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Icebreaker (facilitation)

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An icebreaker is a facilitation exercise intended to help a group to begin the process of forming themselves into a team. Icebreakers are commonly presented as a game to "warm up" the group by helping the members to get to know each other. They often focus on sharing personal information such as name, hobbies, etc.

Examples of these kinds of facilitation exercises include:

  • The Little Known Fact - Participants are asked to share their name, department or role in the organization, length of service, and one "little known fact" about themselves. This "little known fact" becomes a humanizing element for future interactions.
  • Two Truths and a Lie - Participants introduce themselves and make three statements about themselves - two true and one untrue. The rest of the group votes to try to identify the falsehood.
  • Interviews - Participants are paired up and spend 5 minutes interviewing each other. The group reconvenes and the interviewer introduces the interviewee to the group.

They are particularly popular in the university setting, for instance among residents of a dormitory hall or groups of students who will be working closely together, as orientation leaders, perhaps, or peer health educators. In these contexts, they can be extremely beneficial. One suggested exercise is called "Crosswalk".

  • Participants stand on one side of the room. The moderator sits against a wall, indicating an imaginary line through the middle of the room. He or she will read statements one at a time. If a participant feels the statement applies, she or he will cross the room. If the group seems fairly comfortable with each other, the moderator can ask the group to make eye contact with someone on the same side and then make eye contact with someone across the room. You may need to emphasize that participants should interpret the statement however they feel appropriate. Afterwards, ask one or two participants to share their feelings on the activity and discuss briefly.
  • The moderator's dialogue: 1. “If… STATEMENT…please cross the line.” (pause until everyone has crossed); 2. “Make eye contact with someone on the same side as you.” (pause); 3. “Make eye contact with someone across the line.” (pause); 4. “Please cross back.” (pause until everyone has crossed back)
  • Suggested statements depend on the group's goal and include more casual items ("You grew up in a town with fewer than 5,000 people." "You have red hair" "You're wearing blue underwear.") to the serious ("You or someone close to you has ever been raped or sexual assaulted." "You've had a parent die suddenly or unexpectedly." "You have experienced descrimination on the basis of your sexual orientation.").
  • Topics for discussion during the exercise include: how it feels to cross the line, how it feels to stay behind; how it feels to cross or stay behind alone; whether or not anyone felt pressured to cross or stay behind; what participants thought when they had to make eye contact with each other; if anyone was surprised by how common a particular experience was; if any experience was more rare than participants had believed

More advanced icebreaker activities will also prepare the group for its assigned activities. For example, if the team's objective is to redesign a business process such as Accounts Payable, the icebreaker activity might take the team through a process analysis including the identification of failure points, challenging assumptions and development of new solutions - all in a simpler and "safer" setting where the team can practice the group dynamics which they will use to solve the assigned problem.

Examples of these kinds of facilitation exercises include:

  • The Ball Exercise - Immediately after introductions, the facilitator arranges the group in a circle and asks each person to throw the ball to a person on the other side of the circle while stating their name. When every person in the group has thrown the ball at least once, the facilitator announces that "we are going to do it again but this time we'll time it" and announces the rules. 1) Each person must touch the ball in the same order as the first round. 2) Each person must touch the ball with at least one hand. 3) Time stops when the ball is returned to the facilitator. (For further complication, the facilitator will sometimes introduce three balls in succession to the process.) Regardless of their performance, the facilitator expresses disappointment with the group's performance and urges them to do it again faster. When asked for clarification, the facilitator only reiterates the rules. An effective team will creatively redesign their process to meet the requirements of the rules. After several iterations, the facilitator will call a halt and use the exercise to draw out morals which will be relevant later in the day such as "Challenge assumptions", "Don't be satisfied with the first answer", "Be creative", etc.
  • The Human Spiderweb - The facilitator begins with a ball of yarn. He/she keeps one end and passes the ball to a participant. Each participant introduces him/herself and role in the organization then, keeping hold of the strand of yarn, unrolls enough to hand the ball to another person in the group and how they are dependent on that person (or role). The process continues, often with multiple dependencies until everyone is introduced. The facilitator then pulls on the starting thread and asks the group if anyone's hand failed to move. The facilitator then uses the yarn as a metaphor for the interdependencies of the group or the process which they will be discussing.
  • The Dvorak Challenge - The facilitator hands out a printout or picture of a Dvorak keyboard and compares it to the traditional Qwerty keyboard. The facilitator describes the productivity gains which are said to be possible if we all used Dvorak and "sells" the concept. Then the facilitator asks the group to identify all the reasons why businesses have not already converted to the Dvorak layout. The facilitator uses this as a metaphor for the natural resistance to change which the team will face if their proposed initiative is implemented.

Icebreaker activities are often perceived as a waste of time in corporate settings. They are criticized as being conducted for the benefit of the facilitator (learning names) rather than for the benefit of the participants (relevance to the team's assigned task).

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