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Ideo Redesigns the Icebreaker

One of my least favorite activities of all time is the icebreaker. You know how it goes: Throw together a bunch of people—six, eight, more than two is too many—and force them to tell each other something silly, secret, anything that will publicly humiliate in front of total strangers. Cue nervous laughter and clammy palms. But barely has the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship begun and Ideo is already telling us: We have a better way. We're going to use design.

The Ideo icebreaker is a pilot project that it's testing at Skoll—a quick-fire exercise "to meet each other and design some new partnerships." First task: "Turn around and pick a partner you haven't met before." (I get Raymond from Hong Kong.) Next, we enter the "empathy stage." (How far before we get to denial?) "Do a miniature interview. Take five minutes to get to know your partner. Don't write at this point. Just listen. After two-and-a-half minutes, I'll give you a signal. AND NO WRITING YET."

I tell Raymond about Fast Company, and Raymond tells me about Baptist Oi Kwan Social Services, which runs, among other things, a vocational rehab program that helps the mentally ill find gainful employment, many of them in a restaurant that the organization operates in Hong Kong. (When I ask what kind of food, Raymond looks at me—an obviously Chinese person—as if I am crazy. "Chinese!" he says. "It's good!")

Next, it's time for the "distill stage." We have two minutes to write down each other's names, organizations, and three defining features of our organizations.

Finally, we're given four minutes for the "prototyping stage." That means coming up with a project that the two organizations can do together in a week, and then another that we can do in a year. At the rate we're talking, it will take a week just to come up with a project that we can do in a week, but we gamely devise a plan to help Raymond's organization improve its publicity and outreach while giving Fast Company access to an interesting case study of a social enterprise. When it's time to come up with a project for a year, well, we just extend the weekly project because they need the staff and I'd rather have a more in-depth story.

In the end, it was a little like speed dating. There was the rare winner: One person effusively announced that she had forged a partnership that might actually work outside the walls of this bland conference room. But more of what I heard was this: "That was odd." "For God's sake, I can't hear a thing." "Why can't you just let us talk?" "That was awkward."

In other words, it's still an icebreaker.

Related: Avon Calling:Could Beauty Be a Path Out of Poverty?
and At Skoll, Design Dean Roger Martin Inspires Social Entrepreneurs to Find a Better Way