Icebreakers: Absolute Waste Of Time Or Do They Add Value?
Using icebreakers to open a session is controversial to some people. I have attended many sessions in the past with different icebreakers and have facilitated many myself. Some of the icebreakers felt random and had nothing really to do with the purpose of the session like rock-paper-scissors, round-robin-storytelling, truth or lie. Talking to people afterwards to get feedback, I found out that some people found the icebreakers a complete waste of time and other people who absolutely love them. Don’t get me wrong, I love games and energizers, and they can definitely spark energy and connection between the participants in the room. But were those activities really the best choice as an icebreaker?
Last year, I attended the Training from the BACK of the room course and since then I understand how well designed icebreakers can have a place in any session. I have started to experiment with icebreakers myself and now I tend to start every meeting with an icebreaker. Let me share what I learned including 5 tips on how to create amazing icebreakers yourself and how to avoid running bad ones.
When I was in the Training from the Back of the room, we were given a little exercise at the start:
Think about the following: ‘What was the most boring learning experience that you ever had and draw that in a picture. First, think about by yourself and draw it. You have 3 minutes. Second, find another person and share what you came up with.”
That was a very powerful exercise. It gave everyone time to individually think about it, then got everyone connected to the topic. The whole exercise took less than 10 minutes. Sharon Bowman, creator of Training from the BACK of the room, advises to follow the 4 steps described in her 4Cs-Map when designing training. The first C is relevant for this blog post and talks about ”Connections”. Purpose is to help learners actively make connections with what they already know about the topic (prior knowledge), with what they will learn (learning objectives), with what they want to learn (personal goals), and with each other (community building). This is where well designed icebreakers can have have a purpose.
I started to play with icebreakers and I learned that you can use them in any type of session (not necessary training only) to kickstart connection to the purpose of the session and everyone in the room. Here are my 5 tips for creating your own icebreakers, while keeping “Connections” in mind.
Start with an open-ended question
An icebreaker that is a question where a participant has to share what they already know of the topic are super powerful. Come up with a question that isn’t too complicated and that makes a participant reflect by themselves. Ensure to ask an open-ended question to stimulate meaningful answers. An example, when facilitating a retrospective: “How would you describe your feeling about our last sprint in 1 word?”.
Allow individual brainstorming
Some people are great at impromptu answering, most people (myself included) are not. In your icebreaker, provide the participants a couple of minutes to come up with an answer themselves first before engaging with others. Clearly timebox individual reflection to avoid endless procrastination. To continue our example: “How would you describe your feeling about our last sprint in 1 word?” You have 3 minutes to come up with 1 word by yourself.”
Most icebreakers I experienced in the past resulted in coming up with either something verbal or written in words. Try stimulating creativity by asking for a drawing as an answer. Make sure you have some paper or post-its, and a marker for each participant beforehand. In our example “How would you describe your feeling about our last sprint? Draw your answer. You have 3 minutes to come up with a drawing.”
Connect to others
Another purpose of an icebreaker is also to connect with others in the room. You can incorporate sharing answers with others to achieve that. Timebox the sharing time. You can extend your icebreaker to the following: “How would you describe your feeling about our last sprint? Draw your answer. You have 3 minutes to come up with a drawing. After 3 minutes, please share your answer with another person sitting next to you. You have 3 minutes for that.”
There are different ways to incorporate movement. An easy way is to let people get up and exchange answers with someone else in the room. Perhaps suggest to talk to someone who is not sitting next to them, in some sessions they will likely be talking to that person later anyway. When everyone has done that you can ask them to put their answers on a wall space for all to see. So “How would you describe your feeling about our last sprint? Draw your answer. You have 3 minutes to come up with a drawing. After 3 minutes, I would like you to get up and find another person (not sitting next to you) to share your answer to. You have 3 minutes for that. When finished, please hang up your drawings here.”
Go break the ice and ask for feedback
Energizers and games can add lots of value as long as you schedule them in your session with a purpose ( to re-energize or to distract) but these will not necessarily make good icebreakers if they don’t connect participants to the purpose of the session. So avoid running icebreakers with no connection to the session that participants are in. I hope you found the 5 tips helpful and practical. When designing icebreakers on your own, you can use all of my tips or just pick 2-3 from the above to get started and get comfortable. I found that the more you practice, the more fun and creative you become in designing icebreakers. Retrospectives are the perfect place to start. For now, go break the ice, experiment and gather feedback. Let me know what worked for you, I am always on the lookout for new icebreakers.