Problem solving is a skill that can serve almost anyone, in any role, in any industry. The ability to think critically, and resolve issues is a welcome talent that is helpful for every organization. How can you encourage such thinking in your team? In this article, we are talking about our favorite problem-solving games, activities, and exercises for work. Use these activities to sharpen the reasoning and decision-making skills of your department or your entire company. Without further ado, let’s dive into the best problem solving games for getting the most of your next work event.
In-person problem solving games
If you have the opportunity to get your team together in person, that’s a gift! Perhaps you are planning a company retreat or a department-wide in-person meeting. Whatever the circumstances, in today’s more digital workspace, it’s not always easy to have everyone in the same room. When you actually do, make the most of it! These activities are set up for in-person groups. They are part team-building activity, part icebreaker, and all fun! All of these activities are guaranteed to get people thinking, communicating, and having fun. If you have a particularly big group, you may want to browse our article on large group games too.
1. Treasure hunt
Similar to a scavenger hunt, a treasure hunt is a lot of fun but with a bit more intention. Rather than collecting a random list of items, participants use clues to find more prompts and hints, until the group solves a mystery (or finds a treasure). You can also create a treasure map if you want to play into the “pirate” fantasy a little more. The important thing is that only clues point toward the next stop - areas of the map should not be spelled out, but involve some problem solving and critical thinking to figure out what the clue means.
2. Story challenge
For the language lovers on your team, try this version of an ongoing story icebreaker. To play, each person receives a number of words (a word bank) that they can use to create a story. Then, everyone reads their piece out loud or presents it to the group. To come up with the words available for each person, you can use a random word generator online, or get creative. For example, consider instructing participants that they can only use words from the company website, or from the emails they received in their inbox yesterday.
3. Moral dilemma
Similar to a “would you rather” game, this activity centers on ethical dilemmas. Players should try to flex their moral problem-solving muscles by tackling a social issue. For example, Scruples is a popular board game that can be played. Or, you can look online for versions of games like Dilemma or Quandary. This is a great way to learn more about your colleagues while getting a peek at the way they think.
4. Build a shelter
How would you survive if you were stranded in an isolated place with a blizzard coming? Use this activity to find out! As an added complication, you can pretend that everyone is blinded by frostbite (by using blindfolds). The team leader must give the group instructions for building a shelter that can withstand the arctic winds. To play, you need a large space and some supplies. Then, select a leader (who can see) and blindfold everyone else. You’ll also need a large fan. The leader guides everyone in putting together their shelter (remember, while blindfolded). When everyone feels confident that their shelter is up to the test, turn on the fan and see if the structure can withstand the wind! This game is sure to lead to a lot of laughs and you’ll be surprised at some of the clever ideas that people come up with. This is also a powerful exercise for effective leadership - it’s not easy to reach a goal with a group that is blindfolded! Check out our article on team activities especially for leadership as well.
5. Improv games
You may think of improv games as more of an icebreaker activity, but the truth is there is a lot of brain power that goes into well-done improv. Look for ways to add both logic and entertainment to your next improv effort. Consider scenarios like banned words, where people cannot use a certain list of words, or “miracle cure”, where one person shares a problem they’re having and the other person must come up with the solution on the spot. Both are fun and easy ideas that don’t require anything but willing participants! If you need some other quick and easy team building activities, make sure to follow our blog.
6. Spaghetti tower
In this classic team building game, users try to build a tower using uncooked pasta noodles and marshmallows. The instructions are simple: use the tools at your disposal to design and build the tallest tower in order to win the challenge. You can judge on height alone, or weigh other factors like innovation, number of towers, or stability. For more simple team building activities, make sure to follow our blog.
7. What would you do?
Another classic icebreaker, this game involves coming up with some scenarios that require brain power to address. Here are some prompts you can use with your group:
- What would you do if you were at the zoo and all the animals escaped?
- What would you do if you were the first person to find out about an upcoming zombie apocalypse?
- What would you do if you were in line for a really important item, and a person cut in front of you, getting the last item?
- What would you do if you were invited for dinner at the home of someone you really needed to impress, and the food was terrible?
- What would you do if an imposter that looks and acts just like you infiltrated your organization? How can you convince everyone that you’re the “real” you?
8. “MacGyver” challenge
MacGyver is an older television program where the hero escaped sticky situations by improvising tools made of unlikely materials. You can recreate this set-up in your event space or office. To play, challenge participants to use 3-5 items to reach a desired end result. For example, something like “a way to pick the door lock” or “escape vehicle” are fun options. You can either set out some various equipment, or have people collect their own based on what they can find around the office. Note: if you are doing this in a conference room or other rented space, it makes sense to have a table set up with random odds and ends for people to pick from.
9. Egg drop challenge
This one will take you back to high school physics class! Break a larger group into smaller teams and challenge them to come up with a container that will protect an egg even when it’s dropped from up high. You can either let people know far enough in advance that they can discuss, design, and collect materials; or you can have supplies ready and have everyone build their creation on the spot. If you go that route, you’ll want to provide a variety of boxes, packing supplies, rubber bands, fabric, etc. Then set up a ladder and have each team drop their container and see if their egg remained intact.
10. Shrinking circle
Adaptability and flexibility are huge in the business world. One way to focus on both of those items is by playing this simple and silly game. Start out by using a rope to create a large circle that everyone can fit in. Then, every few minutes, make the circle a bit smaller. Depending on how large the circle is in the first place, you can take away an inch or a foot each round. The challenge is for everyone present to stay inside the circle. This will require some serious innovation once the circle gets small, and lots of laughs almost always ensue. Note: People are likely to end up touching each other in this exercise. It’s difficult not to once the space gets small, like a game of Twister. You know your colleagues best - if that level of closeness would make anyone uncomfortable, it’s probably best to try a different exercise.
Out-of-the-office problem-solving activities
Everyone once in a while, it can be really valuable to get out of your usual work environment and into a new mental space. If your team is planning a multi-day retreat, don’t be afraid to include an organized activity that will help everyone to think more critically. Most towns have at least one option for getting your group together and learning some new ways to problem solve. Do some research on what you have available locally, or work with an organization like Surf Office who can plan your next retreat - including the fun elements that your employees will be talking about for months to come! If you know that you can’t get out of the office right now, stick to this list of indoor team building activities.
11. Escape room
The goal of an escape room is to follow a series of clues and take on some challenges in order to unlock the space that everyone is locked in. There are usually 5 - 10 puzzles that teams will work together to figure out. Typically finishing one leads to another clue, so that participants can move onto the next phase. Only when they’ve successfully completed all of the tasks can they find the key and escape. While you can definitely set up an escape room on your own, we think it’s worth finding a local version in your town (or wherever your retreat is taking place). These are professionally set up and usually in really cool spaces like an underground bunker or a historic building. An escape room is a good excuse to get out of the office and spend time with coworkers in a new environment.
12. Murder mystery
These story-based games have people take on a role in a pretend scenario. They may take on a role like detective, dinner guest, or even killer in their dinner. Most of the time the games involve reading lines from a script, searching for clues, or even solving some simple challenges to move onto the next phase. Participants have to pay attention to conversations and context clues in order to get an understanding of who the killer might be. Observation and logic are key to catching the killer. Some murder mysteries involve getting dressed up and having a nice dinner, so if you’re looking for an idea for a big night out capping off your next retreat, this is perfect.
13. Ax throwing
What do axes have to do with problem solving? You might be surprised. This is definitely an activity you’ll want to go to a professional venue for. Ax throwing outfits have everything you need, plus the right safety precautions. They have everything set up with the proper distances, buffers between throwing stations, safe ax materials, etc. Plus, many of them offer food and drinks! Ax throwing can help with problem solving because most people don’t excel at it their first time. It takes some practice and careful consideration to figure out where to stand, the best stance, the force of the throw, etc. As you take turns, you’ll make adjustments and also consider new methods based on observing your teammates. The more you watch and the more you try, the better you’ll get. In fact, instead of having people compete against each other, we suggest having the team compete against themselves, aiming for a higher total score in their second or third consecutive game. This activity allows you to observe others and then optimize - essentially learning from each other.
14. Paper boat race
If you are able to visit a location by water, you can try this really fun activity. In this fun and creative exercise, participants build a small boat with paper (and other supplies) and then race them in a small body of water like a pond or stream. The boats are usually made by folding paper into a boat shape, but you can also try offering cardboard, balloons, popsicle sticks, or other crafty materials. You’ll also want to supply materials for decorating so that everyone can really have their creation stand out. Obviously the person who reaches the finish line first is the winner, but you can offer a few other prizes just for fun, like most beautiful boat or best effort. Make sure to check out our article on other creativity and innovation games, too.
When it’s just not possible to get everyone together, you can still encourage your team to put on their thinking caps and hone their skills. There are tons of critical thinking games, puzzles, and even apps that people can use to practice problem solving. You can encourage your team members to play these games in their spare time, or even set up a competition where people log minutes playing such games or using the apps. If you’re feeling really generous, give everyone a small stiped to be used on a problem solving app of their choice. This special touch makes a nice addition to a holiday gift, too!
Sudoku has become one of the most popular problem solving games for adults. There are dozens of free app options, as well as paperback books that you can pick up. The goal of this game is to fill each box on a 9×9 grid so that every row, column, and letter contains each number from one to nine. It sounds tricky - and it is - but players tend to find it addicting and the game has grown a huge following in recent years. Encourage people to play on their own by downloading an app or purchasing a puzzle book, or as a team by having the puzzles available in your office or at your next event.
16. Crossword puzzles
These classic word games have players fill out words based on clues. Words interconnect, and people must think critically about the context clues of what they’ve filled out so far. These puzzles are super versatile and one of the best things about them is that you can make them yourself so they are themed. You can use an online crossword puzzle maker to create a custom puzzle with clues about your business or other relevant subjects. For your next event, it might be fun to have a custom crossword puzzle about your company history or trivia!
17. Tic-tac-toe tournament
It sounds a little silly, but tic-tac-toe requires more brain power than one might think. Set up an ongoing tic-tac-toe board in your office and encourage people to use it on their breaks or when they have a few minutes to kill. You can set up a scoreboard and keep track of the leader; it’s a lot of fun to see the rankings change and to challenge the top performers. If you need an even simpler version of the same concept, simply set up the Connect Four game board in your break room and let people have at it!
Problem-solving for virtual teams
If your team is a bit scattered, it doesn’t mean that you can’t practice solving challenges together. In our digital world, there are plenty of options for online activities that teams can work on either independently or as a group. In the section above, we shared some ideas for independent work. These ideas are designed to bring your team together, no matter where they are. Set a time and have everyone hop onto your preferred communication tool, and then work together tackling these challenges.
18. Virtual hackathon
A hackathon normally refers to an event where participants have a set amount of time to design and pitch a new product or solution. It’s normally used in the tech space for pitching things like new apps, but you can apply the concept in lots of other ways too. In this online version, teams work with each other using virtual meeting software and pitch ideas to a panel of judges. This type of event requires some advance notice for the participants, as they’ll want to collect a team and come up with some designs. If you want to raise the stakes, offer a prize for first place.
19. Online escape room
Just like an in-person escape room, in an online version people must solve a variety of puzzles in order to make it “out”. Digital escape rooms normally come in one of two ways: in a Zoom “room” led by a host, or in a choose-your-own-adventure style via Google Forms or other websites. To play virtually, staff will enter the meeting and follow the prompts they get, and it might involve screen sharing some Google tools to work on puzzles together. Because of the platforms and tools that may be involved, this activity is better for teams who are a bit more tech-savvy and comfortable with online meetings, apps, etc.
20. Survival plans
Prioritizing is an important mental exercise. You can work on this with a game about survival. Have everyone imagine they are stranded on a desert island, and they must decide the correct order to perform life-saving steps in. Have this list handy, and ask everyone to pair off or get in small groups and number the list according to the best likelihood of survival:
- Find water
- Find food
- Set up shelter
- Look around the island
- Signal for help
- Create weapons for self-defense
- Build a raft for water
- Start a fire
- Select a group leader
- Find other survivors
- Anything else you think of!
The catch is that everyone must agree on the order of events! That will typically involve discussion and coming to some sort of consensus. Once everyone is done with the exercise, have them present to the larger group and explain their reasoning. This exercise is good for team-building, communication, and problem resolution. Plus, you will be better prepared if you ever get stuck on a deserted island!
21. Online role-playing games (like Dungeons and Dragons)
Seeing how people react in real-world situations is a really interesting way to get to know them better. Find an online game that has real-world actions and consequences, like Dungeons and Dragons. Or, you can make things even simpler by hopping on a Zoom together and reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book aloud, with the reader getting group consensus before making a decision. The important part is the discussion that will occur before choosing the next action. This is helpful for bonding and also helps you to see how your colleagues tick. These activities can be difficult to organize for big groups, so if you have a substantial team, try some of these team building activities for large groups instead.
22. Google Docs story
Similar to an ongoing story icebreaker, this game is easy to do online as people have time. You start by creating a Google Doc that everyone on the team has access to. Then, have people go into the Doc and add to the story that’s developing. If you want, you can pick a prompt to kick things off - or you can just let the first person get creative and go for it! The more specific or bizarre the scenario, the more creative and clever people will have to get to add their portion.
23. Model UN
Chances are you might be familiar with this concept from high school. Fortunately, adults can have a lot of fun with it too. You can play this virtually as long as everyone is a strong communicator. Each participant should take on the role of an international diplomat, and work together to form alliances and solve crises. Come up with a potential scenario that the UN must work through. Consider things like a global food shortage, natural disaster, or cyber-security threats. If your group is particularly large, you can have multiple people assigned to a country and they will have separate roles. If politics is a sensitive topic on your team, you might want to tweak this exercise to be focused on a business and treat participants like board members - or even a musical group!
Set the tone of your next company retreat
These problem solving games and activities are great virtually any time - there is something for everyone, whether you’re remote or in person, on a large team or a small one. One of the best ways to implement a problem solving exercise is at the beginning of a team retreat. If you have organized a large meeting or team building event, consider getting things started with such an activity. Many of these problem solving games will get everyone thinking and make people more comfortable, plus a lot of them also serve as a form of icebreaker.
The next time you plan a work retreat, consider including a few of these on the agenda to set the tone for a fun, energizing event. Need help ensuring that your retreat is, in fact, fun and energizing?
Let Surf Office help! We can help with organizing your next team retreat or all-company meeting so that you can focus on the fun.