It’s Time For An Icebreaker

It’s Time For An Icebreaker

This week’s blog post is by guest bloggers Manya Kapikian and Jackie Vessal

It’s Thursday and you are logging into a meeting with people you don’t know. The agenda starts with an icebreaker and the invite asks everyone to bring their favorite mug. What is your reaction? Do you cringe, or do you enthusiastically bring 10 mugs?

The “Mug Show & Tell” exercise is a common icebreaker, in which people get to share a little bit about themselves. Why do we do this? Authors Frische and Green explain the benefits of icebreakers in their article, Make Time for Small Talk in Your Virtual Meetings. This practice is particularly important these days, where our virtual or hybrid work environments no longer present the same opportunities for casual chatting.

Icebreakers are designed to help members of a group warm up, to get to know each other a little and build a sense rapport. An icebreaker can be particularly helpful for a group of people coming together for the first time, but even an established group may find these activities helpful.

Of course, not everyone enjoys these activities. Google “I hate icebreakers” and you’ll find plenty of stories about people who cringe at the thought of participating in an icebreaker.  They can be awkward for introverts, can create tension and anxiety, and easily feel forced.  Some people see them as frivolous waste of time and too touchy feely. But as Frische and Greene explained, there is a case to be made for doing them anyway.

Icebreakers open a communication channel that helps people relax, get to know one another, and make it less awkward to interact. They are an effective way to network and meet new people. In a meeting, conference, or other event where strangers need to come together, icebreakers help individuals to “break the ice.” They allow for complete strangers to interact, get to know one another, and begin to form a common ground.  Once folks start talking, it becomes easier to keep the conversation going. A good icebreaker can set the tone and mood for the rest of the meeting or conference.

It is important to make sure your introductory activity is not too long. Ideally, it should last between 5 and 10 minutes – just long enough for people to feel comfortable and ready to discuss the key topics of the meeting.

The type of icebreaker you chose will depend on if you are in person or in a virtual setting.  Whatever the setting, the best icebreakers are interactive and memorable. If your space allows, plan on an icebreaker that gets people moving around the room. If meeting virtually, break up your audience into more intimate groups.  The group size should be 2-5 for small meetings and 6-10 for large meetings. To make an icebreaker memorable think fun, get them laughing and having a good time.

Lastly, be creative. Go beyond your first idea and aim to customize the icebreaker experience to your group.

Try one of these at your next meeting.

  • Ask everyone to answer one quick question.  Offer them 3-5 questions and a time limit of 30 seconds to a minute.  (Alternatively, turn these questions into a poll so that the only thing a person must do is click a button.) Some questions that our teams have enjoyed included:
  • Would you rather live without music or live without TV?
  • Tell us how you are feeling today in the form of a weather report
  • If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?
  • What TV advertisement bothers you the most?
    • Assign a quick task and have them go around for a minute and so and talk.  Examples of tasks:
  • Ask people to bring their favorite mug
  • Wear your favorite concert t-shirt
  • Wear your favorite hat

Ice breakers are simply a way for people to warm-up to each other and get into a zone for collaboration quicker. Ultimately, they are a small investment to achieving a better meeting outcome, and perhaps with a little bit of fun sprinkled in.  So, maybe the next time someone asks you to bring a favorite mug, consider having one in each hand.

Photo credit Lawrence Denny Lindsley

Four Takeaways from a Creative Project

Four Takeaways from a Creative Project

This week’s post is by guest blogger Allison Khaw!

A few weeks ago, on my own time, I dove into a short-term creative project.

I was inspired by Karim Thompson on the Innovation Toolkit team: he invented a list of fictional strip mall business names based on some of the ITK tools.  Functionally, the list helped you remember the tool names, but its intangible benefits went well beyond that.  I remember how so many of us on the team were not only entertained but also energized by what he created.  At some point, I concluded—this can’t be forgotten in the annals of team history!

Adapting Karim’s list into a more visual format seemed like a natural next step.  I expanded the original list by adding a few business names of my own, and then I formed a map legend and designed a map layout.  Several versions later, the final “ITK Shopping Mall Map” was born!  It was quite an iterative process, and looking back, I asked myself:

What takeaways do I want to share as a result of this experience?

  1. Don’t limit yourself to a certain approach just because that’s how it’s been done before.

From the start, I planned to include this shopping mall map in our ITK Handbook, which is an ITK how-to guide and an informal sequel to our choose-your-own-adventure-style book The Toolbox of Innovation.  Since I made line drawings by hand for our first book to resemble the CYOA books of the 80’s and 90’s, I originally planned to draw the map by hand as well.  However, I realized that the non-CYOA style of the ITK Handbook opened up other possibilities.  In fact, only after letting go of the “It’s always been done this way before!” argument did it become clear to me that electronically creating the map was the better option to begin with.

  1. Set yourself up for exploring new ideas by periodically saving backup versions.Sketches of malls

I decided to keep it simple by using PowerPoint as my creation software.  As I developed the map, I got into the habit of duplicating my in-progress version and then working off of the newer copy, which resulted in dozens of sequential PowerPoint slides.  Although this was a basic technique (thank you, copy and paste!), it made all the difference.  It allowed me to incrementally move forward with new ideas in the design process—and if I liked an old idea better, I could always find my way back.  To illustrate this, see the provided figure with four map versions at different points in the brainstorming process.  Some versions were considerably better than others!

  1. To leave yourself room for inspiration, set minimal expectations and build flexibility around deadlines.

Given the nature of this side project, no one would have been upset if I didn’t finish it.  In many ways, this was incredibly freeing.  I was self-motivated to see my vision come to fruition, but I took my time looking into common shopping mall layouts and actually discovered one of my best design ideas after a leisurely session of experimentation.  Even for projects with fixed deadlines, starting early to give yourself flexibility can be invaluable.  Yes, sometimes constraints are useful, but other times the feeling of not being rushed can be exactly what you need to achieve results.

  1. The end result may seem obvious in hindsight, but the path it takes to get there is often quite the opposite.

A final product that looks simple and effortless usually belies the very effort that you put into it.  What’s more, this is a good thing—it means that your hard work has paid off!  I have experienced this before when using the Premortem and Mission & Vision Tool, and I found this to be true here too after following a winding path to reach the final design of the map.  Blaise Pascal summarized it nicely back in the seventeenth century, when he is said to have penned, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”  We need to more consistently give ourselves the opportunity to go that extra mile—and write that shorter letter.

This side project was fulfilling in that it allowed me to breathe new life into the fictional ITK business names that Karim created.  Not only did I learn valuable lessons from the iterative nature of the map design process, but each time I look back at the completed ITK Shopping Mall Map, I can’t help but grin at everything it represents.

More than anything, I consider that a measure of success if ever there was one. Best of luck on your own creative pursuits!

Measuring Innovation Impact

Measuring Innovation Impact

People often ask us how to measure the results of an innovation program. And in truth, the value of these programs is often hard to determine, particularly when we treat innovation as the goal, rather than (correctly!) viewing innovation as a means to an end. And so we end up counting artifacts (i.e. publications, attendees, participants, etc) rather than measuring the actual output of the program (i.e. what problems did we solve, what value did we create, what improvements did we make, etc).

Now, it’s hard to measure something if you don’t know what it is. That’s why I recommend we look to ITK’s definition of innovation (“novelty with impact”) before creating our measurement plans. That three-word definition points us towards the thing we should be monitoring and measuring – the output of our innovation efforts. It centers our discussion on WHY we do innovation in the first place, because it poses the question “What impact are we trying to have?

Once we know what impact we’re trying to have, it’s pretty obvious what we should measure. If our innovation is “a new technology that saves lives, then obviously the thing we should measure is the number of lives we’ve saved. If the innovation is “a new process that saves time,” the thing to measure is how much time we saved. If we’re looking across a portfolio of innovation projects, adding up all those measurable impacts will give us a good sense of the portfolio’s success or failure.

In contrast, if our goal is just to “be innovative” then we’ll probably have a hard time figuring out what to measure.

Defining innovation as “novelty with impact” also helps us avoid the superficial version of innovation that overemphasizes newness and underplays impact. It points out that innovation without impact is not innovation, it’s just novelty. When we keep that in mind, we’re more likely to get the results we hoped for.

photo credit: Clément Bucco-Lechat

Friendly Followers

Friendly Followers

Today’s blog post is by Niall White

Want more great leaders? Be a great follower.

I’m convinced there are many potentially great leaders in the world. Of these potential leaders, I sometimes wonder if many are simply afraid to step forward. This fear could come from many different sources; fear of failure, fear of rejection, lack of confidence, or even a lack of understanding, to name a few. It is also possible that this fear comes from negative experiences or deeply personal mental illness. It may be impossible to know every reason why someone is reluctant to step forward as a leader, but it is possible to help them.

Being a “follower” can sometimes come with a negative connotation, but some of the great leaders I’ve known were also great followers. Rather than thinking of a follower only as someone that simply goes through the motions, doing whatever they are told with little proactivity, I invite you to consider an alternative viewpoint: A follower can be someone that not only makes way for someone else to lead, but provides positive reinforcement, kind and productive criticism, and looks for their own leadership opportunities that support the leader (e.g., volunteering to help or pursuing a recommendation). In short; friendly following. Now, it’s probably worth mentioning that, just like the phrase “yes, and”, you don’t need to follow, endorse, or agree with something you aren’t comfortable with.

Can you imagine a world where people of all backgrounds and experiences, strengths, and limitations, felt empowered to lead in whatever capacity they could? And can you imagine if they not only felt empowered to lead, but believed that their message would be received by people that were open to new ideas, willing to help, and helpful enough to provide courteous feedback? Dare I say, friendly followers? I imagine that world would have a lot less fear. I’ve seen teams, families, and organizations that operate this way, and I can say that these are the teams, families, and organizations that I’ve felt the most safety and satisfaction being associated with.

Think about the friendly followers around you. I can think of many at here at MITRE. I can think of many in the ITK community! Volunteering to co-facilitate a workshop with someone, giving someone the benefit of the doubt when they are slow to respond to an inquiry, assuming good intent when a statement is made, and enabling an environment where others feel safe, are all examples of friendly following.

I really do believe that there are many incredible people all around us that are reluctant to step forward, stand in the limelight, or even be noticed. How might we be a source of strength and encouragement for these potential leaders? How might we be friendly followers so that others might lead?

cover image by Doug Coldwell

The Best

The Best

As the 2022 Winter Olympics come to a close, I find myself thinking about the concept of being “the best.” In Olympic competitions of course, each event awards a gold medal to a competitor who comes out ahead in a rigorous competition. They are The Best.

In some events, the difference between gold and a non-medal fourth place is measured in fractions of a second. I even saw situations where an athlete’s performance broke the previous world record, but they still came in fourth because three other people were oh-so-slightly faster. Clearly, the gold medalists aren’t the only ones doing excellent work. In other events, the difference between first and fourth is more pronounced. For example, Italy’s mixed doubles curling team had a perfect 11-0 record in the round-robin tournament, and they played nearly flawless matches, absolutely dominating the field. In the fourth end of their match against Norway… but I digress.

The point is, this whole thing got me thinking about one of my favorite questions: Who are the top performers in YOUR field?

In any field or discipline, some people will simply do the work better than most. Take a moment to think about what you do – can you name the people who set the bar in your particular field? Who are the leading voices, the practitioners who deliver outstanding results, the ones who would wear gold medals if such things were awarded? Keep in mind that the list of top performers will change over time. Nobody stays in the winner’s circle forever and even Shaun White came in fourth in the half-pipe competition this year. So this is a good question to ask on a regular basis as new players enter the stage and surpass previous records. Once you’ve got a list of top people in your field, you may want to ask a few additional questions:

  • What makes them a top performer?
  • What do they do differently?
  • What can we learn from them?
  • Could we reach out to them?
  • Partner with them?

As I watched the Olympics this year, I was struck by how often the commentators described the relationships between competitors. They all knew each other and learned from each other. They competed against each other many times before arriving at the Olympics. They made each other better. I think there is a lesson there for all of us.


Image Credit: The 1913 Saint-Moritz Bobsleigh Derby Cup by Albert Ewald