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Back-to-Back Building

Back-to-Back Building: Enhance Teamwork and Communication Skills with this Engaging Icebreaker

Back-to-Back Building
By Jon Zajac

What is Back-to-Back Building?

The Back-to-Back Building icebreaker is an engaging and interactive activity designed to strengthen communication, collaboration, and active listening within any group. Its primary purpose is to foster connections among participants by encouraging clear verbal instruction and precise articulation, making it perfect for first-time interactions or team-building exercises. In this activity, pairs of participants work back-to-back, with one person serving as the “Instructor” who describes how to build a structure using a set of identical building blocks, while the other partner, the “Builder,” relies solely on those verbal instructions to create the structure.

A time limit adds an element of excitement and challenge, prompting Instructors to think strategically about their communication style and encouraging Builders to listen attentively and ask clarifying questions when necessary. By comparing completed structures to a provided model, participants can reflect on their communication skills, trust-building abilities, and the overall effectiveness of their teamwork during a facilitated group discussion.

The Back-to-Back Building icebreaker offers various adaptations, such as silent Instructors or blindfolded Builders, to cater to diverse groups and contexts. Its simplicity and versatility make it an ideal choice for educators, corporate trainers, or anyone seeking a fun, interactive way to enhance communication skills and build stronger teams.

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Rules for Back-to-Back Building

  1. Prepare identical building materials for each pair.
  2. Divide participants into pairs and seat them back to back.
  3. Designate one person as the Instructor and the other as the Builder within each pair.
  4. Show the pre-built structure or diagram to the Instructors only.
  5. Instructors give verbal instructions to Builders for constructing the structure.
  6. Only verbal communication is allowed between the Instructors and Builders.
  7. Start the timer and allow pairs to build within the allotted time limit.
  8. Observe the interaction but avoid giving hints or correcting mistakes.
  9. After the activity, have pairs compare their constructions with the original model.
  10. Facilitate a group discussion about communication and teamwork.
  11. Ensure clear instructions are given throughout the game.
  12. Consider adding a competitive element for larger groups.
  13. Use variations such as Silent Builder, Blind Build, or Time Trial to add variety.

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Materials needed for Back-to-Back Building

  • Building blocks: I recommend using Lego or wooden blocks for this activity. They are easy to handle and come in various shapes and sizes, allowing for more complex structures.
  • A timer: A countdown timer will help keep all teams on track and add a sense of urgency to the task. You can use a smartphone, a digital watch, or an online tool.
  • A barrier (optional): If you have enough space and resources, setting up physical barriers between pairs might be beneficial, especially for in-person events. It ensures that participants cannot see each other’s work during the activity, further emphasizing the importance of clear verbal communication.

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Setting up for Back-to-Back Building

To set up for the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker activity, follow these steps:

  1. Prepare a spacious area where participants can comfortably work without interfering with one another. This could be a large table or an open floor space, depending on the number of participants. For remote teams, ensure all team members have access to similar building materials and adequate workspace at their respective locations.

  2. Divide the participants into pairs for in-person activities. If there’s an odd number of participants, consider having a third person join one of the pairs or involving yourself in one of the pairs to maintain even interactions. In virtual settings, ensure that all pairings have equal access to communication channels and building materials.

  3. Position each pair back-to-back to prevent them from seeing each other’s work during the activity. This can be done by arranging chairs or having participants stand back-to-back in a large open space. For remote teams, ensure that the video conferencing tool allows for private messaging between pairs without being visible to others.

  4. Establish clear roles and expectations before starting the activity. Make sure each participant understands their role as either the Instructor or the Builder, and emphasize the importance of verbal communication and active listening during the exercise. For virtual teams, provide guidelines on using private messaging and sharing visuals discreetly within pairs.

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How to play Back-to-Back Building

1. Prepare the Workspace: Ensure you have enough space for all participants to work comfortably without interference. If conducting this activity remotely, make sure each participant has access to similar building materials.

2. Form Teams: Divide participants into pairs. For odd numbers, consider participating yourself or forming a team of three with designated roles.

3. Position Participants: Have each pair sit or stand back to back to prevent them from seeing each other’s work.

4. Distribute Materials: Give each pair an identical set of building blocks. The number and variety depend on the complexity of the challenge.

5. Designate Roles: One member of each pair will be the “Instructor” and the other the “Builder.” The Instructor will give verbal instructions on how to assemble a structure, while the Builder constructs it based solely on these instructions.

6. Reveal the Model: Show the Instructors a pre-built structure or provide them with a diagram. Make sure Builders do not see it. This model is what pairs will attempt to replicate.

7. Start Building: Set a clear time limit (usually 5 to 15 minutes) and notify participants when to start. Instructors should avoid using gestures or directly manipulating the blocks in the Builder’s hands, giving instructions verbally only.

During the activity: - Monitor interactions closely, providing support if needed without giving hints or correcting mistakes unless requested. - Observe how pairs communicate for later discussion.

8. Compare Constructions: Once time is up, have pairs compare their creations with the original model. Facilitate a group discussion on communication, trust, and teamwork using questions like: - How difficult was it to give/receive instructions? - What strategies did you find most effective? - How important was trust between the Instructor and the Builder? - What did you learn about communication and teamwork?

Considerations: - Clarify instructions, especially for virtual teams. - Consider a competitive element by offering a small prize for the pair whose structure most accurately resembles the original model (optional).

Variations: - Silent Builder: Only the Instructor speaks; the Builder cannot ask questions. - Blind Build: Similar setup but the Builders are blindfolded. - Time Trial: Teams attempt the same build multiple times to improve communication and beat their previous times without changing roles.

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Benefits of Back-to-Back Building

  • Improves Communication Skills: By forcing participants to rely solely on verbal communication, the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker helps sharpen their ability to articulate precise instructions and actively listen to their partner.

  • Encourages Active Listening: The Builder must pay close attention to the Instructor’s directions, while the Instructor needs to ensure they provide clear and concise guidance. This dynamic fosters active listening skills essential for effective teamwork.

  • Promotes Trust and Empathy: By placing trust in their partner’s communication abilities, participants can better understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and working styles, thereby building empathy within the team.

  • Enhances Collaboration: The Back-to-Back Building icebreaker requires participants to work together towards a common goal while respecting each other’s contributions and ideas. This experience can lead to stronger collaboration in future projects or tasks.

  • Provides an Engaging Icebreaker Experience: This activity offers a fun and interactive way for participants to get to know one another, making it particularly useful during onboarding processes, workshops, or conferences where people may not be familiar with each other.

  • Applicable in Various Settings: Whether you’re working with students, corporate teams, or volunteer groups, the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker is versatile and can be adapted to suit different needs, age ranges, and group sizes.

  • Facilitates Problem Solving: Participants must overcome challenges and solve problems together during this activity, which translates into valuable skills that help them navigate real-life situations more effectively.

  • Reinforces Adaptability: The dynamic nature of the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker encourages participants to adapt their communication style on the fly, making it a powerful tool for teaching flexibility and resilience in the face of changing circumstances.

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Skills built with Back-to-Back Building

  • Interpersonal Communication: The Back-to-Back Building icebreaker emphasizes the importance of clear verbal communication as one participant must guide the other to construct a model using only words. This experience can help participants understand how their communication style impacts others and how to improve it for better collaboration in future projects.
  • Active Listening: As the Builder relies solely on the Instructor’s instructions, this icebreaker highlights the significance of active listening. By practicing focused attention, questioning for clarification, and refraining from interrupting, participants can enhance their ability to absorb and respond accurately to information in various settings.
  • Empathy: Building an understanding of another person’s perspective is crucial in teamwork, and this icebreaker fosters empathy by placing participants in roles where they must consider the other’s point of view. By promoting awareness of individual strengths and weaknesses, it helps create a more harmonious and productive work environment.
  • Trust: The activity underlines the necessity of trust between team members. As Instructors rely on Builders to interpret their instructions correctly and Builders depend on Instructors for clear guidance, both parties learn to trust each other’s abilities and intentions, fostering a stronger bond that benefits future collaborations.
  • Problem-Solving: The Back-to-Back Building icebreaker encourages participants to think critically and creatively when faced with challenges, such as building an accurate model within a time limit. By practicing problem-solving in a low-stress setting, individuals can develop confidence in their abilities to tackle complex issues in real-life scenarios.
  • Patience and Resilience: Dealing with potential frustration and setbacks during the icebreaker teaches participants the value of patience and resilience. These qualities are essential for maintaining composure and persisting through difficulties in professional environments, leading to improved performance and overall well-being.
  • Leadership and Followership: This icebreaker allows participants to practice both leadership and followership skills as they take turns guiding and being guided by their partners. By understanding the dynamics of these roles, individuals can become more adaptable team players who can effectively lead or support others as needed in various situations.

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Why I like Back-to-Back Building

I appreciate the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker because it effectively promotes communication, collaboration, and active listening in a simple yet engaging way. This activity has a profound impact on building trust and fostering teamwork among participants, making it suitable for various settings and groups.

One of the primary reasons I like this icebreaker is its ability to enhance communication skills. By having Instructors verbally guide their Builders through constructing a model without visual contact, participants learn to articulate precisely and listen actively. The exercise highlights common pitfalls in verbal communication and emphasizes the importance of clarity and detail in conveying information.

Moreover, I find that this icebreaker encourages trust-building between team members. As Instructors rely on their partners to build accurate models based on their instructions, they learn to trust each other’s abilities. This aspect is crucial for successful collaboration and forms the foundation of strong teams.

I also enjoy observing how different pairs adapt to the challenge. The way participants communicate, provide feedback, and cope with setbacks reveals valuable insights into individual working styles and team dynamics. These observations can be used as a basis for further discussions on communication, teamwork, and problem-solving strategies.

Furthermore, I appreciate the activity’s flexibility in accommodating different group sizes, ages, and environments. It can be easily adapted to suit virtual or in-person gatherings, catering to diverse needs and preferences.

Lastly, the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker is fun and interactive, making it an enjoyable experience for participants. The competitive edge and various challenge levels keep the activity engaging, ensuring that everyone remains invested throughout the session.

In conclusion, I find the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker to be an invaluable tool for improving communication skills, fostering trust, and enhancing teamwork among participants. Its adaptability, simplicity, and entertainment factor make it a go-to activity for various group settings.

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Tips for making Back-to-Back Building more inclusive

  • Tip: Before starting the activity, ensure that all participants are familiar with the building materials and understand how to use them safely. This step helps to create an inclusive environment by accommodating individuals who may have little experience with construction toys.
  • Tip: Consider providing visual aids or demonstrations for visually impaired participants, allowing them to fully engage in the activity. For example, you could use textured blocks or describe the shapes and colors of the pieces in detail.
  • Tip: If any participants have mobility limitations that make building with small blocks challenging, offer alternative materials such as larger foam blocks or pipe cleaners. This adaptation ensures everyone can participate comfortably and effectively.
  • Tip: To accommodate language barriers, provide clear, simple instructions and use visual aids when necessary. Encourage participants to speak slowly and clearly, giving their partners ample time to process the information.
  • Tip: For neurodivergent individuals, such as those with autism or ADHD, consider setting expectations in advance and providing a quiet space for taking breaks if needed. This approach acknowledges their unique needs and promotes inclusivity.
  • Tip: If cultural differences may affect communication styles, discuss these nuances beforehand to ensure that all participants are respectful and understanding of one another’s ways of expressing ideas. This conversation fosters an inclusive atmosphere and helps build trust among the group members.

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Reflection questions for Back-to-Back Building

  1. How did you feel giving or following instructions in this activity? This question helps participants reflect on their communication style and comfort level when conveying information or receiving guidance from others.

  2. What were some challenges you faced while building the structure, and how did you overcome them? By discussing specific obstacles encountered during the icebreaker, participants can identify strategies for effective problem-solving and collaboration.

  3. How did trust play a role in your interaction with your partner? Understanding the significance of trust in team settings is essential for fostering strong relationships and successful collaborations.

  4. Did you find yourself making any assumptions about your partner’s abilities or understanding? If so, how did this impact the building process? This question encourages participants to reflect on the dangers of making assumptions and consider alternative ways to communicate more clearly and inclusively in future interactions.

  5. What parallels can you draw between the Back-to-Back Building icebreaker and real-life situations, particularly in terms of communication and collaboration? Drawing connections between the icebreaker and everyday experiences helps participants recognize the value of strong communication and teamwork skills in various aspects of their lives.

  6. What did you learn about your own communication style through this activity? How can you use this knowledge to improve interactions with others moving forward? Self-reflection is crucial for personal growth; by considering their communication style, participants can identify areas for improvement and develop strategies to strengthen relationships in both personal and professional settings.

  7. How did the time constraint influence your approach to problem-solving and collaboration? Would you have changed anything if given more time? This question encourages participants to consider the impact of deadlines on their work and how they might adapt their communication style when faced with similar constraints in real-life situations.

  8. What did you appreciate most about your partner’s communication style or approach to problem-solving? How can you apply this insight to future collaborations? By recognizing the strengths of others, participants can learn to value diverse perspectives and work more effectively with a wide range of individuals in various settings.

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About the author

Jon Zajac

Jon Zajac

Founder & Chief Icebreaker

I started Icebreaker Spot because I truly believe that strong connections are the foundation of successful teams. I wanted to create a platform that would make it easy for people to find and share icebreakers and team building activities, empowering them to build trust, foster collaboration, and ultimately, achieve greatness together.

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