small group meeting on yoga mats to talk

Better Breakouts: Add Structure and Purpose to your Breakout Groups to Improve Results

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Improving breakout sessions at meetings is not about doing more or less of them, it is about changing HOW you do them. When most people think about breakout groups in meetings, they think of boring and unproductive conversations that they aren’t very excited to have. Sending people off into smaller groups to talk about something or share something they’ve been learning is not always the best way to get things done. In fact, it can often lead to more boredom and frustration, or to groups going completely off-track and talking about other subjects.

Much like any meeting benefits from having purpose, plan, participation, and progress (see my article on the 4 P’s of Meeting Planning), breakout groups within those meetings should also be well thought-out. Try adding some structure and purpose to your break-out sessions, and watch the results improve. Give participants clear instructions, and tell them that their breakout group has a GOAL and a PROCESS to follow, and they will perform even better.

Four Ways to Improve Breakout Sesssions in Meetings & Courses

The following breakout group structures can offer new alternatives to make breakout groups more engaging, productive, and useful.

small group conducting a critical colleagues feedback session

Critical Colleagues Feedback Sessions

Critical Colleague Sessions allow people to give and receive critical feedback in a safe and productive setting. In this structure, “critical” refers to critical thinking rather than criticism. This rather formal format can feel restrictive at first, but the more that groups practice this method the more competent they become at using it effectively. You can use critical colleagues sessions to imrpove breakout sesssions in meetings with the same group over time.

Here’s how to structure a critical colleagues session (about 30 minutes):

  • Identify one person to be the presenter and one person to be a timekeeper.
  • This presenter takes 3-5 minutes to share a challenge or issue they have been thinking about (at work). The rest of the group listens carefully while this person is talking. The timekeeper reminds the group when the time is up.
  • Next, the presenter either turns their chair around (if in person) or turns off their camera (if in a virtual meeting space).
  • The rest of the group spends 5-10 minutes discussing what they have heard and exploring potential solutions or deeper questions that the presenter could explore in order to resolve the situation positively.
  • The presenter then returns to the group and shares how the group has helped further their thinking or address the issue. They can ask clarifying questions about ideas that were raised and discuss them interactively with others. This portion of the breakout lasts about 10 minutes
  • The presenter then thanks the group and the exercise is complete.
small group doing a brainstorming exercise to narrow down ideas

Structured Brainstorming

A structured brainstorming process is great if a group has to come up with new ideas or new solutions and you want them to think as creatively as possible. In this model, the question to consider is the same for all groups, but each group can explore the question separately and then bring back ideas to the whole. A structured brainstorm requires a note-taker, a time keeper, and a facilitator for each small group.

The process includes a few steps:

Phase 1: Generating Ideas

  • The facilitator begins by explaining the rules of brainstorming: no criticism or judgement, focus on quantity not quality, and build on each other’s ideas.
  • The note-taker records all of the ideas that are generated during the brainstorm.
  • Each group has a set amount of time (usually around 15 minutes) to generate as many ideas as possible.

Phase 2: Clarifying Ideas

  • Before moving on, the group can ask clarifying questions of each other if there are any brainstormed ideas that they don’t understand or want to know more about.

Phase 3: Combining Ideas

  • During this phase, the facilitator asks if there are any ideas on the list that are similar enough that they could be combined into one theme. Do this multiple times to group ideas into larger themes or categories.

Phase 4: Narrowing down Ideas

  • Now, the group looks at the list that they have brainstormed and organized and begins to narrow down to the top 5 (or a number you have predetermined) best ideas. These are the ideas that your small group will be back to the larger team.

This type of brainstorming is perfect for groups who need to come up with a lot of new ideas in a short period of time – it increases productivity and encourages creativity, but it does so in a structure that ensures results and keeps people on track.

world cafe small group at a table

World Cafe Brainstorming

The World Cafe Method is a great way to get people talking and sharing ideas, especially when there are multiple questions to explore and not just one. For example, say you have to generate content for multiple chapters in a company-produced book; or you have to develop a strategic plan with multiple components of the company’s work; or you want to problem-solve three different programs in one session. World Cafe can be used in both small and large groups, and it’s perfect for getting input from a variety of different people on a variety of topics.

Here’s how it works:

– You’ll need multiple tables around the room, enough for your group to break up into small groups of about 5-8 people per table.

– Each table will have a different topic or question to discuss, as well as a large sheet of paper for ideas to be noted (and markers or pens).

– Give people about 20 minutes to talk and share ideas at their table; ask them to jot down ideas on a large sheet of paper.

– At the end of 20 minutes, everyone moves to a new table. The group begins by reviewing the question and the ideas generated by the group that came before them. They then add their own ideas or build on ideas already written down.

– Repeat until you’ve gone through all of the tables.

In an online format, you can send people into break-out rooms with an associated Google Jamboard (or other “whiteboard type” collaborative program) to brainstorm on; when it is time to switch, send the group a link to a new Jamboard with a different question and so on, until they have been to all “tables.”

small group case study exercise

Case Study Breakout Group Exercises

If you’re looking for a more hands-on way for your group to learn a new skill or concept, case study breakout group exercises are perfect. In these exercises, participants are divided into small groups and each group is given a scenario that relates to the topic at hand. The most basic question you can ask about each case is “What would you do?”

Groups are given some structure for how they are to tackle the case study and what they are to report back. For example, questions might include:

  • What concepts or theories that we have studied could this case draw on or relate to?
  • What are all of the options for addressing this case that your group can think of?
  • Which option(s) feel most promising to you and why?
  • What more do you need to know about this case before you make a final decision?

What other strategies have you used to improve breakout sessions at meetings?

If you need help planning out a meeting and making the most of small groups, don’t hesitate to reach out for a consultation!

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