Monday, November 17, 2014

Breaking the Ice

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Last week I wrote about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of association members, think about what “ice” needs to be broken.

I don't mean one of those silly ice breaker exercises--like going around the room and having everyone say which Wizard of Oz character they are most like and why. No, those just make people uncomfortable and perhaps makes them question the competence of the facilitator.

Rather, given the work that needs to be done, the people gathered to do it, and the time available to get it done, what initial task should be performed in order to ensure that the group can knit together as a team and focus most effectively on the task at hand.

This is something that is often overlooked. As a volunteer, I, myself, have been in situations where we have been plunged into a task by an association staff person without taking the time to make sure that everyone knew each other and understood what we were there to do. The result? A lot of time wasted as people held back, not knowing what or how much to contribute in the presence or strangers, and then, a lot of fumbling around as the group tried to solve a problem that hadn't been clearly defined for them.

It is well worth the extra time and preparation it takes to address this issue up front; to "break the ice" so that the balance of the time reserved for the interaction can be used most productively. While I was at the workshop, I thought about three possible applications in my own association.

Staff Meetings. Here everyone knows each other, so there's no real need for introductions or for social time. What is sometimes missing, however, is a clear understanding of the intended output of the meeting. Is this a general update on staff activities or a discussion focused on solving a particular problem or making a particular decision? And if the latter, who's going to make that decision? Are we looking for consensus on something, or are we feeding information and opinions into a central decision-maker who will make the final call? This is the kind of ice that needs breaking but almost never is.

Strategic Task Force Meetings. These are the task forces of our Board I wrote about a few posts ago, where Board and non-Board members come together to focus on particular elements of our strategic plan, trying to define what success looks like and how progress will be measured. The ice that needs breaking here is clearly an orientation on all the work that has come before--certainly for the new task force members that haven't been part of the the Board's regular dialogue, but for Board members, too, who have possibly spent three months away from our strategy, working with more focus on the challenges of their businesses than those of the association. This is one of the reasons why I open every Board meeting with a "strategy briefing" session, where I summarize the Board work that happened at the last Board meeting, the staff work that has happened since then, and, with the buy-in of the Strategic Task Force chairs, the issues that will be dealt with at this Board meeting.

New Roadmapping Sessions. These will represent a brand new project for our association. Working with stakeholders in and out of our association, we plan to create a research and development roadmap for the technology our association represents. Doing so will require us to knit together a diverse coalition of technical experts. When they come together for their first meeting, we're going to have to spend some time "breaking the ice" on all the knowledge and capabilities that each person is bringing to the conversation. More than just simple introductions, the team is going to need a deeper understanding of each team member's CV so they can consciously mine the brainpower that we've assembled to complete their challenging task. In fact, some of that work is going to have to be done before the first session to make sure we've invited the right people to attend.

These groups and meetings are specific to my association, but I bet you can identify some parallels to them in your organization. Next time you do, think about the ice you may need to break before bringing them together.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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