It’s freezing. It’s snowing. Welcome to Chicago in Winter.
From my office desk, I see two people out battling this morning’s fresh snowfall with two different plans of action.
The first man – blue coat, blue car – comes out, pushes just enough snow off the windshield/windscreen to see, starts the car, and drives off. I hear the car groaning as it drives away. I can’t tell if the trail behind the car is exhaust or snow blowing off the car. The interior must have been as cold as the exterior because the car’s already fogged up.
The second man – red coat, red car – clears enough snow off the car to get in and start it. Next, he works his way around the outside car to wipe off more snow on all sides. By the time he gets in a few minutes later, the car is warm, he can see in all directions, and the car easily glides out and down the street.
The red car is exactly the point of brainstorm icebreakers: to warm-up your participants’ brains in advance of the brainstorm.
Unless you’re a person who invents ideas every day, you’re probably like most people who come to brainstorms (or regular meetings) vaguely prepared, if at all. In fact, I bet you’re bringing most of the work from your desk in with you – mentally, if not physically. (Think of it as driving with most of the snow still on your windshield.) With little introduction or warm-up, the facilitator demands your best thinking right now.
That’s why a good facilitator will try a quick and simple icebreaker to ‘mentally cleanse’ the participants’ brains so everyone can contribute and be more productive for the brainstorm.
Here’s what good icebreakers do:
- Create the right atmosphere for a creative session.
- Introduce people to each other prior to the brainstorm, especially if new people are joining (such as a senior person or a client).
- Make people comfortable – with each other, the environment, the situation, the problem to solve.
- Encourage cooperation, participation and listening.
- Clear the head by challenging the brain to think in a way different from immediately previous work or activities.
- Stimulate divergent thinking (free association, metaphors, force-fitting, etc.)
- Build rapport with the team leader or facilitator … and most important,
- Are FUN.
After the introduction to the meeting, plus a review of the key brainstorm information (including the creative brief), I generally go directly into an icebreaker.
Here are my three favourite icebreakers, easily adapted in many different ways. The web will give you hundreds more.
This icebreaker gets people to tap into their imaginations, specifically, “What if …?”
- Write or say the basic question (see below), inserting the subject of the brainstorm – the product, service, process, elements, attributes – into the blank space.
- Give the participants a random list of 15-20 words. These words should not be relevant to the product, service or process.
- Allow people 3-4 minutes to think of the new uses for the subject of the brainstorm.
- Reading down the list, ask people to call out their answers. Move quickly.
Basic Question: What is one alternative use for a ( _____ ) associated with each of the following words?
Random Word Examples: Kitchen, Garden, Movie theatre, Winter (or Summer), Birds, Bathroom, Bicycle, Italy, Water, Playground, Fruit, Hospital, Sport, Cloud, Chair, Purple, Bed, Wrist watch, Broom, Book, Television, Mustache, Stapler, Condom, Hercules and Ice cream.
You don’t have to attach this icebreaker directly to your brainstorm subject. You can also use any generic item – try a pencil, paper clip, comb or a cowboy boot – to warm-up your attendee’s creativity.)
Based on the board game of the same name, this is a free association game where people are given a random series of letters from the alphabet and a random series of categories. In only a few minutes, participants have to think of words beginning with each letter in each category.
- Create blank Scattergories cards. (Use the example to the right as a guide, or you can draw one on a flipchart and pass out blank paper for people to create their own.)
- Come up with 4-5 different categories.
- Choose 4-5 letters. (You might ask someone to pick the letters out of a hat, for fairness.)
- Everyone gets 3-4 minutes to fill out their card.
- Read each categories and ask people to call out their best answer.
- As a variation, where the game had subtle hints to the brainstorm purpose, I once drew the letters very large on flip-charts around the room. After the exercise, I gave people a marker and had them write their answers on the flip-chart around the over-sized letter.
See the Scattergories example in the picture to the right.
This game is deliberately fast and to-the-point. You create a list of people who are representative of your target audience.
- Review the key strategic information at the beginning of the brainstorm.
- Ask people to list people – real, historical or fictional – who would/ or ould be your target audience.
- Try for 50 names: a) you want to move beyond the obvious, and b) you want a lot of names
- Pick some of the more unusual or bizarre names, and brainstorm how you might sell or package the product, service or process to that person (or similar people).
- As a variation, I divided a very large group into three small teams and had each pick 5-6 names to brainstorm ideas at different spots around the conference room.
For a technology client a few weeks ago, we brainstormed people who (would/might) have a printer at home. Some of the names we came up with: Marge Simpson, Johan Gutenberg, George Washington, Ricky Riccardo, Burt & Ernie, Peter Griffin, Benjamin Franklin, Captain James Cook (on his boat, of course), Veronica Mars, Meryl Streep, Alfred Hitchcock, Joe Paterno, Kelly Slater, Michelle Obama.
One big point: Do not let the icebreaker take on a life of its own. Its purpose is to get people mentally ready to brainstorm, not to get unfocused. That’s why my personal choice is to create icebreakers which are directly connected – even tenuously – with the purpose, product, service or process.
… and if no Icebreaker?
Of course, you’ll be invited to meetings when an icebreaker isn’t appropriate, the facilitator isn’t adept at running one, or more commonly, there’s no time. In other words, you’re on your own to ‘icebreak’ in your head. Here’s some suggestions:
- Quiet your own distractions, including your phone or touch-tad.
- Ask your team to hold the calls, or even better, tell them you’re away and can’t be reached.
- Check e-/voice-mails before you get into the room.
- Don’t bring in files or anything else from your desk, save a pad of empty paper and a pen.
- Get there a few minutes early. Or, leave early for the meeting and take a long walk to the conference room.
- Take a restroom break before you go. Or, if you can bring your own beverage or food, grab something outside the office before the meeting.
- Sit down, breath in/out a few times. A friend closes her eyes and does a “30-second yoga stretch” in her head.
- Ask the head of the meeting to do an intro, a re-cap – anything – to get you and others focused on the meeting.
To be honest, there have been times when I couldn’t do any of these (too busy, a crisis, a looming deadline, staff problems). I went to the meeting, and I realised afterwards, I should NOT have gone to the meeting. I was worthless, didn’t contribute anything important, and more so, I surely was a bigger distraction to everyone else.
If this describes you? One, consider not going when you can’t mentally get yourself ready for a meeting. Or, talk to the meeting organiser to see if there’s a way to contribute or brainstorm ideas in a different way.
(This post turned out to be so popular that I wrote a second post. Go here for Brainstorm Icebreakers, Part 2).
What other brainstorm icebreakers have you used?