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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Stanley Pollack on Moving Beyond Icebreakers

Stanley Pollack on Moving Beyond Icebreakers


1. This is Frank Saucier from Freestanding Agility here with Stanley Pollack talking about Moving Beyond Icebreakers. Stanley is doing an amazing amount of work in the culture space with complex problems in teams and I’d like to find a little bit about Stanley; what brought you here today?

So really for the last 30 years, I’ve been working with people in various fields primarily in social work and youth work, youth development, education and so forth and some with businesses as well; really the work that I’ve been doing over the years is trying to figure out a way to help teams become more productive; for people to be able to express their ideas, be more innovative and more creative, and get more satisfaction out of their work; through that search, I guess if you will, I’ve been working on developing this technique of using interactive methodologies in a very specific way, and in a different way, to get people to connect at a lot deeper level and as I said increase their productivity and increase their creativity as well.


2. Would you be able to describe a little bit more about the concept of the interactive piece of it?

Yes, yes, sure. The name of the book is Moving Beyond Icebreakers; so people understand what icebreakers are: you’re in a new group, you want people to get to know each other, learn each other’s names; this is the first day of work and so forth; what we’ve developed is moving beyond icebreakers; that is using these techniques, these interactive techniques on an ongoing, day-to-day basis and discovering through that work that they can be used for really deep purposes; so they can be used for things like teaching people about social dynamics or business dynamic; they can be used to help people resolve deep issues, you know, group dynamic issues that are dysfunctional; they can be used to really surface functional group dynamics as well and have a group really value what those dynamics are and understand them and therefore have greater access to them; and they can definitely be used to help people increase their levels of creativity and productivity; because there’s a lot of things that are happening between people that are not surfaced and are highly dysfunctional: jealousy, lack of trust, you know, fear . . .

And those kinds of emotions tend to function in ways that people are aware of but they’re not often spoken about; and the reason they’re not spoken about is because they’re highly charged and to say to somebody you know, “what you’re doing is making me frightened” or “what you’re doing is making me feel as if you’re trying to control me” or whatever, it’s very difficult to talk about; but by using these interactive techniques, you create a neutral surface, an uncharged surface. It’s a game, it’s an exercise, right; so the fact that you did something that made me not trust you in this game is not charged and I can say, “oh, you really let me down in that game”; so you actually surface these issues in a way that is not threatening; so in terms of group dynamics, you can use them to address those kinds of issues and again there’s a number of other purposes as well.


3. […] “Gamestorming” is a book for example that has the concept of games; but Moving Beyond Icebreakers is much more. Can you tell me a little bit about the framework in which these interact? They don’t just stand alone; that they are part of this framework or toolbox that actually gets used.

Frank’s full question: And it’s very interesting because as an Agile coach for example, we have teams working with complex problems and within a particular framework. And in the Agile space, there are the concept of games, “Gamestorming” is a book for example that has the concept of games; but Moving Beyond Icebreakers is much more. Can you tell me a little bit about the framework in which these interact? They don’t just stand alone; that they are part of this framework or toolbox that actually gets used.

Absolutely, yes; what we have developed is a six-part meeting structure; each piece of it and as you get better at dealing with it (in the book Moving Beyond Icebreakers kind of takes you through that set of materials so that you can gain an understanding of how these things fit together) it really is the fit together that it really is where the power is; so that structure begins with an introduction: okay, what are we doing here, what’s the purpose of this session that we’ve come together to do some work, so what is the focus of that; we start out most sessions with a warm-up question; so it really is, it’s just a question that everybody answers and they answer in a circle; so people get used to that structure, you don’t have to wonder when people are going to go and so forth.

The question is designed around the work of that day; so for instance we were in a session the other day and we were talking about redesigning and event, an annual event that we’ve had for 20 years and we were going to talk about reinventing that; is it really doing what we wanted to do now; so we start with a warm-up question, the warm-up question was talk about an annual event or tradition that you had when you were a child and when did it end, what was it like, when did it end, and why did it end; we went around and people had shared very deep things about their background and talked about things that had sort of outlived their usefulness, some things they lost because people died; you know, resources changed and so forth and how they adjusted to that, and whether they missed it or they let it go and it was a good thing that they let it go and all those kinds of things.

Then we move on to what we call a springboard exercise; so in this case we used – and this is where the commonly known term of icebreakers is used; so we use an activity called Stuck in the Mud, which is a thing where you’re running around, people are tagging each other and they get to free each other if you haven’t been tagged yet; in any event what this exercise did without going through too much of a detail of it was get people out there laughing, having a good time, a lot of energy in the room; it showed getting the right amount of labor on a task that how people sometimes portray themselves in ways that are not true and some discovery around what’s left to do and how you’re going to do it; what you need to do.

Then we went on to what we call the work section; so the work section is really,... it looks pretty traditional in some ways; what we did in this particular iteration we brainstormed the goals, why were we doing this event, what are we trying to achieve; and we really used brainstorming; we had a specific thing we mean by that; it’s not just people sitting around talking in a kind of unspecified way; it’s really about no discussion, don’t worry about similarities, don’t put down anybody’s idea; you know, quantity, not quality, those kinds of guidelines which we really enforce; we get out a whole bunch of ideas around the goals of this, have a deep discussion and that discussion is now framed by the warm-up question and the springboard exercise and there’s a lot of art to this, okay; so the facilitator, you know, there’s a lot of work the facilitator needs to do to be able to take these activities and really have them add up to a different kind of work environment.

So in any event, we brainstormed out those goals, we prioritize those goals, now we’ve got these – take a break; we put together for or five of those goals so they’re very – you know, we take the duplication out and put them together in a very coherent way; have people rate the goals on a scale of 1 to 10 but in two columns because there’s two different cities there; so the Boston programs are rating theirs but everybody is actually because everybody has been exposed to both; so they’re rating the Boston, everybody is rating Boston, everybody is rating Summerville and then we kind of take a look at that.

From that, we then have a discussion about how those goals are actually being reached and not reached and there’s a very clear difference between Boston and Summerville right but it’s a small difference, right in the numbers but it’s consistent across all of the goals; and through that discussion, really it’s very clear Summerville is doing what they need to do, they need to keep doing what they’re doing; Boston isn’t doing, they need some significant change; there’s some real adjustments that need to be made; and we can have that conversation; I’m the director, I’m the authority figure, right, we have people from different sites, different cities, but we’ve created an environment where people feel comfortable in really saying what’s on their mind and being honest in their evaluations and in their discussions and feeling free to kind of express themselves; and then through that we start to talk about recommendations for changes and what we’ll do differently in Boston and some of the things that we may do differently in Summerville.

The last piece of the format is well, there’s the summary and then the evaluation; so the summary is “okay, so what did we come up with here”.

The evaluation is the really important part; people have these meetings, they’ll be in a room for three hours, they get up and they leave, end of the meeting, “see you later”; what we do at the end of each meeting is we evaluate and it becomes a tradition; it’s what you do; you never go to a teen empowerment meeting, which is the name of my organization, without evaluating the end of it; the way we evaluate it primarily is to go around and do an evaluation on a scale of 1 to 10 , 10’s the best, 1s the worst anywhere in between and make a comment; it’s clear that both of those are optional, you can make a comment and use a number or use the number and not make a comment or do both of those things; so we go around at the end of every meeting and have that kind of feedback.

The purpose of that, and really the magic of that, the evaluation is that it does two contradictory things, right; in a meeting that worked very well, what it does is it allows everybody to testify to that positive work that’s just been done; in that particular meeting everybody gave it between 8, 7, 5, and 10 were all the ratings which is a very good –you know, people tend to stay within 6 and 10 but that’s a very good score; and then they say things and they say things like, “you know, we did some really great work today”, “I really felt free”, “I could really be creative” or “I felt like I was really supported by other people” or whatever the positive comments are; what that does is it takes an experience that was positive and instead of that experiencing being diffused and have it be lost very quickly, it tends to package it and it’s a way of holding on to the experience and you start to create a kind of an ethos of a group, a sense of identity of that group as being a place where you belong, where you are connected to other people.

Now if the meeting was not good, it does the opposite; instead of packaging it, it diffuses it; so it releases it; it releases the negativity; people go around and they say, you know, “today I got to give the meeting a 6, 6 ½”, “we really didn’t get there”, “people didn’t really listen to each other”; what it tends to do then is it’s out and you come back to the meeting the next day without carrying that kind of baggage; so I mean that really is – you know, there’s a lot of details within that, I mean things like speaking order which I can talk about in some detail, you know, how you process those interactive exercises, there’s a lot of detail to that stuff but that’s sort of the general framework that we work in.


4. Now is there a pattern or a cadence if you will; so as opposed to a bump and run where you come in and you have this event going and I’m sure it depends on the challenge that you’re dealing with but is there a cyclical nature that’s needed to solve some of these problems?

I guess I’m not quite clear on what …

Frank: Sure; as opposed to having an event, there may be deeper ingrained issues that maybe having an event actually opens the eyes that there are other problems that we need to address, or that this is a community that needs continuous growth.

Yes, right; well I mean I think that’s exactly the important point that you establish a culture where people are going to connect with each other on a deeper level; they’re going to get below the surface; issues in groups, I mean human beings have jealousy, resentments, they feel supported, they feel unsupported, they bring in their personal life, they have deaths in their families, they have the whole myriad of human experience; if you work with people in a linear way, all of that complexity tries to get compressed down to “okay we have to talk about this computer program that we got to get done” and “Henry you didn’t get your job done” and “besides it doesn’t work the way you said it would”.

And most meetings, most human interaction in groups is fairly chaotic; I’m in a lot of meetings where people really nobody in the room knows what we’re talking about and everybody in the room knows that we don’t know what we’re talking about and nobody says anything about it; what people tend to do in that kind of setting is they make sure that they look intelligent.

And they take their shot, they figure it out, okay if I make my comment here, I’ll maintain my status and that’s what my goal is because I really understand that there’s nothing that’s really going to come out of this right; I mean so you start with what I just talked about which is a highly structured approach to group work and really what I was talking about is in a formed group; that is the group that I was working with is a group of people that have been working together for years.

I mean one of the things about Teen Empowerment is we’ve been around for 20 years, we have people who’ve been there 20 years our; average stay at Teen Empowerment, which is a low paying job, right; which is a difficult job, all right, is like 12 years; people stay there forever and they stay there, you know; the economy and all those things are not insignificant but they’re connected with each other; you know, when your grandmother is dying everybody knows your grandmother is dying, right, because we have that kind of connection; and by the way that fact doesn’t inhibit the work, it actually supports the work because you can get the support you need and go on and be productive; so the attention to the group dynamics and the attention to the human conditions is really critical, and really the tools that I’m talking about are a mechanism of addressing those needs; that’s on one level.

The other level is around getting a creative space, you know, establishing a place where people can really let their creative juices flow and people can put things together, right; so, you know, the magic is in the addition of ideas, right, the catalyst; one person has an idea, another person adjusts the idea, somebody else brings something else into it then they all get stuck and that leads to something really great; well establishing that kind of environment really is what we’re all about; it’s using these tools to establish that kind of environment.


5. So there’s an incredible amount of passion in what you do and I’m curious of your visions for the application of that passion that you have, an artifact or manifestation of the passion is the book for example. And the work that you do and the people that you deal with; what is the vision for taking this larger?

Yes; well I mean the vision for taking this larger or Moving Beyond Icebreaker is larger is that we change the way we work with one another; you know, that there is – I really think that one of the keys to our economic existence, viability and economic expansion has to do with how we work with one another; and my experience tells me as I’ve explained earlier that we waste an inordinate amount of time in meetings particularly; that people will go to meetings where they don’t know each other’s names and they may have been coming to these meetings once a month for six months and they’re supposed to transform an inner city school and they don’t know each other’s names let alone any kind of depth in terms of where people are coming from; people don’t understand the context of people’s lives and therefore they don’t understand what they’re saying to each other.

So my vision is really to create, to provide a tool that can really transform the way people work; and the thing that about interactive methodology is that it does have a very positive impact on the emotional kind of job satisfaction if you will, but the other piece that is really not very well understood is that when it’s used skillfully, it dramatically increases level of productivity and you can measure that in terms of the number of decisions a group can make, the number of ideas they create, the number of people who spoke; so there’s a lot of really objective data; if you really back up and you take a look at a linear format okay, a linear format and, you know, there are people who are well enough organized; they come in with an agenda, they have a linear format, they’re going to take you through and they actually follow the agenda which is actually not that common but some people do in fact get to that level.

Now you got the next level do they actually have a speaking order; that’s one of the things that’s not very well understood, but the fact is that in most cases there is not a real rigorous speaking order; and so the person who’s facilitating they may actually recognize people in the order that they ask to speak but they have the right to interrupt the speaking order at any time; they don’t actually put themselves into speaking order because they’re facilitating, they are able to just break in; what that does is it creates chaos in terms of information flow all right; and this I don’t quite understand why this is true but I know it is absolutely true; when you rigorously enforce a speaking order including the facilitator so I’m facilitating I say, you would like to speak, you would like to speak, you would like to speak and then I have something to say and then so and so has something to say, so I’m pretty rigorous in terms of doing it; when you do that, that technique alone will allow a group to solve very complicated problems and it’s something about the way information orders itself; there’s something about that group mind that the keeping in speaking order sets loose, right; the group mind will just put the information where it needs to go and they’re bang the answer will be at the end of that conversation.

When you don’t have a speaking order, the quiet people, who may be the smartest people in the room, are not heard; people get frustrated, they’re ready to talk but it’s somebody else; they get angry with each other, you know; and I think most damaging is the fact the conversation is chaotic and you don’t get the results; so, you know, that’s a simple concept but that’s a powerful concept to get out there, right.

And then we go into the more kind of deeper levels of how are we going to get people invested in the goal and that is from our standpoint, I mean doing social good clearly and in establishing values, so a lot of conversation here today has been about values, what’s the value of the organization and how do human beings fit into that value system; what’s the tool, how do you get people to talk about values; and there are tools here today, I mean obviously the open market kind of thing that you’re doing, the open space is great; it’s a great tool; what are the tools for the day-to-day work that can take place in boardrooms and among engineers and everybody else who has to have these kinds of conversation, what are the tools and what this book suggests a set of tool that can be used and people have the space to actually talk about those values and have those values be present in their everyday work.

Frank: And I for example from the coaching space, there’s a lot that what you’re saying completely rings true for me. That this book is a tool that belongs in a toolbox for coaches, for teams, for managers, for leaders, there’s a lot; and my experience there is so much that the way you have it organized where people can have a hint or they know what their problem is or their challenge is. And then go to the book, you know, if there’s an issue with leadership at hand. They can go to the book; they can look up leadership and they find the exercises and then they find the instructions how to run those exercises?



6. So the point you raised earlier about everyone getting a turn, so you mean that’s like not forcing them so we’re compelling teams to go round robin giving answers to things?

So a warm-up question is something that you do around this circle and you do it in order right so it’s predictable; you know, the first person goes, second person goes, third person goes; somebody can pass, they can decide not to answer the question; you know, you make that clear that you don’t have to answer this question; in a culture where you’ve established this as a norm, they will do it; primarily people will get comfortable with in fact they can’t wait to do it and it has relevance to their work and they see that it’s relevant and so forth; in terms of what I was talking about before, in terms of like when you’re having an open discussion so we’ve brainstormed the goals okay as I was talking about before, we brainstorm the goals of this annual event that we do, now we want to talk about it.

When we’re having a discussion, the facilitator’s primary role during that time which is not as simple as it sounds is to keep the speaking order and to not violate the speaking order; it’s not to force people to speak but if you want to speak and really what you’re doing as a facilitator, I’m watching people’s eyes, I’m watching their hand motion, then they go like this; they might just kind of look up and did you want to say something; that’s my main job not – people confuse; and this is that whole command thing that you talk about; people confuse leadership with command as that’s their main function when leadership’s main function is facilitator; so how that plays out in real time is that leaders are just waiting to tell people what they think so they can give them the orders that they had brought in in the first place; they positioned agendas so they can get across the points that they had to begin with; so you would essentially have a dead forum, why are we having the meeting, you have all the answers, right.

This approach and when you establish this as a norm, this is the way it really needs to be done, is that the role of the facilitator in that particular setting is to keep the order, the speaking order. It doesn’t mean they can’t participate but it means they have to participate in an equal way, in the same way that everybody else is, which is very simple, you raise your hand and you’re not going to raise your hand to yourself but you take that, you put yourself in, you know, you’re rigorous about putting yourself in where it actually makes sense and the kinds of interventions that you do in terms of that discussion are pretty gentle.

So it may be that somebody says something nobody understood what they said so it doesn’t prevent you from saying “I don’t really get that, could you give me a little bit more information”; or if somebody was totally off topic, “look, that’s on the agenda but it’s two steps down so let’s hold that”; so it doesn’t completely disempower your ability to redirect and to keep the conversation on track but you’re very gentle about that; and primarily what you’re doing is keeping speaking order and when you do that, you will get incredible results; I don’t care if you’re talking about technological problems or political situations or logistical things that you have to do or content related, it really doesn’t matter; in my experience, there’s a group mind and the way you access that group mind, one of the powerful tools to accessing that group mind is the rigorous implementation of the speaking order.

Frank: And you mentioned the context of this is opening questions or it’s just throughout a meeting?

Well as I was saying there’s a format that we use, which has this introduction which gives the context of the meeting; a warm-up question, we generally use a warm up question they can be very deep; what the warm-up question does is it gets to really how people are connected to the work that you’re doing that day; so for instance teachers come in and they want to talk about standardized testing, they have to talk about the MCAST or whatever standardized test it is in whatever state you happen to be in and they start talking about the scores; “the scores are not good in the school, we’re a failing school, we’re going to lose our accreditation blah, blah, blah” and they go on; the conversation is just devastatingly depressing and somewhat mind numbing; and most of the people in that room are not in the room; their brain is home doing their laundry, trying to figure out their lesson plan for the next day, looking at their phones, whatever they got to do to kind of make themselves; adults are pretty good about keeping themselves awake, looking like they may be paying attention; youth will tell you; they’ll tell you they’re gone, they’re not there and that’s what’s happening in the schools right.

Instead of going right at that test, if you went around the room and you said please talk about a student who’s doing well and why they’re doing well and talk about a student who is not doing well and why they’re not doing well; that might take you 10 or 15 minutes but at the end of that, and then the process right; now they’ve put out the information all around, now the facilitator’s role at that point is to process that information; what I’m doing when people are giving those answers, I’m writing them down, I’m writing down a lot and oftentimes it’s pretty overwhelming, I can’t use all the information but I never know which piece of information is going to work for me; people have different styles of how they capture information but that’s what I do.

When they’re done, now I’m talking about the different things that they said and I’m capturing how it’s connected to the work that we’re going to do that day; now we would go through if we have that flexibility and people are of different openness to using these exercises; there’s a lot of exercises that you can use to illustrate what it looks like to meet a standard, what it feels like to meet a standard and what it feels like to not meet a standard; so now you use that exercise, now people have – first of all they understand the mission; the mission is that that kid who’s failing is failing because, you know, his family has no money, his father just died, all these different things, you know, your heart is engaged, you understand why you’re there; now you’ve done an exercise where you felt it in your body, you know what it feels like okay; you’ve just been told you didn’t make it, you know.

So now when you get to that conversation about standardized tests, you are connected to it in a much deeper way and whatever way that work gets structured from that point on, maybe it’s linear, maybe it’s interactive, that’s what we call the work section and there’s a lot of thought that goes into it; I would say the main thing to pay attention to in the work section is the speaking order; if you don’t do brainstorming, and we use things like guided visualization and we use word storms and a whole bunch of stuff that we use that are documented in the book, but even if you’re doing your work in a very linear way, you know, having a speaking order will take you miles and miles.

And then at the end of the day, at the end of that session not just getting up and leaving but doing a verbal evaluation which having done this in other places, there’s a cultural change that has to happen; people look at evaluation like you’re evaluating the leader right so the leaders don’t want to do an evaluation because then it opens up, you know, you might be criticized right; when you get this really fully established, there’s and understanding we’re not evaluating the leader yet, you are evaluating the planning process did the agenda work in terms of its goals and so forth but you’re also evaluating the group and you’re evaluating yourself as well; so this is really a group process and it’s a group responsibility; and as I said, you know, doing that evaluation at the end will give you good information about what happened in that meeting.

You may think, you know, having done this a lot, a lot of times you think no, this didn’t really work and people will tell you no, no, it really did work actually this happened and that happened; and then sometimes you think yes, this really worked when actually it didn’t really work and here’s why it really didn’t work; and as I said it also functions, that evaluation also functions to create the sort of value system of that culture really identify the nature of a group as a place that is supportive, as a place that people value and really have people reconnect to their work; so especially in social service that mission stuff is really important; I have to say I mean I think really in any organization the idea of understanding what the mission is and a commitment to that mission is pretty critical to being able to be successful.


7. […] And because there’s trauma, there’s dysfunction; what efforts go into care for that individual to make sure that they’re not lost and that they’re brought along?

Frank’s full question: My question is with all of the focus on team, what efforts or how do you go about making sure that that individual is cared for; because the team if you will or the community that’s being put through, but the resolution is actually much deeper so there’s an individual who may be struggling with things and may not be able to engage and may not be able to effectively participate. And because there’s trauma, there’s dysfunction; what efforts go into care for that individual to make sure that they’re not lost and that they’re brought along?

That’s great; yes, it’s a great question; there’s no tension between working on the team and paying attention to individuals; working on the team is paying attention to the individuals; you can’t work on a team without being aware of each of the people in that room and really what we’re talking about at that point is really a design challenge; you know, so one of the skills that the book talks about is designing this agenda; how do you make those decisions; you referred to it earlier when you said go into leadership and so forth; so yes it’s true, there are these kind of categories of exercise.

I would say that I mean one of the big challenges of Moving Beyond Icebreakers is you actually get people to move beyond icebreakers; so what they tend to do is there’s 300 interactive exercises, they tend to open the book and say, oh let’s see, oh I’ve got this exercise called memory or I’ve got this leader game; oh that will really help me leadership; the deeper parts of the book are really the front hundred pages of the book where it talks about analyzing the group dynamics, looking at the group dynamics and then designing around those group dynamics; but the group dynamics are made up of the individuals who are in it and so you really – you know, to the degree that you’re able to sort of understand the lives of everybody in the group and then design around that that enables you to help the individuals within it.

And the use of these methods are really designed to create, safe space, safe context; so for instance, this morning there was an exercise which is very commonly done, I don’t mean to be critical of it, although there is a negative aspect of it and that is you say “find somebody in this room to talk to and talk to them”, they did the pairing exercise on one of the issues, oh it was on your fears which is kind of funny; because what happens when you do that is the fear level goes up in the room; you know, you’ve asked people to do something but you didn’t quite give them enough structure; so what happened was there were people who did talk in pairs, they felt things and they quickly got into their pair; there were people who didn’t talk in pairs and they looked at their phone and felt awkward; there were people in the back of the room I think you may have been in the back of the room, I was in the back of the room so it wasn’t clear to me what I was supposed to do; there was a gentleman standing to my left and he felt odd and I felt odd but we didn’t talk to each other; so that space wasn’t safe – I mean it was an effort to do interaction but it didn’t quite make it safe for everybody there.

Now here’s an exercise, a pairing exercise, a most powerful exercise, really simple; you do this in the beginning of the group, you’re going to take the group months ahead of time okay and it’s called concentric circles; we start every group, I don’t care if it’s police, if it’s teachers, it’s youth, we start every group using this exercise; so concentric circles are two circles, an outer circle of chairs facing an inner circle of chairs, everybody is seated in those chairs facing each other; so we would be talking, you start focusing questions, there’s a question two minutes or it could be three minutes, you play with the time limit depending on the age actually and then they have a conversation for those two or three minutes and then at the end of that you have the outside ring move over one seat then you do another question; so in a half hour, you can do 15 questions or whatever it is right.

So those questions and it totally depends on the purpose so you can adjust the questions in any which way you want, but using the question where were you born and what are some of your first memories really deep question; talk about your elementary school teacher who actually had an impact on you that was positive, you could do negative, you could be talking about computer software, you can talk about anything in these but the thing is about this exercise, at the end of this exercise you and I’ve had the experience where people have known each other for years and they learned things that they did not know about each other; they’re certainly in places where people tell people other things that actually nobody else knows that they work with but this person who they may never see again actually knows this.

You know, you have these very deep conversations; why do you have those conversations; because the context is safe; the reason why you’re talking to the person across from you is because I told you to do it; it’s arbitrary, it’s not because you had to choose it; you’re going to talk to each person in time that’s the other major thing that makes it safe, there’s a time limit, I’m going to keep the time limit, you know, and I try to keep the time limit, it’s a little longer for adults, it’s a little shorter for youth, as you get younger, it gets a little bit more difficult around 8th grade because of the gender dynamics and so forth.

But beyond, over and above that, it absolutely almost never fails all right; it almost never fails, like one of the exercises that are labeled here as a super exercise because it’s just really amazing what happens with it; and the topic is specified; so those are the things that create the safe container; so really thinking what is the container that helps individuals be able to participate in a group in a way that makes them feel more valued and actually they are more valuable, you know, it’s not a feeling, it’s an actual reality and it allows them to not feel anxiety or minimize anxiety; anxiety is going to be a part of things, there’s no way around that; again it’s the time limit, the arbitrary reason why you’re talking and the fact the I specified the topic; frankly it doesn’t matter whether you talk about the topic or not but you’ve given them it; and the details are important, you know, what questions you’re asking, are they the right questions for that group.

When you’re done with that exercise there’s a huge amount of information in the room and the connections between people; I mean I’ve had conversations with people in concentric circles that 15 years ago I remember, you know, I’m talking to this principal and the principal is telling me, now this principal is a little bit touchy and hard to work with; he grew up in an island in Trinidad, it was a village with a hundred people, you know, it’s like, oh that’s who you are; you know, that’s an important part of who he is, I had no idea; I thought he – it totally transformed my vision of who this individual was and my ability to work with him.

So you know, that idea that the facilitator is taking care of the individuals and thinking about when you’re going into a meeting, a group session, you want to think about what’s the work purpose, what work are we going to try to achieve and how do I prepare people to do that work, how do I invest them in at success and then what are the group dynamics; so that’s a really important piece as well; there’s some other tools that we’ve developed which are not covered in this book around feedback skills and learning how to communicate around difficult things that we’ve developed that are very powerful; but again when you use these exercises, they allow the group to surface deep things.

So I give you one more example, if there’s time: using a word storm; now what is a word storm, a word storm is taking the rules of brainstorming which is quantity not quality, don’t worry about similarities and no putdowns essentially; you put a word on the board and you ask people put all the words that come to mind when you see that word, okay; so let’s say you have a group and the issue is trust and a lot of group the issue is trust; you could go into that group and you could say “we got problems with trust, we really go to talk about this and people aren’t trusting each other and they’re not working with each other blah, blah, blah” and so forth; what happens then is you’ve just destroyed all the degrees of difference between people because you said this group is this way; now the group, actually what the group then does is actually kind of unite against the facilitative leadership, there’s a law, it just comes down boom, you know, no, no, and it’s pretty static; it doesn’t move; actually freezes the issue where it is right; the intention was to move it.

By doing something like a word storm so we take a word and we put it on the board; I’ve done this many time, we’ll use the word “friendship”; now the key about a word storm is to try to get the word to be as far away from the concept that you’re trying to get to and still be able to get back to the concept because in that space, the group is struggling to understand how these things are connected and then they get it; so by doing the word friendship, trust comes up number one almost every single time, but you know what else comes out; backstabber, jealousy, anger, all the human emotions; I mean the first time I did it I actually wasn’t really thinking, I thought it would be pretty positive and I was like oh my god the stuff is like so much negative stuff.

What that allows you to do then is to have a conversation about trust and the elements of trust and whether trust exists; if trust exists, is it a hundred percent, do you ever trust anybody a hundred percent, how many people do you trust a hundred percent, how many people how about 90%; what happens when somebody breaks your trust, can that be healed and how can it be healed; you know, in having that conversation you create an environment, a context where people start to work on the issue, they’re working on it internally which is where it has to happen and by having people talk about it it’s not a lecture, it’s a guided conversation using that tool to get this information.

And it’s sophisticated; using the word storm, I mean people struggle with it; I mean one of the big issues with the use of all this material which is also covered in the book is resistance; what people will do is they say they just don’t work and the reason they don’t work is because they’re terrified of them and they get up in front of a group and they’re going to do a warm-up question and they ask the question and then they sit there thinking what the hell am I going to do next and just get very inwardly focused; so it’s sophisticated working with this.

There is gold in those words and really as you practice these skills and you get on your feet, get over your own resistance, stop looking at yourself and taking care of yourself look at the group, see what they’re talking about, what they need and again on one level it’s very simple; it’s like keeping a speaking order fundamentally important throughout any of these kinds of exercises; people will go incredible places and when they’re done with that conversation, they’ll have a different understanding of themselves and a different understanding of the group and they’ll be much more prepared to resolve really difficult problems.

And there’s a myriad of stories I could tell about groups that have struggled with things like people dying in their group, you know, because we work with youth and somebody was murdered and the group is falling apart around this; you know, they’re supposed to be working together and now they’re devastated; in that particular situation, it was really important what came out through a word storm was that the group – actually was really upset not so much they didn’t know the person who died that well but what it raised for the group was death and that was the issue they needed to talk about not, the issue of this everybody’s talking about oh, poor kid who died; I mean people were upset that this kid died but they didn’t know him well enough to actually have that be the thing they needed to talk about; they were concerned about their grandmother’s death, their parents’ death, their own death and that’s what they needed to explore.

The word storm created that space for them to actually be able to really engage in the conversation that they needed to have not the conversation that people thought they needed to have; it was really critical that that understanding come from the group; there’s things that the leadership can do really well, facilitative leadership can do really well and there’s things that facilitative leadership that if they try to do it themselves cannot do it all; and really in terms of group dynamics, you create that space, that context where people can see themselves, see the dynamic themselves, see what they feel good about what they’re doing, see what they feel that they’re not doing so well and then they make the change themselves; that’s powerful and it’s pretty immediate and it has results really in the short term.


8. […] How do people go about finding out that it’s obviously based on your passion and your experience it is not as simple as buying the book? How do people go and learn about being able to apply these and when and how? Can you tell us something about that?

Frank’s full question: It happened with my experiences of the powerful; it’s game changing, both at the people level and the work level, and the community level. How do people go about finding out about the book? How do people go about finding out that it’s obviously based on your passion and your experience it is not as simple as buying the book? How do people go and learn about being able to apply these and when and how? Can you tell us something about that?

Sure; so is where you can get the book; there’s also some video on that site, which shows the use of these activities in real time; there’s a whole set of YouTube videos as well that people can access; they can contact us directly, they can contact me directly either through the website or at my email which is and I love to hear from people especially those who are practicing this and hear about their experiences and learn from what they’ve gone through; I will say this about it, in terms of you doing this, I would say first of all you get the book, this is going to sound a little bit simplistic read it; don’t go to the end of it and start looking through just that but actually read the first hundred pages because that’s the gold that’s in there; that’s where it takes the exercises, moves it from game changing .

But it’s not just a game; it’s game changing when you use these in the dynamic ways that they can be used; so read the book, practice it, practice it again; don’t give up on it when you get frightened or something doesn’t work; just realize okay the design wasn’t right, you know, and analyze what you’re doing; three months later read the book again and then three months after that, read the book again and what you’ll see is that your understanding of that information will shift over time and your ability to use those activities, this approach really will significantly improve over time; but I have to say I mean why I know this stuff so well is because I went through it and I remember what resistance is and there’s a whole section on resistance and how your fear, the fear of the group and how those things bounce back and forth; and it’s not like I’m done with it, you know, it’s still there, it’s just that I’m much better with it now than I used to be and so I learned about that sense of, oh my goodness, this is not working and all those kinds of emotions that you go through; but over time I got much better at it and now I’ve been doing it for many, many years, especially in form groups and the groups that I work with and staff, you know, very quickly comes to me what’s the exercise that we need to do.

My board the other night I actually didn’t know I was going to be doing this exercise and we would have – you know, I thought somebody else had thought up what the exercise was that they were going to use that night; we were doing strategic planning and so okay I forgot what they used as the warm-up question; oh, it was what’s a goal you have for Teen Empowerment this year and the exercise that I came up with was lineups; so what is lineups? You line up first of all by shoe size, right so you go from one end of the room to the other; then we did shoe size, we did, oh god, length of time on the board I believe, we did age which was really interesting and a little bit, you know, a little edgy which I felt like I could do especially since I knew the person who is oldest there and that she would be fine with it and maybe one other thing which I’m blanking on right now.

But the thing was about the exercise was that it was about getting things lined up, right; but also the thing about the age thing did raise some interpersonal dynamics; and oh, I think when I said how long you’ve been involved with the program this was the gold of it, how long you’ve been involved with Teen Empowerment and I think I said board but then it was like well some people aren’t on the board, they’re staff, oh, okay I made a mistake; so how long have you been on Teen Empowerment so then it became okay do you mean as a staff person or because some people were staff who became board members so it’s very confusing and people kind of worked that out, all right.

So then what that highlighted was we’re doing strategic planning, we need to understand criteria; we need to be really clear about what it is, how we’re going to judge whether we get there or not, right; so it’s as you get more skilled with it, you start to be able to work with the actual experience that people have in real time; and the thing about experience that you have in real time is that it’s engaging; so if I pick up this bottle that I drop the bottle it just happened, you paid attention to it; you can not pay attention to it, it just happened; if I come in and I start talking to you, you know, this bottle if I drop this bottle it might break, I hope it, you get, it’s like when’s my laundry going to be in . . . you start going off.

So by having these, using these interactive activities then being able to process them in a way that’s not canned, that’s what’s in here, the canned, right; you open it up and here’s a can full of ideas that you can take out, and use them right off the shelf, they will work right; but the real powerful use of the activities do it, see what happens, figure out the process because it just happened in front of you; and when you do that, nobody will be disengaged, everybody will be on board and nobody will say why do we do that silly exercise because they’ll all know why you did it because they just benefited from it.

And again just getting there and establishing that culture it’s not easy; there’s a lot of resistance particularly around people who believe in command leadership and that thing they talked about this morning, the I, I’m wonderful; the I am Wonderful does not want interactive methodology; they don’t want speaking order by the way either because they’ve got great ideas and if they got a great idea, they don’t want to get anybody to get in the way of them telling their great ideas; so it is the command what I find the greatest resistance to these activities come from people who are really authoritarian in nature which is sometimes appropriate but oftentimes destructive to the creative flow.

Frank: Well it’s certainly applicable to my work and I think very applicable to other people’s work and I’m hoping that we can get the word out to people, to community leaders, to business leaders, to coaches, to individuals that they can tap into this power, to this game changing power and use it to its fullest and I think; I appreciate you taking the time; Moving Beyond Icebreakers is fascinating as a tool, it’s fascinating as a process and I appreciate you speaking about it today.

Yes, well thanks so much; I am so glad that we – you know, that Dan reached out to us and that we’ve become connected with the Agile community because there’s a kind of synergy there; it’s sort of the other side of what we do that that we didn’t know exist sort of like this discovering the other side of the moon so you know, kind of completes the picture for us and so we’re very excited about the learning that we’re going to do being in relation and being part of this movement.

Frank: Great, thank you.

Thank you too.

Nov 08, 2012