Balloon Debates


Below are several examples of balloon debates, so called because the typical example is that of a hot air balloon which is losing height rapidly and will soon crash because it is overweight, therefore you have to get rid of some of the passengers!

These are simple business games of the type that you might get at an assessment centre. This type of exercise tests your decision making, analytical reasoning skills and your ability to put forward a persuasive case - all important management skills. In a real life selection centre you would be given about 30 minutes to study the problem which follows and to produce recommendations for action and the reasons behind your decision. This would probably be a group exercise with other candidates with each candidate given the role information for one manager, but could also be given as an individual exercise in which you had to produce a report.

Other balloon debates:



You are the captain of a ship. A fire on board has destroyed the radio. From the rate the water is rising inside the ship you estimate that it will sink in between two hours and two and a half hours. You did not tell the authorities of your destination.

It will take about 45 minutes to launch the only boat and it will take 15 minutes for each person to be lowered into the boat and they can only go one at a time. They can't jump as the water is shark infested. The nearest land is an uninhabited tropical island 30 km distant.

Your task is to decide which people will enter the boat. Everyone has agreed to abide by your decision. Items held by individuals must stay with the owner; they cannot be transferred to other people.



You might be asked to give a short presentation of your case in front of the selectors. This would test your public speaking skills and ability to present an argument.

This type of exercise would usually be given in the form of a group exercise. Here, as part of a group of about 8 candidates you would be given about 30 minutes to come to a consensus on which option to choose. Here your skills of verbal communication, team working, persuasiveness and time management would be looked for. Keep an eye on the time as you would be marked down if you didn't finish.

Reaching a consensus in this type of exercise


There is a simple calculation you can make to decide how many people could enter the lifeboat. It will take 45 minutes to launch the boat leaving a further 75 to 105 minutes before the ship sinks. Each person takes 15 minutes to lower into the boat therefore between five and seven people could be saved, so you will need to choose 5 people who will certainly be saved and a further two who might be saved.

As in real life there is no single correct answer to this exercise and most others like it. Any solution could be persuasively argued for, and the final solution you choose is not important. You would be assessed on how logically and eloquently you made your case for whichever individuals you decided to save. Lateral thinking could get you extra marks here: creative uses for objects such as these would probably be marked up. For example the banknotes carried by the bank manager might not have any monetary value on the island, but could be useful for lighting fires or as toilet paper, and the suitcase could be useful for storing and protecting food. You could make a fire using the matches or a magnifying glass so you don't need both. The magnifying glass would probably take precedence as it won't get damp and can be reused many times. The novel is not just for reading, it could be used to make fires. Similarly the rum could be used for disinfecting wounds or to prime a fire and the empty bottle might be useful for storing water.

A good starting point might be to decide on the criteria you will use to select and rank people. Some of the possible criteria you could use follow. Which one you chose would not be important, as long as you used it consistently, but it might give some insight into your personality and values!


Running this as a group exercise with students

I normally use 25 to 30 minutes for Lost! and then about another 20 minutes for feedback.

I have about two thirds of the each group doing the exercise (say 6 to 8 people maximum) and then one third of the group (about three people) sitting round the edge taking notes using the observers form at

It can be great fun running two, three or four groups in the same room and writing the individuals they would each save on a board, so they can compare their conclusions.

At the end of the exercise I ask the participants to feed back first, then the observers and then myself: usually, by the time the participants and observers have aired their views, there isn't that much you need to say yourself!

If you take some large sheets of paper (about A3 size), marker pens and blue tack, each group can fix their results to the walls for all the groups to see.

I emphasise that feedback should be positive and constructive! Not "Debbie was hopeless!", but "Debbie made some very useful contributions but her voice was a bit quiet. I couldn't hear her very well, so she needs to raise her voice a bit in future."

You could have a small prize (e.g. chocolates) for the best group, although as there is no one correct answer, you might have to choose some otyher criteria for the winner, or give everyone a prize!


The Original Balloon Debate

You are in a hot air balloon which is losing height rapidly and will soon crash because it is overweight; therefore you have to get rid of seven of the passengers! Who would you choose? The passengers are:

  • Mother Teresa
  • Mao Tse-tung
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Mikael Gorbachev
  • Charles Darwin
  • William Shakespeare
  • Diego Maradona
  • Albert Einstein
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Beethoven
  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Jane Austen


This exercise gives an insight into your values, prejudices, political views (and knowledge of history!)

Career Ranking

Rank the following careers first in order of status, and then in terms of their value to society:

  • Nurse
  • Social Worker
  • Army Officer
  • Bank Manager
  • Politician
  • Lawyer
  • Architect
  • Engineer
  • Research Scientist
  • Actor
  • Farmer
  • Priest
  • Airline Pilot
  • Advertising Executive
  • Journalist
  • Policeman
  • School Teacher


Links to some other balloon debates and business games