If you use breakout groups, you know that they are especially appropriate when the agenda calls for a facilitated process to be performed several times. For example, if your group needs to come up with solutions to five problems identified in the hiring process, you might breakout into sub-teams and assign one problem to each sub-team.

To maximize the effectiveness of your breakout groups, we recommend seven steps.

  1. Let the participants know that a session breakout is coming.
  2. Complete the first element with the entire group.
  3. Divide into teams.
  4. Appoint team leaders, scribes, and reporters.
  5. Give final directions to the teams.
  6. Monitor the activity.
  7. Have each team report their results.

But how you do each of these steps is important as well. Let’s take a look at each of the steps separately.


Step 1: Let the Participants Know That A Session Breakout Is Coming.

Alert the participants that after completing the first element together as one group, they will be split into teams to complete the other elements. When you alert them ahead of time, the participants often pay a greater level of attention during the next step!

Step 2: Complete the First Element with the Entire Group.

Facilitate the entire group through the process of addressing the first element. For example, if each breakout team will be asked to identify potential solutions to one of the problems in the hiring process, lead the entire group in addressing one of the problems before breaking out. Doing this tends to increase the quality of each team’s end result, because it gives the participants a chance to see the product to create and how to create it.

Step 3: Divide into Teams.

Determine the number of teams to be used. Consider working with teams of three to seven members, though larger teams may be necessary. Typically, the smaller the team, the greater the level of individual responsibility and participation.

There are several methods for dividing into teams, depending on your purpose. Let’s say that you have thirty people in the room, and there are five problems remaining in the hiring process after you have completed the first one as an entire group. Accordingly, you’ll need five teams of six people each.

  • You might determine the five teams by designating teams based on groups of six people sitting next to each other.
  • You might count by fives and designate the 1s as one team, the 2s as a second team and so on. This splits people up nicely.
  • You might ask people to self-assign based on the problem of greatest interest to them or the problem to which they can most contribute. (If you do this, be sure to set a minimum and maximum size to each team; for example you might say no team can have fewer than 3 people or more than 8)
  • You might pre-assign teams based on having on each team a diversity of departments, experience level, etc.

Step 4: Appoint Team Leaders, Scribes, and Reporters

A lack of leadership can cause breakout teams to waste time; so can ambiguity around roles. When leadership is not clear, team members may have trouble getting the process started. Also, when team leadership is left to chance, the more dominant personalities are likely to take control, reducing the opportunities for shared ownership. As the facilitator, you can help teams avoid these problems by defining for them a process for assigning roles. When I use multiple breakouts during a day, I ask for volunteers once the teams are divided and have the volunteers pick the first team leader. I then suggest that the scribe be the person to the right of the team leader and the reporter be the person to the left.

Step 5: Give Final Directions to the Teams

When giving directions to the teams, make sure they know the following:

  • What their deliverable is
  • How to judge the quality of the deliverable
  • What the process is for creating it
  • What the deadline is for completion

Note the importance of dividing into teams BEFORE giving final directions. If you give final directions first and then divide into teams, you may find that several teams have forgotten the directions by the time they breakout.

Step 6: Monitor the Activity

As the breakout teams are working, you will want to move from team to team to monitor the activity. Specifically, you will want to ensure that each team is progressing as expected, that the deliverables are reasonably close to what is desired, and that the team is working within the time frame.

Step 7: Have Each Team Report Their Results

Results from the breakout teams should be recorded in such a way that permits viewing by other teams. In some cases, you will use flip charts, other cases electronic media or some other form.

To learn more about facilitation skills, consider our course, The Effective Facilitator.  The four-day course provides a structured approach for leading teams and facilitating meetings and covers over 100 techniques for getting amazing results from groups.