Leveraging the Power of Purposeful Icebreakers

I have written previously about some of the icebreaker malpractice that occurs in meetings. The key question when considering icebreakers as a part of your meeting, workshop, or conference agenda is: 

What ice (if any) needs to be broken to make it easier for participants to do the work they have convened to complete?

In addition to the answers identified, when brainstorming possible activities it is helpful to consider:
  • time available;
  • number of participants; 
  • room logistics;
  • culture of the profession/industry;
  • culture of the organizations that participants represent;
  • learning and engagement tendencies of the participants;
  • facilitator capabilities; and
  • the remaining content for the session.

Let me give you a specific example from a 3.5-hour future trends session I recently helped a professional association design for leaders from several different organizations. The session's purpose is to introduce these leaders to some disruptive industry trends and to help them think about how their organizations can prepare for their impact.

Approximately 85-100 mid-level professionals, about 65% male, will attend.  Futurists and other speakers outside the industry will introduce the trends coupled with self-guided small group discussions and facilitated large group Q&A. Those attending generally will not know many other people present.  They also will not interact with them in the future. Most participants represent professions and organizations that approach change conservatively.

When considering all these characteristics, we decided any icebreakers should help participants be more open to the presenters' provocations and to be comfortable discussing unknowns with each other. In short, help them be less resistant to entertain predictions they might find unrealistic, threatening, or unlikely. We decided to allot no more than 30 minutes for breaking the ice and to do so with two different activities.

Activity One (approximately 10 minutes)
Quotes/Prediction from the Past

Seat participants at tables in groups of six.  Give each table a set of six quotes about predicting the future (some humorous).  Participants each draw one, introduce themselves, share their quote, and briefly react to it.

Basic intros completed. People warmed up a bit to each other and the session's topic. Individuals each contributed to the conversation.  

Activity Two (approximately 20 minutes)
Forecasting the Future

Provide each table a set of 6-8 predictions for society overall. Invite groups to rank the predictions (on flipcharts) in order of likelihood they think they will come true.  Ask groups to post their rankings on a long wall.  Invite all participants to stand, stretch, and review the posted rankings. The session facilitator reconvenes the group, offers some brief commentary about the challenge in forecasting the unknown—using accuracy of weather forecasts as an everyday example—and invites participants to remain open to presenter predictions.

Collaborative discussions and decison-making occurred. Individuals experienced the challenge in managing forecasts. Diversity of thought and opinions surfaced. Opening activities connected to subsequent session content. Energy refreshed via stand-up time.

A few notes about the choices made:
  • Self-guided activities with a high level of structure were selected as the facilitator for the event has yet to be determined and could be someone less experienced.
  • The quote cards in the opening activity loosely connect to the day's content and make it easier for everyone (particularly introverts) to briefly share beyond the usual name, rank and serial number intros.
  • The second activity engages people in low-risk collaborative work in which there are no right answers, hopefully freeing them to participate more fully.
  • Entertaining forecasts for society-at-large in the second activity will hopefully help participants be more open to the external presenters' forecasts for their profession.
  • The collaborative conversations and rankings in activity two model how participants might take the presenters' forecasts from the event and engage their colleagues in making meaning from them.
  • The "gallery wall" display of all table rankings allows people to mix and mingle briefly, refresh their energy, and see the diversity of opinions (and that this diversity is both likely and OK) that may be present in the room.

This is the second post in a summer series on the craft of conference design.
Previous post: