Survival Simulation Series: Team-Building Survival Scenarios and Exercises

Introduced 50 years ago, Human Synergistics’ survival team-building exercises have been experienced by millions of people working in groups. The survival exercises were originally developed to demonstrate the value of participative decision making, the potential for synergy, and the impact of group processes and skills on performance. The different survival scenarios, ranging from Desert to the Subarctic, were also designed to provide members with an opportunity to see how their personal styles (as assessed by the Life Styles Inventory™) “play out” in group settings, contribute to or detract from the effectiveness of team solutions, and could be adjusted to improve their impact on group performance.

While our group discussion survival scenarios were designed for team building and process consultation, they also have been used extensively as icebreakers at the beginning of workshops, conferences, seminars, orientations, and training programs. In fact, many facilitators believe our “survival simulation games” were designed for such purposes! Though this was not the case, our simulations are fun, engaging, and possibly the best tools available to get the “conversation started,” break down barriers, and get members of new teams—face-to-face, virtual, or hybrid—working together.

Learn about our online survival scenarios here!

Over the years, we have updated and created online versions of the original Desert and Subarctic Survival team-building activities and have developed an entire series of different survival simulation exercises. In addition to being used for individual and group development, these training tools are often deployed to demonstrate to members how the cultures of their organization (as measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory®) shape interaction styles and climate at the team level.  Reciprocally, cultural change can be initiated by and reinforced with team-building activities designed around the simulations—focusing on constructively redirecting the interpersonal styles and communication skills of group members.

By having team members complete the survival scenario exercise individually and then as a team, the difference between the individual solutions and the team’s solution can be identified. This team-building survival test becomes a real measure of the group’s ability to perform as a team.

“I’ve always considered survival team-building exercises to be an essential part of every facilitator’s toolkit. These exercises demonstrate convincingly how group decisions are often more valid than even the decision of the smartest person in the group (e.g., the member with the best score).”

Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute and Professor Emeritus, MIT.  Author with Peter Schein, “Organizational Culture and Leadership, 5th Ed. (2017)”, “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 3rd Ed. (2019)” and “Humble Inquiry (2021).”

The Survival Scenarios and Situations

Each of our team-building exercises presents an unfamiliar, potentially life-threatening, yet different survival scenario and asks members to rank various objects (first individually and then as a group) in order of their importance to their survival. We offer a wide range of different survival scenarios to ensure that your team-building and bonding activities stay fresh and engaging. You can follow up on a team’s initial Desert or Subarctic group process experience with a very different survival problem (with Bushfire, Tsunami, Reef, or Cascades Survival) to identify and track improvements in their interactions and performance. Alternatively, you can follow up with one of our business simulations (such as Project Planning, Cultural Change, or Meeting Effectiveness) for a change of pace or for groups that prefer a “real-life” problem.

Interactive and Challenging

Every group process activity in the Series is designed to ensure that most, if not all, members have limited expertise with respect to the survival scenario and problem—as well as limited information about each other’s expertise. The unfamiliar locations and conditions “level the playing field” and provide at least the opportunity for equal participation, involvement, and influence. More generally, members have the opportunity to collaboratively analyze the situation and the resources available, identify possible strategies for survival, analyze the alternatives and select a strategy, and estimate the relative importance of the items available.

However, members often fail to effectively carry out these critical activities, due to either defensive organizational norms, personal styles, and/or group processes.  In many groups, assumptions go unchallenged, the expertise of certain members goes untapped, and influence is a function of the aggressiveness of individual members rather than their expertise.  Team performance on the survival simulation “game”—calculated by comparing individual and team rankings of the items to those of experts—is suboptimal and, too often, individual members’ scores are better than those of the teams.

Unfortunately, a team’s performance—as well as the interaction styles leading to this performance—likely represents their performance and interactions when dealing with real organizational problems. The good news is that their survival simulation experience and their scores bring to their attention the need for, and can serve as the impetus for, team development. Additionally, group members, facilitators, and others who observed the discussion can provide feedback on interpersonal processes, discern their possibly negative impact on performance, and suggest more effective processes and styles to enhance effectiveness. Various studies have documented the advantages of this type of experiential learning.

Easy to Implement

A Leader’s Guide is available for each of Human Synergistics’ Survival Simulations. The Guide provides the information you’ll need to design and facilitate a successful survival team-building activity or program, including the experts’ decisions and rationale, scoring instructions, program design options, and tips for discussing the skills and processes that contribute to effective team performance.  The Guides also review the ways in which the simulations can be used in conjunction with the Group Styles Inventory™ and our other assessments.

Videos are also available for most of our team-building scenario simulations. The videos enable participants to “see” the situation and the available items, making the simulations more real for them. They also relieve you of the responsibility of having to be the “survival expert” by presenting the experts’ rank and rationale to participants.

Choose the Survival Simulation That’s Right for You

SimulationThe SituationThe ChallengeTimeShop Online

Desert Survival Situation™
Learn More
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Desert 
It’s a hot August day and your plane has just crash-landed in the Sonoran Desert in the Southwestern United States.Rank 15 items salvaged from the plane in the order of their importance to your team’s survival. 1.5 to 2.5 hoursSHOP DESERT
Desert II Survival Situation™
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Desert II
On your way home from Acapulco, your chartered plane experiences engine trouble and crash-lands somewhere in the Sonoran Desert in the Southwestern United States. Identify your four greatest problems and the best strategy for your survival. Then, decide on the criticality of and best use for 16 items salvaged from the crash.2.5 to 3.5 hoursSHOP DESERT II
Bushfire Survival Situation™
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Bushfire
You and your group are on holiday in the Dandenong Ranges just east of Melbourne, Australia, when you suddenly notice a bushfire approaching.Rank 12 items in the order of their importance to your team’s survival.1.5 to 2 hoursSHOP BUSHFIRE
Reef Survival Situation™
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Reef
On an excursion from Tahiti to Australia, your yacht strikes a coral reef and begins taking on water through the hull.Rank 12 items salvaged from the yacht in the order of their importance to your team’s survival.1.5 to 2 hoursSHOP REEF
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Tsunami
Your group is enjoying a beach party on the coast in central Chile when a text message alerts that a tsunami is approaching.Rank 8 items in the order of their importance to your team’s survival.1 to 2 hoursSHOP TSUNAMI

Subarctic Survival Situation™
Learn More
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Subarctic
22 air miles east of your intended destination, your float plane crashes on the east shore of Laura Lake, in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border.Rank 15 items salvaged from the plane in the order of their importance to your team’s survival.1.5 to 2 hoursSHOP SUBARCTIC
Cascades Survival Situation™
Product Info Sheet
Sample Booklet Cascades
On the way back from a weekend retreat, the helicopter carrying you and your group crashes in a small clearing high in the Cascades Mountains.Rank 12 items salvaged from the crash in the order of their importance to your team’s survival.1 to 1.5 hours SHOP CASCADES

Please get in touch with us if you would like to learn more about the Survival Simulation Series or any of our group problem-solving scenarios, business simulations, and assessments. We look forward to assisting you.