Icebreakers, questions, creative exercises

‘Ice’ in a meeting is the invisible barrier that suppresses individual contributions. It starts out quite normally in waiting for the host of the meeting to set things in motion, but over time passivity can drift to inertia and the barrier to making a contribution seems to grow with each passing minute of not saying anything.

Icebreakers are a device to get people contributing right from the start, on the basis that if we don’t give the ice a chance to form then people will engage much more easily with subsequent exercises and discussions.
The inherent nature of icebreakers then is that they should be so simple and straightforward that everybody joins in easily. Ideally they will also be fun and creative, so that people are motivated to join in.
However, because of their simplicity, icebreakers often contribute little to the subject matter of the meeting, and so they need to be short so that they do not waste time and thereby antagonise people. The ideal icebreaker is only about 5 minutes long.
Despite their brevity, they still need to be justified to people so that they can value what you are doing. So introduce them as ‘warming up our thinking processes’, ‘getting our creative juices flowing’, ‘getting to know a bit more about each other’ or something like that.
If you are stuck for ideas for an icebreaker for your meeting, the internet is full of suggestions for Icebreaker questions and games. SessionLab’s website provides a very useful resource of about 20 varied options for energisers and 87 warm-up methods which will get you started.
The challenge is to get everyone to break their ‘ice’, and that means that everyone needs to contribute something. You can achieve this by breaking into smaller groups, or working round the group getting one answer from each person each round, or by getting people to stick their ideas up on post-its and then talk about them briefly.
Creative exercises are good for icebreakers because they pull people out of established and routine patterns in which people’s thinking can easily ‘fall asleep’.
Virtually every western organisation would claim that it is seeking innovation and would like its people to be more and creative in how they approach things (they need this to compete economically with lower-cost labour). However, many meetings take place without any structured attempt to seek creative options within their subject matter – they simply adopt one or more of the obvious viable solutions that are initially presented.
To overcome this ‘sticking with the obvious’ it is important to schedule time for people to think of alternatives to the obvious, perhaps through a question like ‘In how many different ways can we do this?’.
To be frank, four times out of five you may well go back to the obvious solution, and this tends to undermine people’s motivation for creative exercises – ‘what was the point?’  But the point is the fifth occasion  when that 15 minutes of investment produced something left field which creates a real benefit or efficiency edge which will sustain your competitiveness for some time to come.
The easiest way to not find creative ideas is to not go looking for them!
However, creativity is one of those things that many people (wrongly) feel that they cannot be good at, and so there is a danger that they sit back, switch off their brains, and leave it to others to do all the contributions. If you notice this happening, one simple solution is to stop the process and ask everyone to take a pencil and paper and write down three ideas. Then wait until everyone has put their pencil down.
By making the initial part of the task individual, people have to rely on themselves. And, having made a contribution on paper they are then far more likely to contribute one of those ideas verbally and get into the flow. If you find you are battling a low level of responses, try this out and see how the energy lifts afterward. The same exercise works for other things as well: experiences, concerns, observations etc.

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