I wasn't sure if I winced because the activity was so cheesy, the presenter was so excited to do it, or because I undoubtedly had done the same thing at some point. It probably was a bit of each.
I was in a workshop where a ridiculously perky presenter was overly eager about the icebreaker he had chosen to start the program. I'm pretty sure he was oblivious to the fact that few in the room shared his enthusiasm. By the end of the somewhat excruciating 20 minutes that the exercise took I'm not sure any ice had really been broken.
That's because the presenter had made the classic mistake of focusing on the process instead of the purpose. When he should have been concerned about breaking the ice, he instead became obsessed with the icebreaker itself, forgetting that it was just a means to an important end. The time spent became about him leading the icebreaker, not participants breaking the ice with each other.
I think this is why many people groan at the thought of opening a meeting or a workshop with an icebreaker. They have been subjected to seemingly random activities that are poorly chosen, poorly facilitated, or poorly processed. It's content without connection or context.
An icebreaker is not something a presenter or meeting convener should do to participants for his or her edification. It should be a purposeful activity done for or with the participants for their benefit and application.
So here's the single most important question you need to ask yourself when contemplating whether or not to use such an activity as part of a gathering you are convening:
What ice (if any) needs to be broken to make it easier for participants to do the work they have been convened to complete?Different work requires different understanding in order to be completed.
Different groups of participants require different knowledge about each other to do their work.
Focus first on the ice that needs to be broken, not the icebreaker you will use to do so.
Photo credit: Flickr user: imaginedp • Creative Commons license