No hiding in break-out groups

A couple of things bother me about breakout groups.

  1. Sixty minutes tends to feel like ten minutes
  2. Half the people in the group tend to do nothing (or very little)

The first of these problems is probably harder to solve than the second so we will come to it on another day.

I was hosting an offsite recently and found myself planning out a group project. The goal of the project was to get team members to try and think differently about a fairly common business problem.

As we started mapping it out, we discussed what could possibly derail it. As we imagined how the team would respond, we fairly quickly formed the view that within the first five to ten minutes the team would select someone who should lead the project and most likely, they would present it back.

Presenting it means public speaking, and often that means about half the team will be desperate to avoid it.

Once the presenters are identified it takes a lot of pressure off the others to participate, as they aren’t really accountable. Sure there may be a winning team and their participation may have made them the winners, but really they can afford to sit back and relax.

Conversely, the presenters are now way more powerful. Their voting rights matter more as they are holding the white board marker, they are the ones that have to pitch the idea!

Now a team of eight has effectively become a team of two or three (or maybe one).

Add to this, the reality is it’s most likely that the extroverts will pitch it. That means the introverts, who often spend much of their time thinking, are now out of the planning process.

In this instance, the project is off to a really bad start and most likely a pretty bad outcome.

The people presenting feel like they did all the work. The people who didn’t do much feel like the plan isn’t a very good one, as it didn’t include ideas from the whole group. And nobody really takes ownership after the presentation.

So we decided to try something different. After establishing the teams and explaining the project, we advised the teams that we would come into their rooms five minutes before they needed to finish, and tell them who we wanted to present. They would have no input.

The intent of this was to make sure nobody could take a back seat. Every team member needed to fully understand the content and idea. They all had the same chance of presenting.

The bet was that it would force everybody to be attentive but also actively encourage those more shy members to express their thoughts in the team as they may well be the team members pitching in front of the company.

Not surprisingly the teams were all a little shocked, the introverts were worried they may be presenting and the extroverts were worried they may not be.

After the event we had HR ask the team members how they felt and surprisingly the teams all enjoyed it. The more introverted folk felt the dynamic was quite different. The usual (leadership) suspects were quieter as they knew that everybody needed to understand the project. The quieter members felt more involved. But most importantly everybody actively participated.

Because there was more participation, the feedback was they needed more time, not less. There were more voices so they needed more time.

As for quality of responses, we had no benchmark but intuitively it seemed high.

We have only run it this way once but will be using it again. Might be worth giving it a try in your business.