Breakout sessions can be highly beneficial at board meetings as a technique to increase board member engagement and reduce the likelihood of groupthink. They also introduce a different dynamic into the typical board meeting, which can increase the value perception held by board members, enhance relationship building and develop a team spirit. Depending on the issue at hand, all groups can be asked to work on the identical problem or each group can be asked to focus on a different aspect of the issue.
As you consider the use of breakouts, keep in mind that you want to vary meeting formats from time to time. If you use breakouts at every meeting, your board my experience “breakout fatigue.”
In order to enhance breakout effectiveness, keep the following considerations in mind:
- Define the objective / problem: You can’t spend too much time defining the problem. Defining the right problem is key to solving any issue. Ultimately, your goal is to draft a problem statement in the form of a question that the breakout group(s) will discuss. Once you have a draft question (problem statement) that you think will work well, visualize a board breakout discussion addressing the problem. Listen to what they are saying and envision the different directions that the dialogue might take, along with possible outcomes. It the potential outcomes don’t really target the issue, you might need to continue developing your problem statement / question.
- Seek optimal diversity: Don’t allow the members to self-select their groups. Groups should either be designed before the meeting or determined by random selection techniques at the meeting. Also, make sure the groups are different from meeting to meeting. If you predetermine the groups, in order to ensure optimal diversity, take into consideration factors such as: industry sector, size of company, gender, experience levels, time served on board, expertise, level and style of typical engagement and personality. Also keep in mind that, ideally, you will want a good facilitator in each group. There are a number of techniques that can be used to “randomly” select groups at the meeting. A common approach is to have the board members go around the room and “count off” up to the desired number of groups. For example, count 1, 2, 3 – 1,2,3, etc., until everyone around the room has a number. Another spin on this is to have the board members form a line standing in alphabetical order based on the city they were born in. This protects against having the same groups every meeting if members often sit in the same order.
- Identify predetermined space: Anticipate how much space you will need. If possible, a separate room should be set aside for each breakout group. Of course, one group can use the main boardroom. Although it can be done, putting more than one group in a room is not advisable. When choosing rooms, try to find rooms with plenty of wall or window space where flip chart pages can be posted. Wifi access is also helpful if you expect the group to bring in outside information.
- Identify a facilitator for each group: The quality of output is often dependent of having a great facilitator. Facilitators should be chosen and identified before the day of the meeting. A good facilitator will keep the discussion on target with the end goal in mind, engage all of the group members in the dialogue and ensure that the contributions of all are considered. Most likely, you will find that you have a few outstanding facilitators on the board, some that are ok and some that just don’t work to well. If this is the case, try not to always rely on the great facilitator(s) from meeting to meeting. Rotation is important; just stay away from the not so good ones.
- Provide the facilitator instructions: Prior to the day of the meeting, facilitators should receive a written document that contains a list of their responsibilities and instructions. Instructions might include information such as: at the beginning of the breakout, identify a time keeper and a presenter to report back the groups findings to the larger group; begin the dialogue with a discussion about the problem statement to gain buy in for the problem or to restate the problem statement; lead the session standing in from the front of the room and capture major items on the flipchart; use a separate flipchart page to capture ideas that are brought up, but not relevant to the discussion at hand; and, encourage everyone to participate, directly calling on those that are not engaging in the dialogue.
- Clearly review the assignment: Before breaking into small groups, provided each group is addressing the same question, clearly define for the large group the assignment and what outcome you expect from each group. Also, provide the larger group with an explanation of what you expect to take place in the individual groups. Encourage questions to ensure clarity.
- Provide a written problem statement: Each group should be given a written copy of any instructions regarding format, the objective(s) for the session and, most importantly, a written problem statement / question. Depending on the problem / issue to be discussed, a one-half to one page backgrounder may be helpful to frame the issue. Of course, if you intend to use the small groups to frame issues, you will want to refrain from using the background paper to frame the issue; instead you may want to provide some data or information.
- Room set up: For small groups a conference table set up works fine and a “U” set up is generally not needed. Make sure each room has an ample supply of a variety of colored flipchart markers and masking tape to hang the sheets as they are filled. Of course, you will need flip charts in each room; if possible provide two so one can be used as a “parking lot” to capture ideas that are surfaced but not relevant to the conversation. So much the better if you can get “post it note” flip chart pads which have self-adhesive on each page.
- Reporting back: Each group will report back their results to the whole board. In order to be efficient with time, you might ask the presenters to only report back “new information” that was not mentioned by previously reporting groups. The board members should be encouraged to ask questions and challenge the presentations. In fact, you may want to assign people to play devil’s advocates.
- Transcribe the results: After the meeting, don’t just roll up the flip charts and put them in a corner. First, prior to leaving the board meeting location, make sure you have pictures of them all. Then, when back at the office, transcribe the sheets / document the findings. Often, the information and knowledge surfaced during the breakout sessions will be very useful as input into your strategy development process.
Breakout sessions have been around for a long time. But, to capture real advantage from sessions, thought must go into the design and execution of breakouts. Of course, notwithstanding pre planning and design, there will be times that breakout groups will engage in a dialogue or process that is entirely different than planned; when this happens, just accept it and reflect on their work.
How have you improved the effectiveness of breakouts at your board meetings? What has and has not worked?
About the Author
Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.
Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at www.nscstrategies.com.