I read a New York Times article a few days ago praising the benefit of icebreakers, while acknowledging that they are embarrassing and we all groan when someone from the podium announces, in a cherry voice, “Get ready, because we’re going to do an icebreaker.” We’ve all be subjected to, “Two truths and a lie” or “What would you be if you were an animal?” The most
ridiculous one I’ve heard of, which thankfully I’ve never had to experience, has everyone sit on the floor in a circle a with a toaster in the middle. Yes, a real toaster! When the toast goes down the people in the circle take turns, saying something about themselves. Then when the toast pops up the person that is currently talking has to eat the toast, with some kind of topping on it. Then the next piece of toast goes down and around the circle it goes. Yuk!
I want to affirm that getting people connected at the beginning of a meeting is essential for creating an openness and willingness to challenge. Peter Block has influenced my thinking on this issue. He always says, “Connection before Content.” If a group is going to concentrate on a difficult issue, they need to
learn who others are, the skills they bring, the experience they represent, and the values they hold. Stasser, who studies group performance, notes, “Group performance increases when everyone in a group is aware of each other member’s expertise.” But unfortunately, icebreakers, like those I’ve listed above, don’t accomplish that that goal.
Happily there are alternatives to icebreakers that effectively build connections between members of a group. I will suggest five that I use, but first I want to share my rules of thumb for designing an activity that creates connection, because the rules of thumb are much more important than the specific activity you choose.
- The first rule is to go to the trouble of designing the activity to accomplish connection. Designing means giving thought to what the meeting is about, what the group needs to know to effectively address that topic, and how to set up the activity to achieve that. Creating connection requires as much serious thought as planning a presentation!
- Implement the activity very near the beginning of the group’s time together, before interaction patterns have been established within the group – before there is tacit agreement about who will talk the most. If a group member does not speak in the first 15 minutes the group is together, there is a great likelihood that he or she will be silent the whole time.
- Explain why you’re doing the activity and how it will help the group with their work. For example, if the group is about building customer relations you might explain, “We want to understand how we build customer relations when we are really effective. We believe that knowledge is here in the room. The way we are going to discover that knowledge is ……
- Don’t call it an “exercise” or an “ice breaker!” Both carry too many negative connotations and are likely create the "groan" response. Even “activity” is suspect, although I’m using it here. You really don’t need to give what you are proposing a label. You can just say something like, “We are going to be working on a really tough problem today and we want to make use of all the knowledge in the room to solve it. So we are going to start by spending some time finding out who has what experience.”
- Take the time it requires to build connections. I know we all hate to give up precious time that could be spent working on the issue, but any activity that takes only 10-15 minutes won’t build the kind of connections necessary for members to make use of all the knowledge that exists within the group. If you’re going to be together for two days then 60-90 minutes to get people connected will more than pay for itself during the rest of the meeting.
- Design an activity that shows each person in a favorable light, don’t ask members to talk about group problems or failures. When people are first connected they don’t yet know if it is a safe space. After you take the time to get them connected, the sense of safety will grow as they work together, then at a later time you can explore failures or problems.
- Connection is only necessary if the people in the room are going to be interacting with each other in order to learn from each other or problem solve together. There is no need to build connections if all the group is going to do is listen to presentations.
The following are activities for building connection that I use and have mostly borrowed from others.
- Interviewing Each Other
Richard Hackman suggests this activity when talking about bringing intelligence teams together to focus on terrorist threats. (Estimate 90 min)
- Pair team members up and have each pair talk together and come to agreement on the goal of the team. Hackman notes unless there is agreement on the goal, there is no hope of a team being effective, so it is a critical first step.
- Then have each individual in that same pair spend 15 minutes interviewing the other person about what skills and experience they have that will help the team reach the goal they’ve just agreed upon.
- Finally have each person introduce his partner to the rest of the team, recounting the skills and experience he or she brings to reaching that goal.
By the end of the activity team members know what knowledge is available to them and how experienced other team members are. (You will recognize this as a variation on “interview your neighbor and then introduce him or her to the rest of the group.” But Hackman’s version is specifically focused on the team’s goal and is designed to let every member know who has what expertise to meet that goal.)
- Storytelling Circles
Seth Kahn, a great facilitator, taught me one of my favorite ways to get people connected. I’ve used it with from 20 to 100 participants. (Estimate 70 min). Put members in circles of 5-6 people, preferable sitting in chairs without tables. Ask members in each small group to tell a story about the topic of the meeting you have identified, e.g. “Tell a story about the most effective team you have been on (if the group is getting ready to develop norms for the team.” Or “Tell a story about how you got help from another team member that made a difference in your success (if the group needs to learn the value of sharing knowledge). Allow each person 2 minutes to tell their story (I ring a bell every 2 minutes). When time is up ask everyone to find another 5 people who haven’t heard their story and tell it again. I do that three times, so everyone has heard 15 stories. Then bring the group together to examine the patterns they heard across the stories, and chart those patterns.
- Appreciative interviews
David Cooperrider pairs participants and asks them to interview each other each for 20-30 minutes. (Estimate for the whole activity 2 hours) The goal is to find out how the group functions when they are at their very best, so the interviews are “appreciative.” The topic again depends on what issue the group is going to work on, for example, “Tell a story about a time when this organization was very innovative.” After hearing the story, the interviewer asks follow-up questions to 1) understand the conditions that made the innovation possible and 2) why that was important to the individual or the group. When each has interviewed the other, then volunteers are asked to tell a few of the stories that really resonated with them. These become memorable stories that the group can use to keep those qualities that made success possible in mind as they work together.
- Time line
When Marvin Weisbord conducts a Future Search he often has the group start by building a time line to help members remember together the significant events they have shared, as well as their hopes for the future. The timelines are built on a long wall chart (up to 24 ft) and is marked at 5-year intervals. There are lots of colored markers available so members can write brief phrases or draw images on the charts. Once the chart is completed, small groups create a story out of one section of the chart and then share that story and what the story means for the work the meeting is undertaking.
- Check In
When a group has come together many times, the period of connecting can be brief, but not neglected altogether. (Estimate 30-40 min) Just as longtime friends typically engage in “small talk” for a few minutes each time they meet, any group that comes together regularly needs a brief period of re-connecting before turning to content. In both situations the “small talk” affirms their relationship and their readiness to engage the topic. I call it a “check in” and ask each person to talk about work they’ve been doing since the last time the group met – something that others might be interested in, or to talk about an issue they are looking for some help with. These are short statements 30 seconds to a minute, allowing time for clarification, but not discussion. Then group members can follow-up with anything they want to talk more about over breaks.
Stasser, G. “The uncertain role of unshared information in collective choice.” In L. Thompson, J. Levine, & D. Messick (Eds.), Shared Cognition in Organizations 1999. (pp. 49–69). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Peter Block. Community: The structure of belonging (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2008)
Hackman, J. R. Collaborative Intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems, (San Francisco, Barrett-Koehler, 2011)
Weisbord, M. & Janoff, S. Future Search: Getting the Whole System in the Room for Vision, Commitment, and Action 3rd Ed. (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2010)
Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change. (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2005)
Seth Kahn, http://visionaryleadership.com/