What would be an effective team-building/ice-breaking activity for a large group of adults?

I have experienced ice-breakers and team-building activities for small groups (maybe 3-8 individuals) and really like the impact they have on a group. However, I'm skeptical that these same games scale up. I want to run an ice-breaker for a large project team, but I don't know what would work well.

What games should I consider for such a large group?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David K, JazzmanJim, sf02, Gregory Currie, aaaaaa Jul 17 at 19:43

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In a workplace I've never had a great experience with ice breaker activities - they're always awkward, and I've been able to tell that almost everyone else involved finds them awkward too. Unlike the military, we then go back to our desks to do activities that don't involve a lot of close work as well.

However people work together better when they are closer to each other.

Two ways of building team cohesion that I've seen work well are:

  • Arrange regular meetings where the team talks to each other about what's working well, what's not working well, and what needs to be improved. The most important part of a meeting like this is that the feedback is listened to and actioned (preferably by the team themselves). If the meetings are just moan-fests where nothing changes then that's worse than useless.

  • Ask the team for an activity they'd like to do together It might end up being a lunch, lawn bowling, go-karting, paintballing, going to the beach, whatever. If everyone's aware that the activity was decided by the team then people will bond during it.

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    There are employees who like social things really much and others who hate it. There can be a large gap between team leaders who try everything and let's say technicians who don't like "games" and stuff at all. Carefully evaluate how extremely useful this really is. Most times such attempts "hey let's get to know each other" really are only awkward. – puck Jul 14 at 12:31
  • I think it's important to understand this answer as a personal reflection, not a general one. Indeed some people will find team-building activities to be awkward or boring, but many people will find them fun and valuable. A well-run activity that demands vulnerability and compassion from participants can have a dramatic effect on the operation and attitudes of a team. – Jay Jul 14 at 12:52
  • I think the "some" and "many" @Jay used in his comment might draw a misleading picture of "oh, a few people won't like it, but most will". Depending on the circumstances, the numbers will be reversed - no team of developers that I've been part of so far would have more "yay, teambuilding" reactions than "oh god, what fad are those pointy-haired bosses riding today? Even if I'm paid to be here, I think I should polish my resume and find a place where I'm paid to do work I enjoy instead of... THIS." – Syndic Jul 15 at 13:22
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    @Syndic with the same set of people I agree with Player One that having a say in what is to be done makes a huge difference. Some event imposed by higher management -> "meh". Some event planned together where everyone had a veto if it absolutely doesn't fit -> "yeah, that was fun, and next time we do my proposal, right?!" – Frank Hopkins Jul 15 at 14:43

Here are some ice-breakers / team-builders for large groups. You'll have to use your judgement about which to use provided your objectives for the activity and the comfort-level of the group with sharing and being vulnerable.

  • Crossing the line - Improving empathy, addressing toxic mindsets, encouraging compassion and respect

    The full group lines up shoulder-to-shoulder facing forward along a straight line (perhaps marked by a rope). A second rope is laid parallel to the line of individuals ~10ft in front of the group. The activity leader reads simple statements that may describe some members of the group (starting with easier things like "I was born in another country" and building up to more personal topics like "I have a friend or family member who has attempted suicide"). If an individual identifies with a statement, he or she should (if they feel comfortable) walk forward to the second rope, stand on the other side of it, and turn to face the remainder of the group. After a few seconds allowing each group (the line crossers and the folks that stayed) to observe each other, the activity leader asks the line crossers to return and the process repeats.

  • Puzzle hunts - Appreciating alternative ways of working, learning about outside interests

    Ahead of time, event organizers have developed a number of puzzles. Some puzzles can be solved just with the clues provided, others require participants to interpret clues using elements of the environment. Teams compete to solve the puzzles. There may be a variety of ways to win, e.g., fastest solve for each puzzle, fastest overall, fewest hints. Activity organizers debrief the full group discussing conclusions about teamwork and collaboration. A number of vendors can create these for your work since they are very involved to set up.

  • Circle of appreciation - Expressing appreciation and gratitude, identifying small acts of kindness

    Participants form a circle holding hands facing the center of the circle with eyes closed. The activity leader nominates 1/10th to 1/5th of the group (2-4 people for a group of 20) to leave their place in the circle and enter the center. The gaps they leave in the circle should be closed - everyone should be grasping the hand of a neighbor. The activity leader reads statements of appreciation (e.g., "I appreciate the extra help I receive from you"). The individuals inside the circle should identify one individual each who represents the statement read by the leader, place a hand on the individuals shoulder, share a brief moment acknowledging one another, and then swap places. The process repeats.

  • The SMED game (or other topical competitions) - Learning lean principles, experimentation, failure as a valuable process

    Participants compete to changeover a toy machine setup. The activity leader introduces new tools and fixtures in subsequent rounds (although with scarcity, so teams must negotiate to share different assets) and debriefs with teams about what is working and what they find frustrating. This is really a lean learning tool, but the teams always have a good time and there are definitely some teamwork takeaways.

  • Sorry that I couldn't find a link for the circle activity - it's very touching to do. If anyone knows another name for it or has a reference, please feel free to edit it in. – Jay Jul 14 at 12:45
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    Have you put these to practice before? How were the results? – lucasgcb Jul 15 at 11:13
  • @lucasgcb, yes, used them all. I've run the SMED game 50+ times, both with teams that work with equipment and in the back office. Always fun. I've used crossing the line ~10 times with teams that have had some time to get introduced. It's extremely effective in response to toxic or inappropriate behavior. I've similarly run the circle of appreciation at least a dozen times. It's a great wrap-up to a strategic planning weekend or retreat. I've only participated in puzzle hunts. They are fantastic when done well. A great way to program a company picnic or other fun day. – Jay Jul 15 at 11:37
  • +1 for the disclaimer. Use your judgement! And DO, please please do, consider the comfort level of the group. If you forced me to attend these, my reaction would range from annoyance (puzzle hunts, problem-solving games instead of solving actual problems) to "Sorry, I'll need a day off on that date. Don't worry, I'll try to schedule some of the job interviews I'm about to do to get away from here on that date so I don't have to take another one too soon." – Syndic Jul 15 at 13:30

Danger. Danger.

Your original question listed your experience with these types of team building activities with the military. You also mention ones used in Communist China. You will find out that there is a big difference between those work environments and the typical office. Expect push-back. Expect some people will find a way to skip it.

The biggest danger is if management makes the employees make up the time. If you make me spend a few hours doing a scavenger hunt, you can't complain when I don't get all my tasks completed on time.

There is another issue you have to be careful with. If you are working in an office where there are US Government workers and contractors, then the contractors can't bill for that time. You might decide to spend an afternoon bowling, but the contractors will either stay in the office, or have to take vacation to attend. That doesn't help with team building. I have experienced this. Government managers wants everybody to attend, but contractors have to take vacation. It is even worse if they then award 3 hours of vacation to all the government workers who stay for an hour, while contractors have to drive back to the office.

If you work as a manager for a government contractor, then the time spent on these non-productive activities have to be billed to overhead, and will reduce the bottom line of the company.

  • I have found that people behave in very similar ways in various office environments around the world. There are many jobs in the U.S. military that are office jobs. There are thousands of them, especially around Washington, DC. – Patriot Jul 15 at 16:46

Some people always resist team-building stuff like this. Don't worry about them. Do the exercises anyway.

Here's an exercise to help people get to know one another:

Put people in pairs. Ask them to pair with somebody they don't know.

Give them this assignment:

"You will have one-half minute to introduce your partner to the group. Please tell us your partner's full name, their department, the work they do, and something they like to do when not working.

"You have three minutes to prepare to make this introduction. Talk to each other. Go!"

(It may be helpful to provide a way for people to take notes.)

This doesn't take too long even with a big group. It serves the same purpose as going around the room saying names and jobs, but also helps people get to know each other.

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