Is It the Death of Break-Out Groups?

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Is it time to put break-out groups in the same closet with pagers and IBM Selectrics? Have they outlived their usefulness? Has technology replaced break-out groups?

To find the answers we go to the local conference center or hotel where we are about to gather. The assembled group is probably too large to have a meaningful discussion about the issues facing the organization. So, the large group is divided into smaller “break-out” groups. From there we all know the drill.

We move the chairs around so six or ten of us can sit in a circle. If we don’t know each other we might make quick introductions around the circle. Someone will probably offer, “Ok, what are we supposed to do?” Then the instruction sheets come out and everyone studies them for a minute to better understand the issue we are supposed to address or the case we are supposed to solve.

An easel holding a large pad of flip charts is strategically positioned and we sit around it like gathering around a campfire. One brave soul will say, “I guess we need a recorder”.Someone volunteers to be the “recorder”. The spokesperson will not be identified until the very very end, after we have assessed the speaking skills of everyone in the group. We dutifully get to the task before us, and the recorder records. We get a five-minute warning before we will all have to report. The inky fragrance of markers fills the air.

Then we talk (report).

If each group has been assigned the same task, we all marvel at the similarities of our solutions. If the group has different assignments, we marvel at the brilliance of the other groups and worry about the wisdom of our own solutions. Inevitably, the word “communication” will be featured on every flip chart, as in, “We need better and more communication from management.”

At the end of all the “report outs” each group is congratulated for the outside-the-box thinking. We all feel good. As the crowd gets ready for a break, each group leader rips off the flip chart pages and rolls them up into a tight telescope wrapped in a few rubber bands. The roll of flip charts will eventually make their way back to an office where they will be propped up in a corner like a baseball bat, never to be unfurled again. Sometimes the new rolled up flip charts lean against the ones from previous years. The scene is played out hundreds of times every day at hotels and conference centers around the world.

Sure, there is a team building and social aspect of break-out groups but the work of any group is probably best done in teams back at the office. When some people hear the words “break-out groups”; it is an automatic response, like a trigger mechanism, to take out the phones and start draining emails. Who can blame them?

The really true scenario of today’s break-out group is probably more like this:

  1. The assignments are made and participants trudge along resignedly to their groups. Some drag their chairs. Some disappear all together.
  2. In each group someone “volunteers” to be the de facto leader, thinking the leadership will someday show up on his or her permanent record at review time.
  3. If the timing of the break-out group stands between the participants and the cocktail hour, the cocktail hour will win.
  4. At the end, everyone will say, “Good job”, even though the thinking is that the time spent was borderline productive.

I know there is often no substitute for human interaction and the break-out group certainly provides for that interaction. Still, most believe that the time spent in break-out groups could be better spent on real issues.

Why do we put up with it? Are there alternatives? If we don’t change the structure and output of break-out group they will surely die.

I am not sure of the solution but I do think there is a place for small group problem solving in every organization. In a quick survey about breakout groups, a few ideas popped up from creative managers:

  • Break-out groups should never start with a blank page. Let the group get a running start by framing the issues and let the group choose an option. Never have more than three options.
  • Break-out groups should use technology. Use Skype, videos, and anything else that will let the group arrive at solid recommendations and ideas.
  • Creativity and design should be the drivers of break-out group ideas. More fun, more helpful and more impactful. Break-out group tasks might be about new ideas, not incremental improvement.

Break-out groups shouldn’t die but they sure need a transfusion.

Photo Credit: Daly and Newton / OJO Images / Getty Images

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