Stop with the cheesy icebreakers
Use these instead
“Tell me an interesting fact about yourself.”
“Two truths and a lie.”
“Let’s keep this balloon in the air.”
If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes in a corporate context, all of us have fallen victim to some awkward, cheesy icebreakers. Icebreakers that feel like they belong in a school camp rather than a professional workplace.
Icebreakers and energisers are well intended. To collaborate effectively, we do need to get to know each other (icebreakers). And during a long day of focused collaborative work, it’s great to take a break (energisers).
But wouldn’t it be so much more meaningful if these icebreakers and energisers connected to the work we were doing? It would make it much easier to channel the connection and energy they generate into the work. Rather than it feeling like a disjointed moment of silliness in a long day of work.
So I thought a great way to kick off the year would be sharing some examples of how I have integrated my icebreakers and energisers into the topic of the workshop or training I’m facilitating.
1. “Tell me a story about…”
I first experienced this icebreaker in a presentation course and since then it’s one of my go-to icebreakers. I use it at the start of my communications training because it combines a unique way of getting to know colleagues better (whether you already know them a little or a lot!) and illustrates several of the key points I make later in the training.
To play, you pair up everyone in the room. One person in the pair thinks of two interesting stories. They then say to their teammate “I could tell you a story about…” and finish the sentence with a 5-7 word description of each of their stories.
The teammate then chooses which story they want to hear based only on the brief description. The first person then has 1 minute to share that story before you swap.
I love this exercise because it draws out some interesting stories that aren’t your typical “fun fact” or “two truths and a lie”. It also leaves something on the table for colleagues to ask about later.
The activity also connects to the content of the communications training. I focus a lot on helping teams summarise their message and get it across to their audience in a compelling way. This icebreaker games gives them an example of summarising a story and communicating it in a way that gets their colleague to ask further questions.
2. The MacGyver Game
This is one of my favourite exercises for design thinking workshops, whether training or a design thinking project. It usually brings up some pretty hilarious uses of the chosen object, as well as helping illustrate the power of mass, “no-judgement” ideation.
To play, you pick an object. I often like to pick something simple like a paper clip. The more mundane (and some what out-moded) the better.
Everyone grabs a block of sticky notes and a marker. They have one minute to write as many uses for the object as they can think of. I usually like to give them a target number of uses that will be a stretch to produce in the time given - for example 8 uses in 1 minute.
I also encourage participants not to pre-judge any of their ideas. Even if it seems like an idea might be silly or not even work with the described object, they’re encouraged to write it down. This is a quantity over quality exercise.
Each person then reads out their ideas, reading only what they wrote on the sticky note, and places the note somewhere the whole team can see. As the ideas are read out, everyone else removes duplicate ideas from their personal stack. This way the sticky notes on the wall are de-duplicated as you go. Finally, everyone is given three sticky dots to vote on the top uses for the item.
This exercise is illustrates both principles and practical tools needed in a design thinking workshop. Generating the uses for the paper clip demonstrates divergent thinking and not pre-judging ideas. Deduplicating and voting on the ideas shows techniques for converging and picking an idea to carry forward. It also illustrates the practical use of tools like the sticky note, voting, and de-duplicating after ideation.
Finally, it’s always a bit of fun because there will be a few silly or funny ideas within the batch. This can get everyone laughing and give light-hearted a moment to call back to throughout the day to reenergise the group.
3. The Basecamp
This icebreaker is surprisingly useful on teams with high conflict or difference of opinion that the team are struggling to resolve. To make it most useful, spend some time with the participants to understand what difference of perspective is contributing most to the conflict. Is it cultural differences? Differing technical backgrounds? Varying tenure with the company?
In the centre of the whiteboard, place or draw a picture of a mountain. At the top of the mountain place an object of shared interest: the team itself, the shared objective, the project, the team’s targets.
Then have each person draw an avatar of themselves (no drawing skills required - a circle with eyes is good enough) and write a brief intro including their name and 1-2 statistics about themselves, related to the area of conflict. For example, the team is struggling because those who are newer to the company want to change how things are done and those with a longer tenure know it won’t work because it’s been tried before, use tenure for this exercise. In that case, each person would write the number of years they’ve been at the company next to their avatar.
Then everyone adds their avatar with name and tenure to the mountain, grouping theirs with others who are similar. For example, everyone with 10+ years experience, everyone with less than a year, and so on.
Then as a facilitator it can be useful to summarise the activity by discussing the strengths of the different perspectives. For example, the valuable organisational history those with longer tenure bring, or the fresh perspective those newer to the company have.
I have seen this work particularly well with multi-disciplinary teams. It can be useful to call out the different technical backgrounds of the team members as this can help explain why particular words might take on different meanings, or why team members have taken a strong stand about a particular approach.
4. Sticky Note License
This one is mainly for a bit of fun! But it also helps you as a facilitator when trying to get the sticky notes to stay stuck to the wall and other logistics within the workshop itself.
If it’s my first time working with a group, I will train everyone in their “sticky note license”, an idea I got from a brilliant facilitator I worked with. This involves showing the team how to pull a sticky note off the block correctly (from the side, as close to the adhesive as you can - if you’re wondering!). I also explain why we use markers on sticky notes and that you only ever put one idea on each note.
This icebreaker usually piques the participants interest, especially if they didn’t know there was a right way to pull sticky notes off the block. And it also helps avoid awkward moments later if someone writes all their ideas on a single note, or can’t stick their notes up because the adhesive section is curved.
There you go. Four of my favourite icebreakers. But the main reason they’re my favourite is because they are relevant to the sessions I use them in.
What highly relevant icebreaker or energiser have you used?