or they still continue to struggle on their own (even though they know I will show them the solution).  Many times, we are too prideful to ask for help, even when we know someone has something we need or a solution to a problem we have.  It’s difficult, but necessary, to ask for help.

Survival Scenario

Challenge:  To save your teammates by choosing the most important items for survival from a plane crash in water, desert, or snow.  

Despite its name, this exercise usually happens indoors.  Survival scenarios are interesting activities.  I’ve used these before, and it’s fascinating to watch groups work.

Large groups are divided into smaller groups (6-8).  Typically, participants are given a hypothetical situation that involves the group in a survival scenario (desert, water, ice, forest, etc.)  The group has a list of certain items that must be ranked in order of importance.

First, each participant ranks the items in the order they think they’re important to survival. Then, the team must decide as a group how to rank the items, and then the group scores how well they did, as well as how well each individual did and relate the scores.

The best scenarios I’ve used are from Human Synergistics.  They have a number of different scenarios that you can choose from.  You can click here to see what they have.

Takeaways:  As a facilitator, walk around while the teams are talking and jot down some of what you hear from people.  Notice who is taking the lead and who is merely observing the process.  Everyone has to participate in this activity.  It’s also fun to look at the results and see who did really well individually but did not speak up when it was time for the group to choose the order of items.  Why didn’t they speak up?  Or did they try and no one listened?  Emphasize the value of every team member and the importance to speak up in a team when you feel that you have something of value to add.

Junk Yard

Challenge:  To move your group from one location to another, without touching the ground, using only the objects given to your team.  

Junk yard is an outdoor team building activity where a team must move from one location to another, using only the objects given as platforms as the team moves across a designated area.  Teams are given things like pieces of wood, tires, buckets, etc. (hence the activity name) and must refrain from touching the ground as they figure out how to get their group across an area.

The teams must work together, communicate, and use the objects in a manner that gets the team safely across the designated “danger zone” (where they can’t touch the ground or must start over).  The number and size of objects can vary and the distance that the team must cross can be challenging.

The fewer the objects the team has, the harder this is going to be.  Typically, there aren’t enough objects for every team member.  Participants must share objects – multiple team members standing on one object, and figure out how to move forward to get everyone to the other side.

Takeaways: Who stepped up to lead?  Who tried to lead but got shut down?  Did everyone feel heard?  Was there anyone who had ideas but did not speak up?  These are great questions and issue to address during your debrief time.  If the group struggled to complete the exercise, why?  What worked?  What didn’t work?

For all of these challenges, it is important to debrief and process through each experience.  There are creative ways to debrief, as well as more traditional ways.  The most important thing, though, is tying the activity back to real life.

  • What does this activity say about how our team functions?
  • How does the way we reacted to this activity help us identify areas that our team needs to work on (communication, leadership, respect, etc.)?
  • What did you learn about others through this activity?

There’s nothing wrong with doing some fun team challenges, but the activities will be most effective when you can tie it back to your current situation.  One of the things I typically relay to teams is, “How you show up in these activities is usually how you show up in real life.”  Have fun, but also process the experience to get the most out of it.

What problem solving activities are your favorite?  Which of these do you think will be most effective for your team?  Talk to me, Goose!  Let me know in the comments below.

Photo credit: www.SeniorLiving.Org 

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