"OK," says the session leader, "we are now going to break into syndicates where you will have 45 minutes to work on these question. Please appoint someone to report back to the group when we reassemble." How often we have all heard these words in meetings, and if you look around and observe, you will see a mix of torpor, resignation, and for the more imaginative, an opportunity to escape to the outdoors for a while and hope they will not be missed.
Break out groups, or syndicates as they are known in the UK, are one of the most overused techniques in meetings. Yes, they have a purpose, which is usually to get more people involved in speaking, taking advantage of the smaller group size. But I would contend that a really good meeting leader/facilitator should be able to bring lots of people into the conversation without breaking into syndicates. So if break-outs are just a way of the leader saying 'I will fail to involve everyone properly' we should probably find a better leader.
Even more deadly is the 'report back' session. Possibly you had a good discussion in your syndicate; you enjoyed it and found it a worthwhile use of 45 minutes. Now you have five minutes to convey this to the group as a whole. Why? Who knows? This is just the way these things are done. Generally a complete waste of time. I do remember one occasion where my group, having had a great discussion, decided to sing the report back as a rap song. That we did it may be the only thing anyone remembered 24 hours later from the whole report back.
But... there is a time when breaking out is useful. I learned this from Roy Williams, one of the greatest meeting facilitators I have ever known. We were working on restructuring a four -arty joint venture, a meeting of about 15 people, and my bias was that we do all the work together in one room. There came a point where Roy suggested we break up into three smaller groups, and he silenced me as I started to protest. Sure enough, he saw that if we were going to get through the vast amount of work that was required in the time, parallel work was the way to do it. Three groups, each tackling one part of the problem, bringing back their work to the group as a whole, almost as if they were subcommittees.
And Roy was astute enough to know that we couldn't have worked that way from the beginning, because the group as a whole had to establish communication and a level of trust. But when that time comes, if you really want to motor forward on the issues, breakouts can work.
There is a general lesson here. In structuring a two- or three-day meeting, something we all do as executives, perhaps working with a facilitator, our leadership role is to question and challenge the techniques being used. Be sure they are really appropriate for the work that is being done, and for the people doing it. And mix things up. Sometimes just a chance to talk to the two or three people near you for a few minutes works -- a sort of reflection. Sometimes breaking into groups of three for a walk around the grounds. Sometimes gathering a small group around sheets of paper on the wall and getting them to draw the answer. Whatever... but keep it interesting, and trust your judgement when you think a session is going to become boring or unproductive.
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?