Careers and Employability Service

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.


  • Captain: age 57. Married three times; five children aged between 5 and 27. His youngest child has Down's syndrome. Drinks and smokes heavily. Plays the accordion. Carries a bottle of rum.
  • Ship's engineer: married; accompanied by his pregnant wife. His heroism in fighting the fire has given his fellow-passengers time to launch the lifeboat but he has sustained severe burns. Carries a shaving mirror.
  • Radio operator: ex-Israeli Navy. Brought up on an agricultural kibbutz. A fitness fanatic and champion kickboxer. He escaped the fire which destroyed his radio as he was on deck trying to impress the food scientist with a display of his kickboxing skills at the time. Carries a length of rope.
  • Cook: a former Special Forces officer reduced to working as a cook after being court-martialled following an unfortunate incident involving a torpedo and a presidential yacht. Carries a knife.
  • Anglican priest: a Philosophy graduate who taught English as a foreign language in South America for several years before returning to her home town to look after her disabled mother (now aged 85) with whom she still lives. Trained as a counsellor and was ordained in 1990. Carries a first aid kit.Desert Island
  • Diving instructor: After 20 years as a stockbroker in London , he has just moved to Tahiti to set up his own diving school. Divorced, with a son at boarding school in Wales . Goes grouse-shooting in Yorkshire every August. Carries a signed copy of the final Harry Potter novel.
  • Indian ship's carpenter: Married with four children aged between six months and seven years old. Was convicted of violent affray following a demonstration in Mumbai ten years ago. Writes poetry and has had two poems published in Indian literary magazines. Has a magnifying glass.
  • French Botany student: Lived in the Brazilian rainforest for eighteen months while carrying out Ph.D. research into plants that can be used in anti-cancer drugs: these are now undergoing testing by a major multinational pharmaceutical company. Voted for Le Pen in the last election. Has a rifle.
  • Retired soldier. Recently registered a civil partnership with his long-term partner, a 45-year old political journalist. Together, they have campaigned for improved healthcare for soldiers wounded in Iraq. Carries a compass.
  • Food scientist. A vegetarian whose research centres on developing plant-based, low-cholesterol alternatives to meat. She has been involved in a number of demonstrations against the use of animals in medical research. Carries a box of Mars bars.
  • Nurse. Came to Scotland eight years ago as a teenage refugee from Sudan who spoke no English on arrival. Gained 6 GCSEs and has recently qualified as a nurse. A devout Muslim who plans to complete the Haj next year. Carries a box of matches.
  • Ship's engineer's wife: Aged 35 and about to begin maternity leave from her work as a medical sales representative. Due to give birth to their first child in 4 months time. For some reason known only to herself she happens to be carrying a fishing line and hook.
  • Bank manager: Lives in a village in Sussex : Guide leader, parish councillor and president of the local allotment society in spare time. Has £50,000 in used £10 notes carried in a small suitcase.


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 communicationteam workingpersuasiveness 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

  • Consensus is hard to achieve but much better to argue with logic than to use a majority vote.
  • Avoid win-lose stalemates: everyone needs to buy in to the eventual solution if possible.
  • View differences of opinion as creative: the more ideas the more potential for conflict, but also the richer the pool of resources to choose from.
  • Be careful of reaching agreement too soon, before all options have been carefully considered.
  • Try to argue your case calmly and with logic: appreciate the views of others even if different from your own.


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!

  • Most useful individuals.
  • Compassionate grounds: women, children, sick and elderly first.
  • Most valuable contribution to society.
  • Most useful items carried.
  • Survival of the fittest!
  • The most harmonious team


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 other 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
  • Cristiano Ronaldo
  • 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


Careers and Employability Service - © University of Kent

The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7ND, T: +44 (0)1227 764000 ext. 3299

Last Updated: 04/08/2017