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The value of breakout groups

Breakout groups are a useful tool for businesses and other organizations to solve problems, promote team building, involve employees or members, and plan for the future.  This column will explore some of the benefits and advantages of breakout groups.

A breakout group by definition is a subset of a larger group. It is a staple of conferences, retreats and large meetings in which an issue or subject is presented to all participants at the same time and then attendees are invited to join a smaller group for further discussion. Breakout groups are often structured to deal with a slice of the main issue. For example, if the main topic is healthcare the breakout groups might be assigned subtopics such as reducing healthcare costs, accounting for healthcare, prevention, legal issues, and so forth. In these type breakout groups there will often be a presentation on the subtopic by an expert and then a question and answer session. Other types of breakout groups are also used for reflection and reaction and for generating ideas and proposals.  This involves presentation of the issue or subject to the entire group and then having breakout groups deal with the issue.   

Breakout groups can be very useful when there is a problem to be solved.  Research reveals that small groups are better at solving complex problems than individuals.  A study published in the April 2006 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that a group of three to five people perform better than single individuals.  That is good news for small business owners who have only a few employees.  From this writer’s perspective, a breakout group should be no larger than 12 members.  That is easier said than done because the circumstances, such as time allotment, numbers of persons in the larger group and complexity of the issue, will be the ultimate deciding factor in the size of the group.  Seven seems to be the ideal number.

One of the greatest benefits of breakout groups is that they provide a way for individuals to feel that they are part of the process.  This results in a feeling of ownership in the outcomes of the process.  Business owners and leaders of other organizations often make the mistake of believing that they know what is best for the organization.  They announce new procedures or policies.  Even though the leaders may be correct in their decisions, they would probably have been better off allows the members of their organizations to have input in the process.  In short, participants feel more empowered when they are part of the process.

Another significant benefit is the team building that can occur.  Members often share their personal stories, which can be valuable in coming to solutions about the issue or in understanding the issue.  Team building almost always results in improved productivity and increased morale.  Breakout groups offer one way that team building can occur.  Depending on the length and frequency of the breakout sessions these benefits can be immediate and/or long term.

Anyone who has every moderated a large group session knows that one of the challenges is reigning in the person who is often described as “the blowhard.”  This is the person who wants to be heard or noticed.  Sometimes his or her comments are useful, sometimes not.  The breakout session diffuses the blowhard.  In a smaller group, the blowhard is less likely to expound.  Members in a small group are more likely to ask him to allow others to speak than if the setting is the larger group.  

The breakout group structure allows the introverted a chance to speak.  Many people are nervous when speaking in front of a large audience, but are quite comfortable when sitting around a table with just a few other people. Breakout groups can provide a way for the person to speak to the entire group without having to speak to the entire group.  The way for that to be accomplished is for there to be a group spokesperson who reports the comments of the group members without identifying them by name. 

Speaking of reports, breakout groups usually report via the use of so-called bullet points, short, snappy sentences that summarize the discussion.  People like lists and short sentences.  They are easy to remember and serve as a key to the discussion of the larger issue.

Breakout groups can be an excellent way of learning.  Consider the case of Susan Straight, who teaches a summer seminar in fiction at the University of California at Riverside.  Last year, she had 34 students in her class instead of the usual 15.  Hardly a situation for meaningful discussion of books.  Deciding that there must be a better way than standing in front of her class and lecturing about books, she decided to have four breakout groups of students.  Their task was to read a certain book and then report to the class. The presentations brought out feelings, insights and comments that surely would not have occurred in the larger group.  

In summary, breakout groups are a tool that can be useful to any organization.  Leaders might want consider using them more often and learning more about how to use them effectively.


Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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