Organizational Development Consultant and Leadership Coach

20 Techniques to Improve Meeting Productivity: #20 Small Groups

March 14, 2014

“Sometimes it seems impossible to hear from everyone in our meetings. The group is too large, the agenda is too long, or the time is too short. How can I be sure that everyone gets a chance to speak his or her mind?”

20. Small Groups

What Is Small Groups?

Small Groups is a productivity technique for gaining input from everyone in the meeting. This process involves breaking a large group into smaller, more manageable groups of participants.

Small Groups stimulate fuller participation, require less time, and tend to create higher energy and better results. They can be combined with Writing, technique 19, to create a thoughtful, participative discussion.

When to Use Small Groups

  • When your meeting involves more than five people
  • When some participants are uncomfortable speaking in front of groups of people
  • When an issue requires in-depth discussion
  • When you want to increase participation without increasing time commitments

How to Use Small Groups


1. When creating the agenda, determine if and when Small Groups is the best technique to use in specific parts of your meeting.

2. Determine the question(s) you want each Small Group to address.

3. Determine how best to create the Small Groups. Small Groups of three to six people are ideal.

OPTION A: Ask participants to count off in your meeting. For example, if your group includes thirty-five people, create seven groups of five persons each. Participants should count off one through seven to create these groups.

OPTION B: Ask the participants to cluster with two or three people sitting near them. You may want to help form these Small Groups to avoid having any people left without a group or unevenly distributed groups.

NOTE: This option is particularly effective if participants do not know each other yet, or if your meeting has just started and there is no present need for Movement, technique 16, at this time.

OPTION C: Create lists of Small Groups before the meeting, usually working for maximum diversity within each group. There may be times when you want groups based by region, level in the organization, or intact work groups. But generally, maximum diversity gives groups a broader outlook and creates a sense of team across traditional boundaries. If the meeting calls for several small-group discussions, you can create several lists. For example, groups for agenda item 1, groups for agenda item 2, and so on. Post these lists and consider giving copies to all participants. This will avoid confusion whenever new small groups form.

NOTE: If you are not the leader of the group, gain approval from the leader on the small groups and their participants in advance.

OPTION D: When your group has a long history together and seems tired of these other options, ask them to break into groups in nontraditional ways, like by birthday. For example: “All those born in the first quarter of the year, January, February and March, form a group in this corner of the room,” and so on.

NOTE: This can also help informally create rapport among the group. Give people a few minutes to share birthdays before starting their official tasks. Before the report back ask if anyone has the same birthday, or if anyone has a birthday that day.

This technique can be modified as you wish. Create Small Groups based on anything that would work for the group.

4. Plan and prepare to communicate specific instructions for each small-group exercise.

Include Self-Management instructions, technique 10. Create visual aids to help the groups stay on track. See Charting, technique 12, for details.

OPTION A: All groups answer the same question(s).

OPTION B: All groups answer different question(s).

OPTION C: A few groups answer one question while other groups answer a different question.

NOTE: Determine when to ask the same or different questions based on the number of questions that need to be answered and the relative importance of each question to the goals of the agenda item.

5. Plan how best to have the Small Groups report back their ideas to the larger group.

Report back options include:

OPTION A: Each Small Group reports back a concise summary of its discussion using chart papers or overhead as a visual aid.

OPTION B: Each Small Group reports back its best one or two ideas using a chart or overhead as a visual aid.

OPTION C: Each Small Group reports one idea, without duplicating ideas from other groups. Keep going around to each group until all ideas have been covered.

6. Decide how to use all the information created by the Small Groups.


1. Explain the purpose and process of the Small Groups technique.

2. Break the large group into Small Groups and give them their specific instructions.

3. Each Small Group discusses and reports back on the specific topic under consideration.

4. Use the resulting information as planned.


Small Groups is a technique for gaining information from all participants in your meeting. This technique saves time and increases participation. Use Small Groups as part of specific agenda items in your meeting.


1. Determine if and when Small Groups is the best technique to use in your meeting.

2. Determine the question(s) you want each group to address.

3. Determine how best to create the Small Groups, for example, numbers of groups and participants in each group.

4. Plan and prepare all instructions, including visual aids.

5. Plan how best to have the Small Groups report their ideas to the others.

6. Decide how to use the information after the report.


1. Present the topic and the purpose of using Small Groups.

2. Break participants into Small Groups.

3. Complete Small Group discussions and reports.

4. Use the resulting information as planned.


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