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How to run breakout sessions in online meetings

October 4, 2023 Posted by: Ben
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By Ben Robinson

It’s time to break out of your meeting culture nightmare. I recently worked with an organisation who didn’t realise their meeting technology had breakout group functionality. Hold up – whaaaaat!

What kind of meeting culture have you got there?

As an experienced facilitator, splitting any group larger than eight people into smaller groups is a staple of my trade. If I’m leading a meeting with say, 15 participants, I assume there’s always one person talking, meaning there are always 14 listeners. Even if the speaker’s a true inspiration, that’s a whole lot of listening and a big risk that not everyone’s contributing.

It comes down to simple maths. In a group of 15, your equal share of voice means you add your ideas into the mix for around 6% of the duration of the meeting. This means you’re considering other’s comments for 94% of the time.

My facilitative brain makes me want to shift that balance and maximise an entire group’s engagement and empower a larger amount of their collective brain power.

Breakout groups aren’t the answer to everything. They’re certainly not feasible in every meeting and I wouldn’t recommend their overuse. Some messages should be consistently heard by the full team.

33% contributing, 67% listening pie chart

However, in an online environment, smaller groups of around three to six people can collaborate extremely efficiently together, and as a result can cover more ground. If you’re a numbers person, then in a group of three, each person will be looking to contribute for 33% of the meeting.

Let’s go back to that group of 15 I mentioned earlier. Imagine we split into five groups of three. Each group taking a separate topic needing to be tackled.

During the breakout, they work the issue through and draft a proposed response on behalf of the whole group. We then reconvene as a full group and listen to the proposals, discuss and fine tune.

5 top tips for leading meeting breakouts successfully online

I base these around our TFP Kaleidoscope™. You can read more about it in The Meeting Book which is available to buy from Amazon.

The TFP meeting Kaleidoscope

1 – Purpose.

Never run a breakout activity for the sake of it. Make sure it contributes to the overall purpose of the meeting.

Will it help the group work more efficiently? Will it allow you to cover a large number of topics in a short space of time? Can you work in a more focussed way and tackle different parts of a topic? Can you attack the same problem from different viewpoints? Will it increase the number of contributors or give different personalities a chance to be in the spotlight? Could it get strangers working together or split some people up?

You’ll find leading a breakout activity is actually a combination of all of the above and way more.

2 – People.

If you believe an organisation’s greatest asset is its people, what are you doing to leverage them during every single minute of every single meeting?

Plan your breakout session to give people a chance to contribute and shine. How can they help deliver the purpose you’ve just identified? If you have 15 people in a room for a limited period of time, how can you make sure every one of their unique areas of expertise, experience and energy are applied to that purpose? Think about how you organise them for the greatest results. If you have time beforehand, consider nominating breakout group leaders.

3 – Process.

The session needs a clear plan and some form of structure for a fast start. Remember, you can’t be in multiple places at the same time.

Be clear on what you want them to do, how long they have and what method you want them to take. Share thoughts on the mindset they should apply. Write the entire plan down and make it available in the rooms. In my experience, the second a group enters a different environment, they temporarily forget what you’ve asked them to do.

Bonus tip. Be realistic about the amount of time you allocate for the meeting. Asking your group to commit to more than just the standard 60-minute meeting slot will indicate a different approach and give a ‘workshop’ style spirit to the meeting. It also means you’re not rushed and can debrief fully.

4 – Content.

Consider what content your groups will use. What data might they use to kick-start a conversation? What information are they gathering or casting opinion upon? What’s the scope of the brainstorming activity you’re asking them to carry out?

Decisions dissapearing in a black hole

Whatever they’re doing, you don’t want that content vanishing into a virtual black hole – like any other meeting, plan how they’ll make notes and capture the ideas.

What happens to the content when they’re back in the main room? Will they share and present material back? Or pool it and hand it over?

5 – Confidence.

Now you need to execute with confidence. Make sure you know what you’re doing functionally. The major platforms are Zoom, MS Teams and Google Meet.

I’d go so far as to getting some friendly colleagues on a preparation call and play with the functionality. Nothing worse than trying something innovative in a meeting and it failing because of technology. Do your homework.

If breakout work is something your organisational culture has never employed, you’re in uncharted territory and you’ll need to be brave. Do it with a lightness and encourage an environment of transparency, exploration and a bit of fun.

I have no doubt you’ll experience groundbreaking energy and people will thank you for being creative and breaking the online trance.

Let me know how you get on. I’d love to know what you think of this function. If you use it, please message me on LinkedIn. And if you’d like someone to lead your next breakout session, book a call with TFP now!

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