Breaking through Icebreakers

As facilitators we have many tips and tricks in our toolkit. But of them all, “icebreakers” tend to get the most apprehensive reaction (myself included). Typical perceptions of icebreakers may be that they are a waste of time, too abstract, too fluffy. Also, given the creative nature of icebreakers, people can feel uncomfortable in putting themselves out there through whatever the chosen activity is.

When recently working with a new Pragmateam client, we had the opportunity to push icebreakers into what would typically be considered a traditional, old skool environment. As attendees gathered in the workshop space prior to kicking off, they observed the agenda up on the wall and there were a few mutters of “gosh, icebreakers, those two words make my skin crawl”.

We quickly turned that perception around ...

Objective

In this scenario let’s first revisit the objective of the icebreaker:

  • team building - this was a group of individuals, who today would form together as a team for the upcoming 6 months
  • loosen up - new to agile, people were anxious about the process they were about to go through, let’s shake some of that off as early as possible
  • kickoff with energy - we were about to enter into 3 days of intensive workshops, we wanted to set the tone and energy levels for the rest of the sessions

Observations

We utilised our own version of a Hero Trading Card, allowing participants to be creative, drawing on their interests and personalities outside of the work environment.

To counterbalance the typical perceptions of icebreakers, we applied the following techniques:

Balance of being too abstract vs creative

You’ll notice on our template, while there are some fun elements, e.g. superpowers, we quickly ground the icebreaker to reality and project specifics:

  • contribution - why am I am in the room, what's my contribution to this project
  • hopes and fears - what are my preconceived ideas of this project, let’s get them out there early so they can be addressed throughout the 3 days of workshops

Know your advocates

After everyone has spent 5 minutes completing their card, it’s time for share back. Lead with someone you know will shareback enthusiastically and with energy. This will set the tone for everyone else’s shareback.

Living and breathing

Throughout the 3 days of workshops the team's Hero Trading Cards were highly visible within the workspace.

They provided a great reference point, especially reflecting back on people's contribution, hopes and fears. Likewise, any late arrivals to the workshops (who missed day 1 for example) were able to quickly capture their Hero Trading Card, introduce themselves to the team and at a glance, get a quick introduction to the other attendees.

More great examples of Icebreakers can be found on the Game Storming website.