Warm-Ups: Icebreaker or faux pas?
How you can use warm-ups in teamwork sessions and what you should be aware of.
At the last ComX Barcamp of launchlabs, our dear colleague Martina Schuh hosted an interesting session on the sense and nonsense of warm-ups. The content and insights of which are certainly helpful for every facilitator in designing their own formats. I would like to share the most important thoughts from the session here, supplemented by some of my own thoughts and experiences.
So-called warm-ups, energizers or ice-breakers may seem like a trifle in workshops and other team sessions – a “nice to have”: they are short, it seems you can’t to do much wrong with them, and there doesn’t seem to be any harm in simply omitting them due to time constraints, for example. In my experience as a facilitator of agile teams, however, it’s the other way around: despite their brevity, they are a “must have” for almost every longer team session, and as a facilitator or moderator you can achieve a lot with them and break just as much.
That’s why it’s worth taking a closer look at them.
When teams want to collaborate productively as quickly as possible in a meeting, a workshop, or at the beginning of a sprint, warm-ups are often an ideal preparation for this.
They are short, playful tasks or processes that are intended to stimulate the team’s joint thinking and action. The principle behind them is as simple as it is obvious: Similar to a sports team that, for example, warms up physically before a soccer match by jogging together, stretching, and passing the ball to each other in order to prepare muscles, breathing, and teamwork for the upcoming ninety minutes, warm-ups are intended to get our minds in the right mood for the joint work session.
However, this approach, which makes a lot of sense in principle, can easily backfire in practice: Depending on the situation, mood or personality, individual team members may be inhibited rather than motivated by a particular warm-up. This may be because, for example, they don’t recognize the purpose of an exercise, feel embarrassed by the sequence of events, or fear a loss of face due to a particular task. In particular, warm-ups that require rather unusual physical closeness or interactions between individual team members in a professional setting can provoke strong opposition, as can certain energizers that put individual team members in the spotlight for a moment in front of the group and thus possibly even expose them.
Therefore, as a facilitator, it is important to think carefully in advance about how useful a particular ice-breaker is in a specific situation with individually diverse participants. Four simple questions can serve as a small guide for such considerations:
- What is the overall goal of the session to be designed?
- Who are the participants in the session and what is their collaboration style so far?
- What is the goal of the warm-up?
- How well does the warm-up fit with myself?
The first question targets the context of the warm-up. What is the overall goal of the session, and does a particular warm-up fit that goal? For example, if the session is to be about very personal topics, a shared warm-up that leads to laughing together can be very helpful. On the other hand, an energizer that even gives the impression that people are laughing at each other rather than with each other can be poison for the desired collaboration.
With regard to the participants and their day-to-day cooperation, there are several points to consider: How introverted or extroverted are the individual team members? A suitable warm-up could help introverts to loosen up and give more extroverts the chance to listen and reflect. This allows the team to draw on the expertise of the different characters in the subsequent collaboration. A bad ice-breaker would be embarrassing for the introverts and a stage for self-promotion for the extroverts. That certainly wouldn’t promote collaboration. Another point that should not be underestimated is the question of hierarchy among individuals and how much it plays a role in everyday life: Since hierarchy can often be an inhibiting factor when it comes to teamwork, when it comes to networking perspectives and opening up new things, a good ice-breaker should set the right tone to break down hierarchies, at least temporarily. For example, by having the warm-up shift the focus from a person’s current role to them as a person in a broader perspective. As a result, all participants would learn during the exercise that they are in what is called a safe space, where everyone can and is allowed to express themselves as a human being in order to achieve the best possible overall result. A bad warm-up would convulsively try to tear down hierarchies and thereby possibly build the walls even higher.
By reflecting on the previous two points, it may also be possible to already answer the important question of what result do I want to achieve with the warm-up in a given situation? Is it simply to get to know each other first? Is it simply to overcome the soup coma or morning fatigue through physical activity? Is it about preparing for playful association before a creative phase and reducing the effect of the “blockade in the head”? Or is it about a deliberate caesura to mark the transition from the hustle and bustle of everyday business to a session of reflection or a strategy workshop?
Finally, there is the question of how well an energizer fits me as a person. This is important because, as a facilitator, I first have to introduce the exercise to the team in a professional and convincing way so that the desired effect can unfold afterwards. In doing so, it makes sense to look at basic things on the one hand: Do I like this or that warm-up so that I can authentically encourage my team to participate? Do I know the energizer well enough to understand what effect it can have? Am I familiar enough with the material to be able to lead the Ice-Breaker without causing confusion?
Second, there are situational factors worth thinking about: do I have enough energy right now to lead a particular warm-up, or do I prefer to use another that is less demanding on my voice, for example, but can have a similar effect on the team? After six hours of facilitation, do I still feel fresh enough to perform a physically demanding energizer?
By reflecting on the questions of context, participants, goal and myself in this way, it is easier to design an energizer in advance that allows participants to experience a playful, light interaction, inspires them, promotes a good mood and encourages them to work together.
It is certainly easiest to make a suitable selection if you already know the team you are working with and how they interact with each other. If you don’t know the team and possibly the environment, it’s better in case of doubt to plan a rather more “conservative” warm-up that can do little harm. At the same time, you can have a plan B with a more inspiring energizer in mind, in case you realize during the session that the conditions are right in terms of team, mood and space.
Experienced facilitators have a whole backpack full of energizers in their luggage anyway and can respond emphatically to the current situation. The reflection steps described above are more likely to happen in fractions of a second and “on a gut level” than systematically. Such a wealth of experience creates the possibility of spontaneously incorporating unplanned warm-ups into a session when, as a facilitator or moderator, you notice that a team is not getting anywhere, for example, or that general fatigue prevails.
In summary, for the successful use of warm-ups, ice-breakers, and energizers, it is also possible to bring out exactly the rule of thumb that is certainly applicable to large parts of facilitation and moderation work: “Be overprepared and understructured.”
published: 23rd of April 2021