Icebreaker (facilitation)

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.

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.
  • The human knot - A group of people hold hands in a variety of ways, and the goal is to try to form a circle. Not all human knots are solvable.

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