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Why You Need An Icebreaker for Your Design Sprint

   

Despite the fun reputation Design Sprints might have, they are tough work— requiring five to eight consecutive hours of deep thinking and problem solving. We’re not going to lie to you— morale isn’t always high at the beginning of the day. To run a successful sprint, it’s vital to keep your sprint team engaged, and energized. One of the best ways we’ve found to get everyone moving is by using icebreakers at the beginning of the day.

Icebreakers are a fun way to ease your Sprint team into work, while team building and setting up for the challenge ahead. Still not convinced? Here are five reasons why an icebreaker is necessary at the beginning of each day of your Design Sprint.

5 Reasons to Use an Icebreaker

1. Waking Up

You’re likely to be starting your day quite early. Before diving into the main Sprint activities, it is important that every member of your team is fully engaged. Use an icebreaker to bring everyone into the brand new day, and get participants talking, moving, and prepared to work.

2. Team Building

The composition of your sprint team will vary case-by-case. Some will be clients and service providers, some will be a group of members from the same organization, or even the same department. But, most likely, your team will be composed of experts from a variety of fields. Day One may be the first time the sprint participants actually meet in person. Coaxing these new relationships can help lead to more honest and fruitful dialogues during the sprint.

3. Warming Up the Mind

Participants will spend five to eight hours ideating, thinking deeply, and searching for problems and solutions to complex issues. It is best not to go in cold— your mind needs time to adjust to this kind of intense ideation, which is most-likely out of the ordinary for your participants. An icebreaker can provide an opportunity to get the brain moving without any pressure.

4. Opening Up

Not everyone on your sprint team necessarily wants to be there— despite how excited we may be as facilitators. Some people may even be skeptics, and that’s perfectly alright. However, this is a great opportunity to loosen them up and make them feel welcome regardless of any preconceived doubts about the sprint process.

5. Putting Pen to Paper

Much of the sprint process will be hands on. You will be working with pens, markers, stickers, and post-its. Some members of your team may actually be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with this kind of activity, not having done anything marker to paper since middle school— getting them comfortable with the idea of using their hands will help them be more productive once the sprint activities begin.


Now that you know why icebreakers are necessary, let’s talk about what icebreakers we like to use. Not all icebreakers are created equal! Some will lead to better discussions, while others can get too corny or too personal— we want to strike the perfect balance, to keep our participants engaged without making them too uncomfortable (although discomfort is an important part of the sprint process). 

Here at Neuromagic, there are a few requirements we follow when selecting an icebreaker. What may work in a Western business setting may actually be offensive or too overbearing for the Japanese work environment, and this is something we always like to keep in mind while preparing Sprint activities and selecting our icebreakers for each day. Below, we’ve listed a few of the icebreakers we don’t recommend (in Japan and abroad), and the reasons why they are an ill fit for our process.

Icebreakers to Avoid

Human Knot

Two people holding hands during the icebreaker game, human knot.

In this icebreaker, your group stands in a circle and links hands with the people standing across from them. Once everyone has linked hands, there will be an entanglement of arms and hands in the center of the circle. Already kind of weird, right? Then, everyone has to try and untangle themselves— without unlinking hands. Needless to say, this is a bit too much physical touch, especially first thing in the morning. The last thing we want is for things to get awkward between participants before they’ve even had a chance to talk about their ideas or learn each other’s names. There are definitely simpler and less uncomfortable ways to initiate collaboration and relationship-building between your teams.

Guess Who

Man in a suit holding up a question mark during a Guess Who icebreaker.

This icebreaker requires some prep work by the facilitation team. Prior to the Sprint, a survey is sent out to gather information about participants’ personal lives. Questions can include “Where were you born?” “What sport did you play in high school?” or something more open-ended, like “List some interesting facts about yourself.” Then, on the day of the Sprint or Workshop, facilitators read the answers aloud and ask the room to guess who wrote them. Not only does this add additional prep time for the facilitators, it can make participants feel alienated when their peers do not pick them, or targeted and uncomfortable if they do. In a room full of people who may be meeting for the first time, this icebreaker can lead participants to make judgements based on physical appearance, which is always inappropriate in a business setting, and can leave participants feeling hurt and uncomfortable before the day has even begun.

Now that we’ve figured out what not to do, let’s talk about what icebreakers we really enjoy! For us, it is important that icebreakers work across cultural borders, maintain a certain level of professionalism, and are also fun and energizing. Below are two of our favorites.

Our Favorite Icebreakers

Paper Tower

Two men in an office doing the paper tower icebreaker game.

As an international company with facilitators and participants often working in both English and Japanese, it is always a benefit for us if we can find an icebreaker that works despite language and cultural barriers. One of our favorites for this is Paper Tower. It requires communication, physical movement, and quick thinking. It also encourages a bit of friendly competition. Here is everything you will need:

  • 20 sheets of A2 (or Letter sized) Paper per group
  • A timer (your phone can work too, though we recommend The Time Timer for all of your Sprint activities)
  • Floor and desk space for building

To do this exercise, place the 20 sheets of paper at the center of each table (assuming your Sprint teams are split into groups). Direct participants to build a paper tower as tall as they possibly can within eight minutes. Participants are not allowed to use any other items, such as tape, pens, or staplers, in order to build their tower. It must be built entirely from paper! However, they are free to use the paper however they’d like— they can fold it, roll it, ball it up, leave it flat— whatever way they find to build the tallest tower possible. The team with the tallest paper tower at the end of eight minutes wins.

We find that this exercise really wakes participants up, both because of the competition and time-boxing element, and because it requires some physical activity. You’d be surprised by what each team can come up with— as many times as we have done this Paper Tower activity, we always get to see teams try new methods for building!

In addition to waking the team up, this exercise goes to show exactly why the Sprint methodology is so effective. By working within a time-box, creating without inhibitions, and collaborating with teammates, each group is able to make their own unique solutions, starting from a simple flat stack of paper and ending up with something totally new and unexpected!

Monster Creator

Man drawing a monster as part of the monster creator icebreaker.

This is a fun icebreaker we like to use both in sprints and in workshops. It gets a good laugh out of everyone, encourages teamwork, and requires some creativity, but not so much as to tire everyone out. All you will need is:

  • One sheet of A2 (or Letter sized) paper per group
  • A timer
  • Desk space- Black markers (or multicolor, if you’re feeling fancy)

For this icebreaker, each group is going to (you guessed it!) create a monster! In three minutes, each person will draw a body part or element of a monster, and then pass to the person next to them. Once the first three minutes is up, you will give everyone another three minutes to decide on their monsters name and define its abilities. Then, each group will present their monster to the room. This icebreaker is great for workshops, because you can also use the monsters as example products (perhaps for a toy company) and use them to teach the participants about product design sprint methodologies.


Though they may seem trivial, icebreakers are an important part of any workshop or design sprint related activity. They are a fun way to prepare everyone for the day ahead, to spearhead partnerships, and build trust among participants. If you’d like to hear more about icebreakers (or do an icebreaker with our team at a workshop) check out our upcoming seminar schedule here.

Elena Iwata

Digital Marketer
Originally from Philadelphia, PA, USA, Elena is passionate about storytelling and designing for equity. Her current focus is on content strategy and creation, from research, to writing and photography.

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