My Top 5 Tips for Facilitating Large Groups versus Small Groups
Facilitating large groups can be intimidating. As always, successful facilitation starts with doing the basics well. Special attention in five areas – breakout groups, pre-session exchange, simplified exercises, activity summaries, and group interaction – with large groups.
Large Group Defined
A typical facilitated group is between 8 to 15 people. The ideal size is 8 to 12.
Any number of fewer than six participants is considered small and requires some different focuses for success.
Any facilitated group of over 15 people is large. I describe anything over 40 participants as extra-large because some additional facilitation practices are needed for success.
Five Areas of Focus
1. Breakout groups
Breakout groups are one of many viable facilitation techniques when the group size is between 8 and 15. In large groups, using breakouts is important to gather the full spectrum of information and make participants feel that they contributed to the effort.
An ideal size for a breakout group is six to eight participants, assuming the breakout segment time is 30 minutes (you want the groups collaborating for about 20 minutes, plus added time for a summary and room logistics). This means there will be two groups in a typical session, which is manageable by a single, experienced facilitator.
When the group size moves to as many as 40 participants, the number of breakout groups will exceed the ability of one facilitator to manage effectively. Room logistics and assuring diversity within each breakout group also increase.
Three things will make the breakout groups and the entire session better are:
Designate a participant leader and note-taker. Ideally, this is done in advance.
Standard questions/topics. The breakout groups must get simple and provide less opportunity to pivot or wander. One part of the need to standardize relates to time management, and another relates to developing concise summaries across multiple groups.
Checklist (simple) instructions. Participant-led breakout groups introduce the potential for variation and confusion. Printed checklists and instruction summaries on the whiteboard are good measures.
2. Pre-session exchanges become extremely important
Interactive communication requires feedback loops and participants with similar knowledge. Large groups add complexity (more parts) and uncertainty (unknowns).
Put an additional focus on these three items in the pre-session exchange to better manage large group complexities and uncertainties.
Consensus, majority vote, or something else. It is improbable that there will be unanimous support, so get participants comfortable with "I can live with it."
Find the “facilitator in every room.” Even the most seasoned facilitators or facilitation teams need helpers from within the participants when the groups are large.
Disperse like-minded people. Large groups usually mean greater diversity in background. Plus, like-minded people like to cluster in group environments. Explore the range of participant backgrounds before you bring everyone together.
3. Simplify Exercises
Simplifying exercises helps with managing time. Simplifying exercises also help streamline some of the over-stimulation for each participant created by big rooms and many participants.
Breakout groups are one way to create some more focused time for each participant.
Polling, either with an audience response system (ARS) or with ballots, is another powerful and simple exercise.
And while I'm not too fond of the traditional sticky dot exercise, I admit that its simplicity can be useful in large groups and dually provides the participants with an opportunity to interact.
4. Summarizes exercises
Large groups generate a lot of information. Avoid trying to develop full summaries within the session. Instead, give high-level overviews. Include full summaries in the session minutes and discuss them in more detail at the next meeting.
Two noteworthy options can be used for breakouts for large group facilitation sessions. The first is to randomly select two or three breakout groups for a flavor of the discussion but not recognize all groups for summaries. A second option is to let two groups report to each other, which provides additional interaction for participants while minimizing the time associated with each group reporting to all.
Interaction usually defines the participant experience. Interaction is also the one aspect with the greatest potential for loss when facilitating large groups.
These are three tips for ensuring interaction with large groups.
More breaks. Remember, facilitating large groups takes more time and more sessions. The number or length of breaks should not be compromised in the name of efficiency. Breaks are not boring.
Avoid long introductions. I like to use trivia about the participants I gained during the pre-session exchange. Asking three or four "factoids" or "who is this?" at each meeting helps everyone get to know each other. It also avoids the lengthy (and boring) total time needed for two or three dozen people to talk about themselves.
Session evaluation. Participants should provide some evaluation of the current session. I use various styles and techniques with traditional-sized groups. However, with large groups, using a standard format for each meeting is better. Plus, invite participants to send you emails and call 10 to 15 percent of participants between meetings.
Applying It with FINESSE
I love facilitating large groups. For many facilitators, bringing large groups to solutions that are created, understood, and accepted by all can be intimidating. As always, successful facilitation starts with doing the basics well. Special attention in five areas – breakout groups, pre-session exchange, simplified exercises, activity summaries, and group interaction – with large groups.
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