Breakout rooms. Good idea?

people at a meeting

If you use them, have a think about this: How it affects the ‘dynamic’ you would have already set up. Read more


Unless you need secrecy – say, in a negotiations training – breakout rooms are disruptive and should be avoided.


You as facilitator or trainer have met up with your group, set the objectives, started to make progress and got to the point where you need to multi–task options for detailed discussion in sub groups or you need to get different perspectives on the same topic from sub groups. The room you are in is ‘home’. It feels OK for the whole group because your skills made it feel OK. Then you ask sub groups to go to various rooms spread across the venue to deep think and come back with their, for example, qualified ideas for action ready to share with the others.

What happens?

Disturbance – people get up, collect a few bits and move on.  This takes time.

All assemble in their new space and it’s a new meeting.  It’s a quiet, perhaps cold room. The dynamic has gone.

A bit of chat before getting down to the task and then, unless there is a good facilitator in the sub group (who has been on a facilitation skills course or not) there is potential for the normal meeting issues to arise –
Discussion over a topic that later becomes unimportant
Re-discuss a decision already made
The windbags can take off
The quiet reflectors will stay quiet.

At some stage you, the facilitator or trainer, enter the room to check on progress. Regardless of how things are going you are now an interruption – you are a new person in the room. You say what you need to and go away.

The sub group gets back to discussion and then suddenly time runs out and there is a rush to get some sort of presentation ready.
Now someone or some people present their group’s findings – well what they think the group found. These presentations can be brilliant but are often stilted, hesitant and soporific.

Finally, there is more discussion to get a plenary view, consensus and ownership. (Not easy!)

Another way:

For better meetings organise a big room so that all the sub groups can stay in the same room working around their own pinboard(s) spread around that room.  The groups work standing up, active with their pens, cards and boards.  Minimum 2 people maximum 5 people per sub group.

What happens?

You maintain the ‘dynamic’
There is a buzz of activity
You are in the room and never an intruder because you are all in it together
You are on hand for help
You can see when a group is struggling or going off on a tangent
You can make an intervention without being an interruption
You can encourage
There is a bit of a positive, competitive atmosphere
No time is wasted – and you can manage time to ensure each of the groups prepare their presentations

Now you have two options:

Presentations are done by the whole group – each doing a bit.  You manage the feedback as normal.
OR – Use an Ideas Gallery and this is my personal favourite:
No presentations!  Instead each group has time to study all the other groups’ boards.
Give them some small round cards that can be pinned next to various aspects of the action recommendations they consider to be key. They mark things they totally agree with, with a heart and things where they disagree or don’t understand with a question mark.
Each group moves around the other boards, in sequence all at the same time.
If each group puts on a heart to an aspect, you have consensus.
Where there are question marks, your debrief is now specific in those areas only and the group can go for consensus or not. 
Finally groups can fill in the action plan board.

Short video – Ideas Gallery: