Never trust a trainer with a trendy ice-breaker

Picture the scene: high in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan, it’s another al Qaeda training day.

“Right, before we start, let’s break the ice Osama-style, leverage our group dynamic and put ourselves in happy gung-ho mood,” says the instructor. “Instead of telling me your first name and why you’re here, I want you to give your pet’s name and your favourite weapon. I’ll start the grenade rolling. Today team, I’m Korky Kalashnikov.”

A little ridiculous I grant you, but not so very different from one or two ice-breakers that I’ve been subjected to down the years. These include being asked to sing, in turn, the verses of Mamma Mia, and the one I loathe above all else: “Tell your fellow delegates one thing about yourself that would surprise them.”

This either elicits a statement of bravado – “I once, like Lord Byron, swam the Hellespont” – or one of embarrassment such as: “I’ve never done anything special that anyone would be interested in, though I once ran over a cat”.

Last year, at the start of a psychometric instrument training session, I was asked, along with about 25 other delegates, to write my name on a flip chart, including the details of one thing I was good at.

You can imagine how long this took. By the time we’d got to delegate 23, the refreshments trolley had clanked into view, 10 people had said badminton and I’d said map-reading – not so much an ice-breaker as a morale killer.

Such experiences have taught me that choice of ice-breaker is all important. They set the tone for the day or the event. Too often trainers will use an old faithful that, like much of their course material, was conceived when Tony Blair was still popular.

The trick is to choose an ice-breaker that fits not just the composition of the group in question, but also the time of day, the subject at hand and the number of delegates. That said, ice-breakers also tend to be the one thing that those who manage training ignore or forget – preferring to leave them to trainers.

But don’t: delegates will likely remember an inappropriate ice-breaker long after they’ve forgotten the contents of a course. And don’t ask delegates where they see themselves in five years’ time – they’ve come for training, not a job interview.

Is this a truncheon I see before me?

Drama-based training recently made its mark at the Metropolitan Police, where 70,000 has been spent on inspirational leadership workshops, attended by 1,500 of London’s finest, based on Shakespeare’s Henry V and Julius Caesar.

Did beleaguered Met commissioner Sir Ian Blair know about this? I can’t imagine he’d be keen on his loyal plods watching luvvies re-enacting Caesar’s murder – that might put off-message thoughts in their heads.

Mind, this isn’t the first time the Met has met Shakespeare in contemporary re-workings. A 2001 film version of Othello featured the character of John Othello as the Met’s first black commissioner. And, in 2003, Scottish playwright Nichola McAuliffe set a version of ‘The Scottish Play’ in the Met’s upper ranks. Don’t tell Sir Ian, but I feel a re-working of Richard III coming on.

John Charlton, editor and training manager

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