How Many is Too Many for a Breakout Group?

“How many is just too many for a breakout group?”

A participant asked me this question during a recent facilitation training class.  After thinking about it for a moment, my answer was perhaps similar to what many would say, “It depends.”

Not quite the answer the participant was looking for, so let’s get a little more specific. What does it depend on?

It depends on several things of course, including the overall purpose of the facilitated session, the particular product you are to trying to produce, the level of existing dysfunction within the team, and the type and difficulty of the facilitation processes (e.g., brainstorming, problem solving, issue resolution, etc.).

But, in general, the major factor determining breakout group size is whether or not the breakout teams will be led by ad hoc team leaders, pre-oriented team leaders, or professional facilitators. 


Determining Breakout Group Size

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  The senior team for a large corporation had developed the strategic direction for their organization and wanted to orient their 60 mid-level managers on the plan. They wanted to have them brainstorm and prioritize potential strategies to implement the direction.  The senior team wanted to use breakout groups with each group focused on one of the company’s five goal areas.

They wanted to know if it were possible to have volunteers identified during the session to serve as team leaders for each breakout group.  I carefully explained the following.

  • If this was simple brainstorming, or gaining feedback, an ad hoc leader would be fine as long as there were no more than 8 or so participants per team.
  • However, because this was both a review and creation process, that is, the teams would be giving feedback on what had already been done, and creating strategies for moving forward, it would be better to select the team leaders ahead of time. Additionally, it would be best to hold a pre-orientation session for them and provide them a brief facilitation guide so they will be more comfortable with the process.
  • But in this case, overriding both of these alternatives was the fact that the average team would have 12 participants. We find that if you are using breakout groups and have more than 8 or 10 people per group, the likelihood of encountering dysfunction increases significantly.  As an example, teams over 10 often result in smaller cliques being formed, side conversations tend to increase, you are more likely to have people feeling that they aren’t being heard, etc. Professional facilitators are trained to be on the lookout for the early signs of dysfunction and they have specific techniques for engaging the group differently, addressing dysfunction effectively, and resolving issues before they become big problems.
  • With professional facilitators, we have used breakout groups as large as 24, though we prefer the 12-16 range to avoid having to split into sub-groups within the breakout group.

So, in most cases, if you are using ad hoc team leaders, limit the breakout group size to 8 and use simple brainstorming or feedback activities. If you select and hold a pre-orientation for team leaders, you can use more complex activities and may be able to increase the size up to 10. With professional facilitators, however, the size can expand to 24, though we prefer the 12-16 range.

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.