Icebreakers – powerful or pointless?

There are some things in life that polarise people: Marmite, Brexit, Trump, Celine Dion. People either love them or hate them. You can add icebreakers to that list.

Weirdly, I am a bit schizophrenic about icebreakers. I don’t really like participating in them as an individual but love running them as a facilitator.

Icebreakers have 2 functions:

1) Allow the facilitator to assess the different characters in the room. Highly trained facilitators might start doing some quick personality profiling; who is the activist, pragmatist, reflector, theorist? But if you are running a workshop, it is good enough to find out who is quiet, who is loud, who is positive, who is disengaged.

2) Break down any barriers in the room; get people out of “business as usual” mode and into a more playful and creative mindset.

I think part of the problem is that there are some terrible icebreakers out there.

“Everyone say their name, department and favourite flavour of ice-cream” As a participant you think “Why??? Who cares if Barbara in accounts loves mint choc chip but Bob in finance prefers a 99 cone”. The facilitator probably has what they need but the rest of the room is baffled! Being baffled isn’t a good starting point for a workshop.

So here are some useful tips and tricks on how to run an effective icebreaker and some great examples.

Tips and Tricks

  • Don’t introduce it as an icebreaker – call it the first activity
  • Don’t rely on icebreakers as the way for everyone to learn each other’s names – use name tags instead
  • Keep it short – you don’t want it to eat into valuable workshop time – 10 mins max
  • Observe closely – there is a lot to learn about your group in that short time
  • Laughter is the best way to break down barriers so try to get the group laughing, even if it has to be at your expense
  • Icebreakers can also be used mid-workshop to energise the group
  • If it doesn’t quite work out the way you hoped, don’t worry. You have more important outputs to focus on!


1) Icebreaker Name: “Sell yourself”

Workshop context: A cross-functional meeting where people don’t know each other well

Primary outcome: Break down barriers

Secondary outcome: Understand skillset and experience in room

How to play: Everyone gets 2 post it notes. On the first they write down their best asset (work or personal e.g. I’m great at netball) On the second they write down how they would sell that asset (e.g. a lunchtime masterclass). Now the twist. Pass your asset to the person on your left and the sales method to the person on the right. Read out the new combinations to the group.

2) Icebreaker Name: “Elephant Tearing”

Workshop context: A quite serious group who arrive and open their laptops

Primary outcome: Break down barriers

Secondary outcome: Make it clear that this workshop isn’t going to be a “typical” meeting

How to play: Everyone gets a sheet of A4 paper. You have 1 minute to tear out the shape of an elephant before sharing with everyone. The catch – you have to do it with your hands behind your back. Silly but great fun and it doesn’t embarrass anyone, so a nice start to a workshop.

3) Icebreaker Name: “Pass the clap”

Workshop context: When the energy of a group is low (e.g. it’s a Friday after a long week, company performance is poor, and people are feeling the pressure)

Primary outcome: Break down barriers

Secondary outcome: Lighten the mood

How to play: Stand in circle. One person starts the clap and then the next follows immediately until it comes full circle. Each round must get faster. The name, if nothing else, should get people laughing.

Here at outthebox, we love icebreakers. But because not everyone does, we give you the choice on whether to include one. And then you can choose between icebreakers to find one that works for your group.

Design your workshop now at – a few clicks et voila – workshop prepared!