In my experience, many trainers and consultants focused on involving and engaging participants use some sort of warm-up exercise, with the idea that getting people “warmed up” in some way will help them learn the material more effectively or bring more energy to the training itself.
One LinkedIn discussion had a trainer wanting to start a class focused on “workplace improvement best practices” and was looking for some relevant activity to get things started. The goal was to have something fast and simple but that would also generate some cognitive dissonance and frustration anchored to them not being able to finish a task on time. His goal was to use frustration to generate an initial motivation to correct their existing workplace issues.
In my experience, motivation already exists in most workplaces with most supervisors on performance improvement issues. They WANT to make improvements because things are generally not very good. There are often a variety of ways to identify and implement improvements and best practices but a key is to generate the intrinsic motivation to actually do something differently. I am also pretty sure that generating frustration as a desired outcome of this so-called warm-up activity was not the best idea, since many of those attending were probably already frustrated by their workplace or by the fact that they were now in some “training program” when they should be working.
In other words:
- He was asking for ideas about how to make the trainees frustrated because they could not get some exercise / task done well in the allotted time.
- My thought is that their workplace was like most others and that the managers were already frustrated with these same issues of quality and timeliness.
My other thought was anchored to the simple idea that getting people frustrated may not be the best way for starting a training class. Beginning a program, negatively, does not generally get people positively motivated and the potential reactions can be somewhat uncontrollable.
Some other people in LinkedIn also elaborated on some of the possible unintended outcomes of such an activity, too. (The conversation got pretty bloody but we also think we saved him from a huge strategic mistake, on which he agreed!!).
The other half of my thinking pounded on the very common use of “irrelevant icebreakers” as a complete waste of time — you know, the goofy meeting openers that are not related to the issue or desired outcome of the session and play on people telling three truths and one lie about themselves or the most interesting thing about their hometown or stating something that no one would ever guess about them. (you can find a long list of such goofy actual activities here)
I’m in agreement with a lot of other consultant trainers, especially about all that psychology stuff and what happens in training. One psychologist shared his approach of having people literally “draw a pig” that represented things in their organization. (The reference to “pig” as being too close to corporate operations and management these days with all those raises and salaries of CEOs in excess of 300 times the workers as well as the growing pay gaps, policy issues, etc.)
My psychology and engagement framework would use an illustration like that below as a tool to get people to project their ideas about how their organization really worked onto an image. It works like an inkblot test – there is no reality but people push one onto the image, one that also allows them to share some thinking about the issues and opportunities that already exist. And it is really fast and tight.
The image shows a wagon rolling along on Square Wheels® while the cargo is round rubber tires. (There are other aspects of leadership, motivation and vision along with best practices. Plus, the image and its discussion gives people an anchor point for focused conversation and discussion, present and future. The term “Square Wheels is simply shorthand for things that do not work smoothly.)
The idea is to get individuals thinking about issues and groups collaborating and sharing ideas about the illustration – brainstorming with an organizational behavioral anchor. Groups can also be motivated through a little competition to make a longer list (facilitation) and what players do is to project their beliefs about their own organization onto the illustration (the Rorschach or inkblot effect).
If you are going to take their valuable time in a class, why not focus on issues of innovation and teamwork and involvement about their workplace, and not some completely unrelated thing like 3 Truths and a Lie or Dragon Tag or some such “energizer.”
Using the cartoon as an anchor to the reality of how things really work, we get them talking about their issues — the things that do not work smoothly — and the ideas that already exist within the context of making the wagon move more effectively. This approach also allows discussion without the attack on management or structures. It has proven itself to be “developmentally neutral” and non-political in that regard.
The behavior and ideas and issues in play can then be linked to a lot of different kinds of content for your training session, and the activity thus made congruent and relevant.That is something that cannot be done with so many of the very general icebreakers — it is hard to make the transition of doing one and then quickly linking to a real business purpose. (Sure, you can use some words but their actual behaviors are generally off target and non-congruent — how does making up a funny name relate to workplace improvement?)
Best practices are Round Wheels.
The focus on the training and performance improvement might be linked to making Square Wheels roll more smoothly. You can coach people on identifying SWs and generating round ones, while generating dissociation and second-position perspective. Issues of change and implementation (stopping the wagon and changing the wheels) can be part of your, “What are we going to try to do differently after we leave here?” discussion. Sharing round wheel ideas is easy and this begins a process of continuous continuous improvement.
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Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Square Wheels® is a registered trademark of Performance Management Co.