Icebreakers and energizers

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

It is a good idea to use exercises called “icebreakers” and “energizers” in you process design. Here are some of my experiences and ideas about how to use them in a good way.

In a workshop you are handling some very special things:

  • The images people have of themselves and other people
  • The personal relationships between people
  • The purpose of why they are together in the workshop (eventually as part of a series of activities)
  • The level of energy of individuals and groups
  • Their future desire to be together
  • Their ability to offer their resources to each other
  • Their ability to create results together


Icebreakers are designed to “break the ice” between people. Ice is usually a description of something that makes it hard for people to learn together. In Enabling Knowledge Creation, Nonaka, von Krogh and Ichijo suggest that a strong learning culture has these qualities:

  • Mutual trust
  • Active empathy
  • Access to help and helpful experts
  • Leniency in making (uninformed) judgments
  • Courage to say what you mean and give feedback

Most icebreakers work with a combination of these qualities. The purpose of the icebreaker is to give the participants real experience of the authentic person in front of you. This is important because trust replaces the things we do not know about each other.

The simplest icebreaker is to ask people to talk to the person in the room they know the least. It breaks the ice in two ways. If you are with a person you do not know, you become more curious and ask the questions you normally would not ask someone you know. And you become a little less restricted in what you actually chose to tell about yourself. And it is impolite not to talk to a person you just said hello to and have to spend some time with. If you ask them to talk about something that are important to both of them they will experience they share an interest even though they may disagree on many things.

There are many kinds of icebreakers and they all fulfill the purpose because you ask people to do something else than what you normally do. Role-playing, painting, building sculptures, singing, dancing, playing music, juggling, exercising, moving out into nature and many other things work as icebreakers. Some of them can even be connected to the purpose of the workshop.

The more you can connect it to the purpose of the workshop and the organization you are working with the easier it is to get people to participate. You just have to remember that some people do not feel comfortable with certain kinds of activities. You can even meet cultural taboos or personal taboos in your application of icebreakers. Once in a while participants have needed therapy after participating in activities that are provocative for them. Imagine walking around blindfolded with a group of people you know or don’t know touching and moving your fingers together without saying anything. It can be interpreted like a touch, a flirt, an open sexual activity or worse. And you do not know if it is a man or a woman you are doing it with!

Most of the activities we use in an icebreaker will change the hierarchy in the group because we enter practices where someone is much better at it than others because they have practiced dancing, painting, playing music and other things outside their work or public life. Other people who usually are seen as good experts and leaders have to become novices and followers. This also opens for them behaving more “ridiculous” than they like to. Especially managers are forced to participate because it is expected of them. But there is no guaranty that they will appreciate it or the comments they might get from other people during and after the exercise.

If you use icebreaker in organizations or local communities, where people know each other already you will usually meet the challenge of choosing an icebreaker that lets people leave the behavior they are known for behind and let them protect their reputation at the same time. If you do not know exactly how an icebreaker will be received by the participants, you have to open a door for them, so they can choose to participate in a way they feel alright with. If you ask them to make drawings – and most of us draw as a child aged 11 to 12 – you tell them to draw letters and words if they find that easier. If you ask them to talk about their drawings you have to remember that they often have the language of an 11 year old.


When you are in a workshop you will feel that the energy in the room moves from very high to very low and from positive to negative. If you want to change the energy you can use energizers. They look very similar to icebreakers but you have to explain that the purpose is to build energy in the group, because they begin to look at bit tired.

Energizers primary purpose is to energize the group. Once in a while it is possible to refer to situations from their own practice. You do not even have to bring energizers. You can ask people, what they do to build more energy in the group or in themselves. And they can direct the energizer themselves. But again you can experience that they choose an activity that are alienating some of the participants. Some people have never practiced meditation and may find it strange to meditate 15 minutes in complete silence in a workshop. They could spend 15 minutes thinking that they could do more useful things instead of participating in this exercise.

In a time, where health is a priority for many people it is easy to introduce simple ways of exercising, that they could benefit from in their everyday life. You can use the same exercise several times if you tell them that they need to try it a few times, so they can choose if this is going to be a part of their future practice.

Both icebreakers and energizers can leave a lasting impression of the workshop in the participants. As a process designer and facilitator you should leave a positive impression with everyone. This is probably what they really will remember you for and talk about. This will become part of your reputation.

Categories: Design tasks

Frequently asked questions

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

If you have questions and comments, I would like you to put them here. Then I will begin to answer them as they come in. If you can’t wait you can send me an e-mail:

Defining the scope of the change process

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

The scope of the process is addressing questions like:

  • Who is going to be invited to participate in the process?
  • Who is going to be included in the process when it is necessary and how?
  • How many resources do we have to design and conduct the process?
  • How long time can we use in the different activities we have to include?
  • How much support can we draw into the process
  • Which physical and virtual spaces can we use in the process?

It can be a good approach to decide on a feasibility study to define the answers to these questions.

A general idea is that people who have to support the implementation of the change should be invited as early as possible in the process. If you cannot invite them in the beginning then you should have a plan on how to include them later and how to adjust the new set of solutions to their suggestions.

If you get strong limitations on either of these questions it is important that you tell the people who give you the limitations of the possible consequences. The more you miss in the beginning the more you have to correct later on. The more the new set of solutions will demand from important people, the more you need to keep them well informed on these demands.

Categories: Design tasks

Designing the whole change process

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

After doing this task you should have four different designs for your process:

  • 6½ Disciplines of your change process
  • A logical model of the connections in your change process
  • A break down in possible workshops and in-between projects
  • A timeline for the whole process

Each of these designs should be a drawing that gives an overview of the process.

6½ disciplines in breakthrough learning

Usually a change process takes time. As a process designer you often are asked to make a one-time event, like a meeting or a retreat. This does not guaranty that the change process becomes a success. In the book 6 Disciplines in Breakthrough Learning by Calhoun Wick et. al. they identify these 6 disciplines that you should include in your design:

  • Define the desired outcomes in business terms and in very concrete and visible signs
  • Design the whole process from design to follow-up
  • Introduce directly applicable ideas and methods
  • Provide training and access to help as an integrated part of the process
  • Document the outcomes continuously
  • Provide feedback and adjustments in the whole process

I recommend you to include elements from the toolboxes of project leadership and process leadership on top of these. They are part of the directly applicable ideas and methods.

An overall logical model of the change process

A process design usually follows an overall logical design. One example could be Theory U as presented in Presence by Peter Senge and others:

This overall model will give you a series of steps you can follow in the design of each of the steps. A process has a Desired Outcome and each step should produce Outcomes that are the foundation for the next step. An overall model usually has a logical model and a timeline. In some case I use Peter Senge’s Five Disciplines in the learning organization as the overall model. In this case I have to organize the disciplines into an overall model and create my own timeline. Your overall model should be chosen according to the purpose of the process.
In general your overall logical model should fit with the unit of change: Community, Organization, Team or Individual. It should also fit with the topic of your change process Theory U applies in all change situations but you could find more specific models like the Team Performance Model by Forrester and Drexler. The overall model will make it easier for you to find ideas on which exercises to choose.

The idea is to have a solid progression throughout the process. You will need this model to make the first draft of the program for the process.

Your next job is to make a breakdown of the process into a timeline, which could look like this:

With this timeline you can begin to estimate the length of the change process and the different events and projects you will need in order to make the change process a success.
If you are working in a small organization with a small topic like “better meetings” you will not have to make this drawing but it is always a good idea to have a sketch to focus the conversation with the client.
With these two overall designs in place the next step is to begin to choose and design the exercises. The main reason is that the details that need to be coordinated are found in the design of the exercises because all the connections will show up here.

Inspiration from existing methods for change in organizations

There are hundreds of different methods for change processes in organizations and communities and there are thousands of exercises you can choose from. The most precious criteria for choosing between methods and exercises is the Purpose of the process. To give you a general idea of the kinds of purposes you will be dealing with The Change Handbook identifies these categories of methods.

The main difference between these categories of methods is the purpose:

  • Planning methods are designed to create long term transformation in the organization and will normally involve all the aspects of the organization
  • Improvement methods are usually designed to create short term changes in some of the aspects of the organization
  • Structuring methods are designed to change or transform all or some of the structures of the organization
  • Adaptive methods are designed so they can be used for change and transformation in all or some of the aspects of the organization
  • Support methods are designed to support the other processes

A process is a negotiation of the interests of people who can promote and oppose the implementation of the results from the process and even the process itself. Most of the methods can handle this diversity of interests and groups of possible participants. The only thing you have to find out is if there are really strong conflicts of interest. There is only a few of the methods that are designed to handle strong conflicts in a constructive way. If you expect potentially strong conflicts of interest or people with strong personal conflicts to participate in the process, you need to look for methods based on mediation. Prosperity Games is a good choice because it was designed to handle strategic planning between competitors.

Categories: Design tasks

Negotiating the purpose and topic of the change process

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered how a large group of migrating birds decide how to go on a long journey together? A change process is very similar to a group of migrating birds leaving on a long journey together. For the birds the purpose of the journey is either to go somewhere to rise the next generation or to go somewhere to eat in times where the food supply is low.

In a group of human beings it is also a journey to a hopefully better place that will get them to start on the journey. When the birds are about to leave they perform something called Black Sun. A very large group of birds perform a very fascinating aerial ballet, where they fly around and almost block the light of the sun. But they leave when enough of them lift from the ground and fly at the same time. Change happens when enough people start doing new things at the same time.

Usually the purpose of a change process is to find a new and attractive direction that is attractive to enough of the participants to start the personal change process. The more attractive the direction is the easier it will be for them to begin the process together.

We resist change when the new direction does not make sense for us, when we do not have access to the necessary resources and when we are forced to go in a particular direction pointed out by people we do not trust. To trust a person is to leave part of your own destiny in this person’s hands. The purpose of a change process is to find the direction, make it attractive, and discover what we need to learn before we start the journey and then begin to practice the skills we need to master the journey and the new place we are going to build after we have made the journey of exploration.

To find the purpose of the journey you need to investigate the challenges the group you are working with is facing now and in the future. Challenges are both to improve the present solutions and to develop new solutions to challenges we haven’t mastered yet.

They do not need to agree completely on the relevance of the challenges. They need an overall agreement on the need for change and that they do not know which way is the best right now.

You job is to invite everyone to describe the challenges of the groups as they see it now. After collecting them you need to sort them into categories and give each category a headline.

With these headline you can write a general invitation to the change process. The invitation should include:

  • a short description of the challenges as you can see them right now
  • a short description of the trends and discontinuities you are expecting in the near future
  • a suggestion of organizing a change process that will find a way to handle these challenges now

If you can collect the challenges in a one-liner or a motto and put that at the top of the invitation you are ready to present the change process to everyone. “The journey of exploration to the most attractive organization in the world – how” is an example. You should work hard to create a one-liner that meets these standards:

  • it should formulate what you want in an attractive way
  • it should point to the future
  • it should be inclusive to everyone who can oppose and promote the change process
  • it should reflect the purpose of the organization or community
  • it should be as ambitious as possible
  • it should keep the final set of solutions and the concrete path to the future open

If the change process is directed at a specific set of challenges or a specific part of the organization you can reduce the one-line to: “The journey to the best human resource development department in the world – how?”

The concrete tasks and topics you will have to address in the change process will show up during the process. If you limit the process to specific tasks and topics you will often experience that it is necessary to include other tasks and topics in the change process, because things are interconnected when you want to create change.

If you change the tasks, the people need to learn new skills, you often have to change the way they do the tasks and your need to reorganize according to the changes. Today many of these changes include changes in your cooperation and contracts with external suppliers.

Categories: Design tasks

User’s manual

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

One day it will be over!

One day you will find yourself tired and satisfied. You finally finished the follow up meeting of a change process. At the meeting people were happy with the results and they think you helped them a lot.

If you are new to leading change process, you probably wonder where to begin and how to start. If you ask experienced process leaders they often say “trust the process”. You can trust the process but you can design the process well and trust the process design instead.

Here I will introduce you to change process design. You have to have a specific change process in mind to really benefit from these ideas.

Actually it is a learning process design based on task-based and experienced-based learning, where you have to identify the things that the participants need and want to learn and use all the experience and knowledge to its fullest potential. Even when the tasks have to be found along the way and you have to build the road to the future while you are walking.

The group of people you are going to work with will find the learning process very unlike a normal day at the office. If it were a normal day at the office performance in the present is the most important. In a change and learning process you are building your capacity for performing in the future. The difference between working and playing is the demand for specific results and the skills connected to those results.

In many ways a change process is like these six blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is. With a little twist, they are going to build a new and improved elephant and the environment, where it will prosper and multiply.

Back to the beginning.

“In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God.” You are going to enter a long series of more or less parallel conversations were the things that will make the change process a success. As a designer you job is simply to organize and conduct these conversations.

This blog will give you a general idea about which conversations you are going to have and how they are connected. I will present them as if there was a natural sequence in this work, so you can finish one step before taking the next. But change is more like a delicate “modern dance” where you lead a diverse group of dancers into creating a new dance and perform it in front of an audience. You do not have a clear idea about what the dance is going to look like or who is going to be the leader of the dance company.

Everything is unclear and filled with hopes for success and hopes for avoiding failure. Here I will give you an overview over the questions you will find in your work with the process design.

  • Is it a change process or a project? Usually we call all kinds of change for change. When you start dealing with change process design it is a special kind of project we are talking about. There is usually some confusion about change processes and development projects. You can see more in the Post: Change process or project?
  • What are the principles you need to follow in the design process? You can see more in the Post: Principles in design of change processes
  • What kind of process organizations do you need to build? You can see more in the Post: Change process organization
  • How do you negotiate the purpose and topic of the change process? You can see more in the Post: Negotiating the purpose and the topic of the change process
  • How do you define the scope of the change process? You can see more in the Post: Defining the scope of the change process
  • How do you design the whole process? You can see more in the Post: Designing the whole process
  • How do you design and plan a workshop? You can see more in the Post: Workshops: Designing and planning a workshop
  • How do you design and plan an exercise? You can see more in the Post: Exercises: Designing, choosing and planning an exercise
  • How do you follow up on the process? You can see more in the Post: Follow up
  • What do you need to have in your toolbox? You can see more in the Post: Change process toolbox

If you have questions please put a comment in the Post: Frequently asked questions

More specialized topics will be answered here or give you a reference to another Post or links to more information.

Each of the Posts will change as a natural part of my learning process. I will mark additions with [addition] and [breaking news]. I will remove parts of the text as it gets irrelevant or outdated.

Categories: User's manual

Do you want to be a contributor?

November 22, 2009 Leave a comment

If you are interested in contributing to this blog, you just send me and e-mail. Tell me what you want to contribute with and why. Send it to

Categories: User's manual