Priming the Work
Tips and techniques to effectively break the ice and prime the work in meetings, workshops, and classrooms
Approximate reading time: 7 minutes; 959 words.
I wasn't sure if I winced because the activity was so cheesy, the presenter was so excited to do it, or because I undoubtedly had done the same thing at some point. It probably was a bit of each.
I was in a workshop where a ridiculously perky presenter was overly eager about the icebreaker he had chosen to start the program. I'm pretty sure he was oblivious to the fact that few in the room shared his enthusiasm. By the end of the somewhat excruciating 20 minutes that the exercise took, I'm not sure any ice really had been broken.
The presenter had made the classic mistake of focusing on the process instead of the purpose. When he should have been concerned about breaking the ice—priming the work—he instead became obsessed with the icebreaker itself, forgetting that it was just a means to an important end. The time spent became about him leading the icebreaker, not participants meaningfully breaking the ice with each other.
Experiences like this may be why many people groan at the thought of opening a meeting or a workshop with an icebreaker. They have been subjected to seemingly random activities that are poorly chosen, poorly facilitated, or poorly processed. It's content without meaningful connection or relevant context.
Author and speaker Patti Digh concurred in her response to my Twitter inquiry asking followers what they didn’t like about icebreakers:
“Mostly, I find icebreakers irritating. They are usually unrelated to the topic at hand when they should be designed not as a standalone, but integral to the topic of the meeting so there is a narrative arc. I also find too little time spent building safety for groups.”
To avoid this in your own efforts, here's the single most important question you need to ask yourself when contemplating whether or not to use such an icebreaker or priming activity as part of a gathering you will convene:
Given the work to be done, the people who will do it, and the time available, what content conversations and interpersonal connections need priming and how might that be done?
Different work requires different understanding of content and context in order to be completed.
Different groups of participants require different interpersonal knowledge about each other to do their work.
Bloom’s taxonomy below highlights the main priming opportunities we may wish to consider for meetings or workshops.
Five tips for priming the work
1. Any activity is in service of the group. Do it with them or for them, not to them.
It’s not about you as the classroom instructor, workshop presenter, or meeting facilitator. Never use a random activity just because you think it is cool or love to do it.
2. Select activities that respect the culture(s) of the group, organization or institution, and/or conference.
If you decide you need to challenge the culture to achieve a meeting outcome or workshop learning objective, do so purposefully and respectfully with the activity you select and how you facilitate discussion to debrief it. Remember that facilitating learning and growth requires a calibrated mix of challenge and support.
3. For ongoing groups (i.e., committees, boards, classes, or staff teams), involve participants in determining primer content and as facilitators.
Having (most) everyone eventually involved in selecting and facilitating priming activities that advance goals agreed upon by a group is a great way to foster deeper ownership of these efforts.
To help guide activity choices, first have group members generate a list of what they need (or would like) to learn about each other to be more effective in their work. Then take volunteers (individually or preferably in pairs) to adopt a meeting date for which they will select and facilitate an icebreaker or priming activity aligned with the content areas the group brainstormed.
4. Whenever possible, start the connecting, priming, learning and thinking before people convene online or in-person.
Using offline and/or pre-meeting time to collect info about participants lets them respond more meaningfully on their own time and terms, as well as frees up our online or in-person time to go a bit deeper into the information gathered. Before a retreat, meeting, or workshop, I often will:
·Survey participants and compile their responses into profiles that I distribute for people to read prior to the actual meeting. The User’s Manual activity is one many groups have enjoyed.
Ask people to use a few questions I provide and interview (at a mutually convenient time) a partner that I assign them. They are tasked with coming to the meeting ready to offer a two-minute intro of their interviewee.
·Send people a document with prompts or unfinished stems (i.e., In order to do my best work, I most need …) to complete prior to the meeting to make it easier for them to share responses during the actual session. For virtual meetings, I’ve had great success with a video version of Two Truths and a Lie.
5. Don’t make priming a “one and done” commitment.
Priming too often is done only in the forming stage of a board, committee, or other group. But a group’s work—and the discussions and trust among participants required to do it—is ever-changing. As such priming should be an ongoing effort tied to what would make it easier for participants to do their work and have strong interpersonal connections at any given time.
Primer makes it easier to paint walls. When created or chosen purposefully, priming activities like icebreakers or warm-ups, as well as curated advance materials, et al, can make it easier for individuals to get things done together.
Focus first on the ice that needs to break or the work to prime, not the icebreaker or priming activity you will use to do so.
Have a favorite icebreaker or priming activity or resource? Please include it in a comment.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.
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