Running Diary: Cold weather survival team building

Every year, my boss gets our geographically distributed team of 30+ full time staff together for a  multi-day get together. Among the things we do at these meetings, which was especially important this past year since a reorg brought us a new subset of people, is play some team building game. We shuffle the people in our three development teams so we get a chance to interact with people we normally wouldn’t, which gives us a chance to build a wider set of relationships.  This year’s game was particularly interesting as it presented a scenario that created a microcosm of the things that go on in real projects:

  • Requirements were sometimes vague
  • The group had to decide what to optimize
  • Not everybody got their way and arguments insured
  • Time was sometimes not used as wisely as it could have been
  • The outcome was mostly correct, but not perfect


My friend and colleague Pete Broding always picks the game and this year he found one online whose rules were as follows:

You and your companions have just survived the crash of a small plane.  Both the pilot and co-pilot were killed in the crash.  It is mid-January , and you are in Northern Canada.  The daily temperature is 25 below zero, and the night time temperature is 40 below zero.  There is snow on the ground, and the countryside is wooded with with several creeks criss-crossing the area.  The nearest town is 20 miles away.  You are all dressed in city clothes appropriate for a business meeting.  Your group of survivors managed to salvage the following items:

A ball of steel wool
A small ax
A  loaded  .45-caliber pistol
Can of Crisco shortening
Newspapers (one per person)
Cigarette lighter (without fluid)
Extra shirt and pants for each survivor
20 x 20 ft. piece of heavy-duty canvas
A sectional air map made of plastic
One quart of 100-proof whiskey
A  compass
Family-size chocolate bars (one per person)

Your task as a group is to list the above 12 items in order of importance for your survival.  List the uses for each.  You  MUST come to agreement as a group.

Pete modified the instructions a bit and asked us to focus on coming up with a Top 5.  Whichever of the 3 teams came closest to getting the Top 5 correct would win and awarded bite sized candies in addition to pride.

Because I tend to have a lot of influence on decisions in our regular work life together, when we do these exercises I tend to keep my mouth shut and see what kinds of things develop in the group. If I took over leadership of our team it kind of stifles interaction among the others, which goes against the whole point of going through this sort of thing to begin with.

Our group started by reading off the list of items and brainstormed the kinds of things you could do with each one. That led to some interesting side squabbles over what was and was not possible. Is the extra shirt, for example, a t-shirt or a flannel button down? The instructions were intentionally vague, so it was up for debate. Also in dispute was whether or not if it wasn’t clear how an item could be used, would its importance diminish?

After a bit of thrash, someone realized that the items generally fit into two categories: those that were useful if we decided to stay put and those that were useful if we were going to try to go for help. That led to a discussion over which was better. One person insisted that a 20 mile walk was not a big deal, while others disagreed given the air temperature and pointed out that staying warm in some sort of dry shelter was probably more important.

We voted on which we would try to optimize and staying put won. Predictably, the person who insisted on the ease of the walk (interestingly he was raised in a warm weather city) continued to grouse a bit over losing the vote despite the fact the rest of the group had moved on.  Pete gave us an opportunity to trade items with the other two teams, but we quickly discovered that everyone had the same list and I later confirmed he did this to encourage the groups to interact slightly to potentially influence the outcome (one group voted to go for the walk while the other agreed with us).

Through it all, nobody could figure out what the heck you could do with that ball of steel wool.

We finally decided on the following Top 5:

  1. Cigarette lighter
  2. Whiskey
  3. Newspaper
  4. Chocolate bars
  5. Small axe

The first two would be used to make a functional lighter while the axe could be used for firewood and for shelter.  The newspaper would act as kindling and leftovers stuffed in existing clothing for warmth.  The food is pretty self explanatory.

If you look at the answer, we did OK but not great.  Fortunately, our competition did worse and we were showered with all the bite sized candy we could eat.

The reason I liked this so much was the number of things we were exposed to as a small working group in a short amount of time that are all similar to what come up in real projects.  Requirements are never 100% clear.  Not everyone agrees with the best approach to a solution and needs to be coaxed along, sometimes kicking and screaming.  Issues are discussed at lengnth and sometimes discussions go longer than they should.

It was a great way to get introduced to the behaviors of others outside our normal workgroups and be reminded about the things that could be improved upon when we execute our projects.

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2 Responses to “Running Diary: Cold weather survival team building”

  1. Best vision statement? | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] mentioned recently, my work group had an offsite recently and as part of that we christened a new mix of development teams.  The reorg was meant to align […]

  2. Best offsite team building exercise? | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] month’s Running Diary was about a team building exercise I really enjoyed because I thought it presented a group of people with a microcosm of the kinds of problems you see […]

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