A staple of project kick-off meeting agendas for me has always been to include some type of icebreaker to help team members get to know each other prior to diving into the work. As many project leaders that may not be used to working remotely now find themselves converting leadership for their strategic initiatives to a remote working model – the approach for how to break the ice has become more complex.
Icebreakers can help teams to build community, promote interaction and foster empathy.1 Icebreakers also help you, as a facilitator, get to know your team and begin to observe team dynamics. Observing how team members begin to interact and engage with each other during an icebreaker activity can help inform your approach to agendas and activities in future meetings.
Some of the go-to icebreakers I have used over the years have translated well into the virtual environment. I have included some icebreaker ideas that I have recently tested working with virtual teams along with some that I am planning to try below.
When to Use: This icebreaker is project focused versus being participant focused. I tend to use this icebreaker if I am working with a team that may already know each other well to loosen up the group and encourage discussion. I have used it with improvement project teams but it is also highly adaptable for use in other contexts such as training sessions and staff meetings.2
How to: Formulate a clear question to pose to the group and ask each person to write down the first “one word” that comes to their mind. Focus the question to participants in on the key problem for your improvement project. Examples of questions might be “What is the one word you would use to describe patient flow in the dermatology clinic today?” or “What is one word you would use to describe the operating room turnover process today?”
When in person, I would typically use sticky notes and cluster them together on a whiteboard to discuss with the team. In the virtual format have participants private message you and then you can input each person’s answer into a word cloud to screen share back with the team. The word cloud is the jumping off point for a discussion about what is bringing the team together and why the work is important to address now.
Two Truths and a Lie
When to Use: Since this icebreaker has a guessing game component to it, I like to use it to encourage engagement with a team. I have found that it tends to work better with teams that know each other or of each other, but perhaps do not work together daily. I have found it to be more challenging (and take longer) to use it with a team that does not know each other at all.
How to:3 Each participant comes up with a list of three statements about themselves, which include two truths and one lie (in any order). Then the team members all need to guess which one is the lie. A lively back and forth along with laughter and some “Wow, I would never have guessed that” comments tend to ensue. For facilitation you could either just have people share their guesses in discussion or have people post their guesses to a video conference chat to share with all and discuss. I recommend using this icebreaker over video conference to allow participants to see each other’s delivery of two truths and a lie to aide them with their guessing. With audio only, you miss the facial expressions and body language that can help assist participants in sleuthing which statement is a lie.
When to Use: This is a more in-depth and personal icebreaker to use with teams. It is a great one to use when you as a facilitator are looking to foster psychological safety amongst the team members. This also works better when used with smaller groups.
How to: Each team member will work to create their own lifeline. Participants generate their lifeline by taking a blank piece of paper and drawing a line through the middle horizontally. Then life events are place next to dots each person creates in chronological order above or below the line. Then they connect the dots. Each person reports out/shares their lifeline with the team.
I tend to leave it up to the participants to determine what they are comfortable sharing on their lifeline – whether it is work/career focused or includes personal highs and lows, as well as how far back it goes.4 In a virtual video meeting, participants could hold up their lifelines to camera and present them to each other. Another option might be to give the lifeline preparation as pre-work to participants and they could create the lifeline on a PowerPoint slide to screen share and present in the session.
Conversation Starter Questions
When to Use: This is a simple, straightforward approach to an icebreaker activity that can be used in person or in a virtual meeting format.
How to: Develop an engaging question that you think will spark sharing and conversation among your team members. The following is a short list to get you started. There are literally hundreds of ideas out there and you can create your own as well.
- What was your first job?
- What was your favorite vacation and why?
- What is your best road trip memory?
- What is the most interesting thing in your pantry right now?
- If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
- If you could pick up a new skill overnight, what would it be and why?
Another option is for you as the facilitator to create the icebreaker question for the first meeting, but then to have team members trade off bringing an icebreaker question to subsequent sessions. If you have members of your team who are on the quieter side or tend to appreciate some additional time to mull over their answers you can also include the icebreaker question in the agenda when you send it in advance of the meeting.
The importance of icebreakers is amplified with remote teams and virtual meetings. I plan to continue to test out virtual icebreaker options to keep adding to the toolkit.
- Willkomm, Anne Converse. “The Three Benefits of Using Icebreakers.” Drexel University Goodwin College of Professional Studies Blog. Published July 24, 2018. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://drexel.edu/goodwin/professional-studies-blog/overview/2018/July/The-3-benefits-of-ising-ice-breakers/
- Heathfield, Susan. “The Best Ever One-Word Icebreaker.” The Balance Careers. Updated April 3, 2020. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/my-best-one-word-icebreaker-1918427.
- Peterson, Deb. “How to Play Two Truths and a Lie.” ThoughtCo. Updated November 5, 2019. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/2-truths-lie-idea-list-1-31144.
- Stebbins, Pete. “High Performance Teambuilding: Work/Life Awareness & Trust.” LinkedIn. Published May 22, 2016. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/high-performance-team-building-trust-worklife-dr-pete-stebbins/.