My day is a blur of meetings. If I’m being honest I’m not actually present in half of them. Majority of my team members don’t want to spend their day in meetings. Therefore, people only turn up because it’s on their calendar or even worst they have been chased in by a manager.
Personally, I’m on my laptop doing the actual “work” that’s also expected to get done. Meetings seem like a necessary evil but not all are bad some are not so bad and a few actually are interesting.
The worst is the recurring meetings. From check-ins, daily scrums to estimation sessions. It’s tough and let’s be honest and can be a bit boring. That is why I love ice breaker decks.
Its an even extra effort to get people to engage in meaningful conversations. If people are not engaged in the meeting not just going through the motions vs a productive session. To help avoid these situations I try to use icebreakers whenever appropriate.
Ice breakers help engage people in a meeting from the start. That said, I also try to avoid pointless icebreakers.
Pointless icebreakers are when you do a round-robin of answering an awkward question to break the ice. Nobody actually listens and just tries to get it done.
Instead try to use an icebreaker to initiate a conversation that creates an emotional bond between the team members.
I recently read a book by an FBI negotiator who has to try to engage with hostage-takers. Chris discussed the idea of finding black swans using calibrated questions.
“Calibrated questions avoid verbs or words like ‘can,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ ‘do,’ or ‘does,‘” he continues. “These are closed-ended questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’”
However, if you start with “what” or “how.” These two words can calibrate pretty much any question, he explains: ”‘Does this look like something you would like?’ can become ‘How does this look to you?’ or ‘What about this works for you?’”
That said, not every team meeting is a negotiation but we can use the same tactics to engage the participants.
We were mid-sprint and had our usual scheduled estimation session on Tuesday afternoon. 3pm meetings are never the most engaging meeting in between lunch and getting ready to finish up. 7 people squeezed into a tiny room with one table and 4 chairs so we had to wheel in our desk chairs.
It didn’t help it was an estimation session either. Developers hate estimation sessions. It’s just seen as a necessary evil to keep managers happy. As you can imagine sprucing things up wouldn’t be very easy at the best of times.
The team were working together on an intensive project for the last 8 months. There were one or two team night outs but that didn’t really engage everybody as it wasn’t all their cup of tea or beer per se.
Similarly from a personal point of view besides the “how was your weekend” it didn’t go much further than that, which everyone seemed happy with, to be honest. We had a professional working relationship where we looked out for each other and tried to be as helpful as possible. Team communication was pretty good compared to other teams.
We all got on pretty well and we’re gradually going through the Tuckman model. What more can you expect from a team of an Irishman, African, Indian, Kiwi, and few Australians? We wouldn’t have a whole pile in common with different interests and backgrounds.
At the time I would have said the team were at the norming stage. I believe this is one of the meetings that contributed to the team graduating to the performing stage though!
Our Agile Coach decided to mix things up at this estimation session and said we are going do a quick ice breaker. After a little muttering about sure, we all know each other the team were happy to avoid estimating for a few more minutes.
All people had to do was answer one question about themselves:
The simple calibrated question doesn’t require much thought. We went around the room answering the question we had a few not so exciting answers but what changed things was when we start engaging and asking questions about their answers.
Bart said he was eating leftovers, but we asked were the leftovers?
Oh, Indian chickpea curry that I made myself. Turns out he was a veggie and did all cooking himself.
Mark said a sandwich, but we asked what was in the sandwich?
Yes vinegar, cheese and crisps. In addition, he went on to explain why it was so nice and how often he would make. This was the black swan of ice breakers. Therefore, we spent the next 5 minutes talking about sandwiches in particular debating if this vinegar, cheese and crisps sandwich would be nice. It was the most passion I had seen come from Mark in the last 8 months.
I will never forget that answer and I honestly feel it broke down a virtual barrier and helped the team develop meaningful relationships outside work.
That is what inspired me to invest in icebreaker deck of cards with calibrated questions that I could use at the start of every meeting.
There are some great free resources out there that you can download and start using straight away:
Unlock endless conversational possibilities with 150 card prompts divided between six categories.
You’ll love the Icebreaker Deck. Packed with thought-provoking conversation starters, this tool makes boring, surface-level chatter a thing of the past.
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