Have you ever been subjected to an excruciating ice breaker?

Have you ever been to an idea workshop or ‘brainstorming session’ with the objective of generating new ideas and been subjected to an excruciating ice breaker or warm-up exercise?

My most painful one was a few years ago now and still sends shivers down my spine. There were about 15 of us and the facilitator made us stand in a circle. The first person had to throw a ball at someone else who had to catch it. As you threw the ball you had to say your own name. In addition to your name, you had to pair it with a supermarket shopping list. For example, I was Lucy lettuce. I threw the ball to someone who turned out to be Sarah sardine who threw to Dave donut who threw to Martin mango. You get the idea.

It was stressful.  Having to throw a ball to someone else felt fraught. The pressure of catching a ball and then the added indignity and anxiety of having to invent a shopping list name alliteration was dreadful.

Sound familiar?

What was the point?

I think the purpose of this ‘game’ was a ‘fun’ way to learn names.

My advice is if you want people in your workshop to know each other’s names, give people name badges and name cards where they are sitting and save people the anxiety of forced fun.

Why do these excruciating ice breakers exist?

Research shows that creativity and the flow of ideas come more easily for most people when they’re relaxed and in a playful mindset. So when you arrive at an ideas workshop, the use of warm-ups or ice breakers are intended to put participants at ease and create a relaxed atmosphere in order to get the most out of the session.

We all have engrained ways of thinking that can inhibit our creativity. We default to approaching problems in the same way that we have before, which is efficient on a day to basis, but can stifle new thoughts and creativity. In addition to helping people to relax, well facilitated warm-ups and ice breakers help to shift people away from ‘how we do things’ and help them come at the workshop challenge from a different perspective which can help creative ideas to flow.

A well thought through and well-executed warm up or ice breaker exercise can create the right environment and trust for generating ideas.

A badly thought through or poorly executed warm-up or icebreaker exercise can make people feel stressed out and do more harm than good.

My tips for warm-ups and ice breakers if you’re planning a workshop

  1. Think about your audience. What do you know about them? What are their usual ways of working? What might make them feel at ease, relaxed? What type of exercise is likely to change the dynamic without creating fear and anxiety?
  2. Think about the purpose of your warm-up exercise. Why are you doing it? This forms part of your workshop design. Is it to introduce people to each other? Is it to set the tone of the session? Is it to get people thinking about the topic? Think carefully about why you’re doing a warm-up exercise.
  3. Make it easy. For example, pose a question that anyone can answer. A question that connects people as human beings. Avoid anything that might have a judgement attached to it. For example, I’d avoid asking people who don’t know each other to share something ‘interesting’ about themselves. Participants worry that they’re not interesting enough and then struggle to think of anything at all. Ask something that’s less inviting for our inner critics to catastrophize over, ask something really simple that everyone can connect to like your favourite biscuit, first single or last film you watched. For putting people at ease and creating rapport, in my experience the more irreverent the better.
  4. Relate the warm-up to what the workshop is about. It can help to ask people a simple question that gets them thinking about the topic in an abstract way. For example, when I run storytelling training, I ask people to remember a favourite story from their childhood, if your workshop is about improving customer service you might ask for their best or worst customer service story, and if you’re running a big picture strategy session you might ask people for the big newspaper headline about their organisation’s achievements ten years from now.
  5. Drawing something. Drawing might feel risky but if delivered right can really help to get into a different mindset. You have to make it safe. For example, ask people to draw something that doesn’t have a right or wrong; a page of circles, a ball of tangled wool or abstract shapes. You show your not particularly good drawing first to put people at ease. Then get everyone else to show their different interpretation of the brief. Then ask them to draw something else simple, a cup of tea, an alien (no correct drawing here) or what’s on their desk. Drawing exercises, if you facilitate it well and are brave enough to ask people, in my experience are a fast track to shift peoples thinking and open up their creativity.

And my final tip is to invest in a facilitator. Having an independent person to design the flow of the workshop, including the warm-ups and ice breakers, and to facilitate to ensure everyone gets a voice, that the workshop keeps on topic and to ask the naive questions that you don’t even know to ask will help you get the most from the people in the room.

I hope this blog is helpful (and thank you to recent CIOF innovation and creativity training participants for the inspiration for this blog). And if you would like a facilitator to help you plan and deliver an ideas workshop without excruciating ice breakers then do drop me a line to lucylettuce@lucidity.org.uk or book a call here.