Personal Maps Used As An Icebreaker

Mind Map DCIt’s always nice to start a learning session or workshop off with an icebreaker.  It gets the energy going and sets the stage for increased participation. There are a number of different icebreakers you can employ, but the one I would like to discuss today is “Personal Maps”.  This was first introduced to me by the Management 3.0 community and it has become one of my favorites because it brings the energy level up while also helping the team learn more about each other.  When I first started working, I was told to keep business and personal life separate, but we spend so much time at work that we should know more about our co-workers.  Many studies now show that establishing relationships with our co-workers creates a much healthier work environment and lays the groundwork for the creation of high performing teams. You develop trust and empathy for your colleagues and care about them.  A team that cares about each other works much better together and will rally to each other’s aid when a challenge arises. Personal maps can help to start or fortify these relationships with the use of just 15-20 minutes. 

Personal Maps is a very easy exercise to conduct.  You start by pairing people up. Two people working together is optimal, but you can have three people as a group if you have an odd number of people or want less groups.  The idea is for everyone to create a mind map focusing on themselves at the middle of the map. Stemming from the map can be any number of things such as family, companies worked for, education, interests, likes, dislikes, etc  Mind maps can go one or multiple levels deep, but I don’t place any rules on the number of levels. I also have different color markers available for the more artistic.

I usually give everyone 5 minutes to create their Personal Maps.  As with a lot of my exercises, at the end of the 5 minutes I ask if they need two more minutes to complete and if so then I give them the time. Once they have created their personal maps then they place them on the table and take a look at each other’s maps.  I give them about eight minutes to ask questions and discuss the maps. My particular preference is for both of them to look at each other’s maps at the same time and ask questions to each other rather than each person presenting their map to the other in sequential fashion. I feel that it creates a more ad hoc and interactive conversation which seems to keep people’s attention and interest.  At the end of the exercise, people know more about their co-worker enabling the relationship to grow and are invigorated and ready to participate in whatever comes next in the session.

As a facilitator, you may run into some challenges or you may want to know about some variations you can use when creating the personal maps.  Below are a few I’d like to share.

Some participants may have trouble getting started and in those cases I employ some techniques to get them going. One such technique is to give them a small beach ball that they can toss to each other.  The beach ball has personal map subjects written on it. Wherever their thumb is when they catch the beach ball is the next subject area they can address on their personal map. A thumb ball can also be used as its own separate icebreaker when you have less time, but I like leveraging it here to get challenged participants started.  I try not to write too many subject areas on the beach ball, so they don’t continue to use it for all their personal map questions.

Also, a way to change up the exercise a little is to have each person create their partner’s personal map instead of creating their own.  This creates the interaction with your partner from the start and allows you to ask questions of your partner or of course just collaboratively create the personal map. Some studies also say that there is better participation and retention when you are listening and then writing down what you hear since you are using multiple senses and actions together.

Another variation is to have the person identify an avatar for themselves and draw it in the circle at the center of the map.  This could be a dragon, an animal, a superhero, etc. This creates additional conversation around why they chose that avatar.

If people are creating their partner’s personal map then we can also have them draw what their partner looks like in the center circle.  This reinforces some other learnings where we can have fun and not feel that we have to have something perfect before sharing. This variation tends to be a lot of fun.

Mind Map PZ

Also, if you have some extra time then you can ask each person to create a spoke of the map to be “A little known fact about me” and then ask that they also write that on a sticky with their name on the back.  At the end of the learning session you can then read them and ask people who they think it was who wrote that fact. This is a good way to tie everything together from the start of your session to the end.

I enjoy using personal maps as an icebreaker for my learning sessions and workshops.  I display them on the walls proudly and take a group team picture with them at the end of the session.  It’s a great way to have fun and get to know your teammates.


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