Icebreakers and Team Building Exercises That Make Fun Meetings Productive

How many meetings have you been to that are just the same old thing — boring gatherings you cannot wait to leave. Most meetings are poorly managed and non-productive.

I have been a teacher, management consultant, and meeting facilitator for over twenty years. In the hundreds of classes and seminars I have taught, I have learned one truth — people get more out of your meetings if you mix in a little fun.

By using team building exercises and icebreakers you can make your next meeting, class, or team building event something dynamic and fun.

It is wise to consider a few basic elements before choosing a team building exercise or a meeting ice breaker.

Ownership — First, icebreakers tend to work best when participants have taken ownership of the activity chosen by the facilitator. You must put five key elements in place.

1. Explain the activity.
2. Provide the goals of the activity.
3. Outline the structure of the activity.
4. Allow time for questions.
5. Give permission to participate at their comfort level.

This last element is crucial and overlooked in many cases. Make an announcement at the beginning of an exercise to insure participants understand they are not “bound” to participate in the activity or team meeting.

For those who opt out, perhaps ask them to be “observers” and see if they are comfortable providing a debriefing at the end of the event. Provide them something constructive to do during the exercise. When given the freewill to choose, people will take greater ownership of their participation.

Set the Climate — Icebreakers set the climate for the event to proceed. With this understanding, it makes sense to choose an icebreaker that is in alignment with the climate of the meeting. An ice breaker or team building exercise could send a wrong message. The unintended message could send the meeting in a different direction. Therefore, it makes sense to spend the time to choose the proper meeting icebreaker.

Learning Objectives — Some trainers and team facilitators prefer using either a meeting ice breaker or team building exercise focused on the learning objectives related to the meeting, training program, or goal of the group. Others prefer using an unrelated exercise just to break the ice. However, each icebreaker is dynamic and has both intended and unintended consequences. Consider this prior to the event so you can maximize the experience and build a cohesive meeting.

Safety — The first rule is not to take any chances that could cause physical injury to your participants.

One of my favorite team building activity is called the “Terrorist Toxic Popcorn Situation.” This is an easy team activity for both adults and teens. The goal is to decontaminate a can of “toxic” popcorn that has been secretly placed in the room by “terrorists.” Your team must quickly come up with a plan of action; assemble tools and equipment, transfer the material into a “safe” container before the “toxic” substance explodes. This is a great game to identify the planners, doers, and thinkers in your group. It also demonstrates the importance of having a good plan.

Sample Team Building Exercises and Icebreakers

A Great Day for Hats!

Give each participant a donut-shaped piece of felt or other material approximately 18 inches in diameter. Tell participants to form a hat with the material. Participants should have enough time to make their hat. At the end of the team exercise, allow each person to explain the hat they created. You can also put people on teams and have some friendly competition between the groups on who can come up with the most creative hat.

Letters and Names

Give each person a few moments to think of an adjective starting with the same first letter in his or her first name (e.g. “Great Greg”). Begin by modeling it yourself. Then go around the group asking each person to state their name/adjective combination. During various points of the exercise, or at the end, ask volunteers to remember and repeat each of the names and adjectives volunteered so far. Provide prizes to those who do the best job.

The Napkin Game

Ask participants to form equal size groups. Give each group a napkin and ask them to fold the napkin as small as possible. However, it must be large enough for members of the team to place their toe on the napkin.

Paper-Tearing Exercise

This meeting icebreaker only takes about 5 minutes to conduct.

Give everyone a blank 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper. Tell them the following: “We are going to do something that will show us some important things about communication. Pick up your sheet of paper and hold it in front of you. Close your eyes and follow my directions-and no peeking — you cannot ask questions.”

Then tell them the following. “Fold your sheet of paper in half. Now tear off the upper right-hand corner. Fold it in half again and tear off the upper left hand corner of the sheet.

Fold it in half again. Now tear off the lower right-hand corner of the sheet.”

After the tearing is complete, say something like “Now open your eyes, and let’s see what you have. If I did a good job of communicating and you did a good job of following my directions, all of your sheets should look the same!”

Hold your sheet up for them to see. It is highly unlikely any sheet will match yours exactly.

Ask the group why no one’s piece of paper matched yours. You will probably get responses like “You didn’t let us ask questions!” or “Your directions could be interpreted in different ways.” Then, lead them in a discussion about the need for effective communication.

Greg Smith’s cutting-edge keynotes, consulting, and corporate team building programs have helped businesses build better teams, reduce turnover, increase sales, hire better people and deliver better customer service. He has authored nine informative books including his best-selling book called, Icebreakers and Teambuilding Exercises.

Four Points to Remember When Planning a Team Building Exercise

There’s another importance factor besides imagination and enthusiasm to have in team building and that’s strategy. You must plan your team building exercise very carefully and as much as possible bring a strategy to your activity so that the exercise is organized and professional. Consider five points of planning.

1. Remember Your Team’s Soft Side
Part of teamwork is developing a strong sense of family among members. Remembering that team work is based on positive qualities like love and family will help you to balance competition with compassion. Some games would not be appropriate for some teams. Children and adolescents are particularly sensitive and should be guarded against physical or emotional injury during competitive games. Even some adult members are more vulnerable than others and may not be able to participate in an exercise that puts too much pressure on the players. Take into account your team members’ personalities before deciding upon an exercise.

2. Design A Theme
One way to help motivate your workers and to impress upon them a major point is to plan the activities around a theme. The theme could be a few words or a sentence stressing a particular point. You could use the theme of the activity on posters, charters or even on supplies. Any time you can tie in a group of activities to one common theme, you will have made the entire day more memorable for your workers.

3. Adapt Your Exercise To Your Circumstances
Not all team building games are appropriate for every circumstance. You may find yourself in situations that would restrict certain games from being played as suggested. Some team building exercises are meant for smaller groups. Some exercises are meant for children not for adults. Some exercises might be too complicated for younger players. However, this does not mean that you cannot use the exercise at all. A better idea is to adapt the activity to your needs and to your audience. There are rules unless you as the trainer set them. Everything else is open to change.

4. Try And Shorten Your Teams
Smaller teams are best numbered in groups of two’s or three’s, as this gives every member the opportunity to brainstorm, perform presentations and work closer with their team mates. In some situations this may be impossible, however. Rotating members may help at this point, so everyone gets a chance to shine. You can also help this problem by creating more teams, rather than just two sides competing. You want to try and help every individual to excel.

Corporate Team Building Exercises

A corporate team is different from any other team, as the team is large and highly educated. These people are often prepared to work hard and do what it takes to get the job done, but what happens when the team falls off track? Having a great team is much like having a great marriage or education; it takes hard work and constant upkeep. If you want your team to thrive and provide great work for you and your corporation, you will have to give a little something back.

The team building exercises that are done with corporations are usually intense, and can be full weekend retreats. This is not only because the budget is larger than most other companies, but the need is greater. Much is expected from the team, and much will have to be taught. The following are some exercises that corporations may benefit from trying. These activities are based on team work and a will to get a job done the right way.

People platform: Participants may only touch the ground on the outside of the outer square and the inside of the inner square as they complete the task. The area in between the squares is off-limits. The entire group must participate. They may not stand or sit on each other’s shoulders; everyone must be touching the ground. The objective is to have everyone on the inner square without touching outside of it. After the group creatively attempts this exercise, they must hold everyone off the ground for 10 seconds (the time it takes to sing “row, row, and row your boat…”) An inner 2′ x 2′ and outer 6′ x 6′ tape outline of a square should be arranged prior to the exercise. Facilitators should take great care in ensuring participant safety throughout this exercise. Variations: If the group is slow to actively attempt the exercise, after a few minutes, announce a time limit by which they must finish. If a participant touches the area between the squares, tell them that they may no longer use that body part. If one member dominates the group, take away his/her ability to speak.

Processing Questions:

What were some of the challenges in completing this activity?

How did you overcome them?

What similarities do you find between this activity and your house operations?

What did this activity demonstrate to you about leadership?

Yurt Circle: The group forms a circle facing each other and counts off by two. You must have an even number of participants for this exercise. Individuals with shoulder and/or arm problems should not participate in this activity for their own safety. Members grasp hands in the circle. Make sure that height and weight of participants is evenly distributed around the circle. Instruct the group to simultaneously lean in the opposite direction while supporting each other. This means that the 1’s lean forward and the 2’s lean backward. Lean gradually, not all at once. Do it again. Change directions. Do it with eyes closed. Variations: Do it silently. Face outward and work through the process.

Processing Questions:

Was anyone tentative at the beginning of this exercise?

How did it feel to be reliant on others for support?

What would have happened if only one person let go? How does this relate to working in teams?

How is this exercise representative of our houses?

How can we develop more trust in our group?

These are only a few ideas of team building for corporations. When you are working with a large team it is always important that no person gets left behind. Include everyone, and everyone will learn from the activity.