Having an active conversation where everyone weighs in is crucial to having a good meeting or brainstorming session, solving a problem, or just getting things done. This generally isn't too hard when participants have to talk with people they already know and are already comfortable talking to. It's something else again to get a good give-and-take going when you need to get people who are strangers together or who generally don't talk shop with one another because of their different job status.
Fortunately people who regularly face this problem have come up with some clever ways to help overcome these hurdles and get everyone talking as equals. These are called "ice breakers". A good ice breaker should be fun, but not take up a lot of time. And, most importantly, it should be specifically targeted at the "ice" you need to break.
"Ice" can come from any number of sources. It may be people at the same relative level and mindset that just haven't met each other yet. It may be because you have people of different cultures, backgrounds, or view points. It may be that you're mixing people from different pay grades and levels of responsibility or that have different perceptions about each other.
To have a successful ice breaker, look at the "ice" and then look at the goal of your meeting. Now assess what part of the ice you need to break in order to maximize the results of what has to get done. Focus the ice breaker on that. You can't, and shouldn't try to overcome every possible obstacle or type of "ice" that might exist between participants, just the one most likely to hamper you meeting from achieving its objectives.
We'll talk about effective ice breakers next.