Icebreakers seem to have lots of people squirming in their seats, me included. There are many benefits to running them well and downsides when they are not. This post covers why do them and shares some that have gone well for me in the past.
I have been running an online lean coffee style meet-up, Agile in the Ether, for a couple of years. Each meet-up starts with a short icebreaker, some of which I facilitate myself, and others are facilitated by a guest. This month James Cattell offered to help, which led to this tweet of him asking for suggestions. What was apparent in the replies is that a lot of people hate icebreakers.
I don’t think the problem is the concept; the problem is in the format.
The icebreaker that we settled on this month built on a response to the tweet and was an anti-problem style question,
“What is the worst icebreaker you’ve ever experienced”.
- What’s your biggest sporting success (to a group of non-sporty people)
- What’s your most proud achievement
- Map out your life over a timeline with happy and sad points
- (remote) what are you wearing on your bottom half
- What’s one interesting fact about you?
- Two truths and a lie
All these formats are intended for people to get to know each other better. Which might fine if you are on a team with good psychological safety, but makes many people cringe, feel inadequate, panic, get distracted or spend the rest of the day thinking about what they could have said instead.
The reasons I run icebreakers at my meet-up are:
- to give everyone a chance to speak, making it easier for them to talk again (I do find that this can make a real difference)
- to level the playing field and put everyone on an even footing
- to get everyone to mentally check into the meet-up
Bonus points if it relates to the meet-up topic in some way and if it makes people laugh. I steer away from anything too personal to keep things relaxed.
I timebox the icebreakers to 8mins, including the explaination.
Here are some examples of quick icebreakers that I like to use.
- Think Links* business game
- What would you call it?
- What does this acronym mean?
- Quick treasure hunt
- Share something that makes you smile
- Agile Pictionary
(It’s worth adding that these icebreakers are specific to meet-ups; for workshops, I tend to follow the first C of Sharon Bowman’s 4Cs to mentally check people into the content)
1. Think Links* business game
The players say how they would set up a business or service using the three (random) cards they have been given.
- A hand that you attach to the front of a train that runs near the sea, to keep stray beach balls off the tracks
- A luxury service that brings calming beverages and soft rabbits to your car, when you’re stuck in a traffic jam
I either do this as shoutout the answer or in smaller breakout groups with a chance to share back.
This gets people thinking creatively and tends to get folk laughing.
2. What would you call it?
This is a fast-paced game, a card is picked at random and the player has to say what it would be called if it didn’t already have a name. They then choose the next person and it repeats until everyone has had a turn.
- Better vision makers
- Magic life window
Like the last one, this gets people thinking creatively and tends to get folk laughing
3. What does this acronym mean?
Each person takes it in turns to share an acronym or initialisation used in their workplace, and others have to guess what it means.
For example PMT, I’ll just leave that there for you to guess.
There is an element of camaraderie in shared acronym pain. This format was from Faye Benfield
4. Quick treasure hunt
Set a challenge like “Get a fridge magnet” or “find something yellow”
Bring it back and share it.
This gets people up out of their chairs and moving around. And can be as impersonal as they’d like. When I ran “find something yellow”, more than one person shared their lunch (see image at the top of this post).
After being given a statement like:
“We are going to hold an online party”, they answer with a sentence beginning with “Yes and…..”. For example, “Yes and … there will be a comedian”. Each person adds to the story in turn with a “Yes and….” sentence.
This is a popular improv game and helps to create an environment of openness to ideas and creativity. Great when you are about to discuss some challenges.
6. Share something that makes you smile
**Added Feb 23**
I wanted to add this one in, as I’ve used it a few times and really enjoy it.
Similar to the quick treasure hunt, I ask people to get something that makes them smile and then do a quick share. This is great because people smile while they are sharing and smile while they hear others share. It puts everyone in a great mood.
7. Agile Pictionary
We played this over a longer session. Each player is given a word to draw and their team or the whole group has to try and guess what the word is within a time limit.
I’ll leave you to guess the words.
This was a lot of fun and left us with some great illustrations.
*Think Links is a box set by Edward de Bono. Some wonderful image cards, word cards and 50 games to use them to develop thinking skills
Think Links is out of print, but I have drawn my own set of cards and created a miro board that you can use here https://miro.com/miroverse/think-links-icebreakers (added March 2022)