Team Building Activity: Break Out Groups

Posted by Kristin Arnold on July 3, 2023

break out groups

I love using this exercise to create sub-teams to encourage open communication, creativity, idea generation and independent thinking. It works with any group size and only takes 1 to 3 minutes. There are various materials needed.

You will need a space large enough for the team to separate into smaller groups. Not everything has to be done in a large team.  Sometimes, it is preferable to break the larger team into sub-teams or break out groups to allow for:

  • More detailed work to get done.
  • More direct and intimate conversation.
  • Relationships to form.
  • More introverted team members to contribute.
  • An infusion of energy by physically moving them around (especially in the afternoon).
  • Teammates to get out of a rut of sitting next to the same people!

Get agreement from the team that the next piece of work should be done in smaller groups (or even an action item might be done by a smaller group).

Once you have agreement, there are several ways to break people up into smaller groups:

  • Ask for volunteers.  If in a large group, point to the four corners of the room and announce the different activities to work on and ask that folks move to the area they would like to work on.  (Note, after everyone has moved, you may need to balance the groups.)
  • Self-select.  If working on the same issue, ask people to move into groups of no more than x number of people.  If working on different issues, post the issues on an easel chart and ask them to move to the easel chart that interests them the most.  (Note, you may have to do a bit of shuffling to balance the teams.)
  • Count off.  Ask the group to “count off” from one to x number of groups you want to have.  Point to the area you want all the “ones” to meet, “twos” to meet, etc.
    • Count the total number of people you have (N).
    • Identify the number of people you want in each group (P).
    • Divide N by P and you have the number of groups you want (x).
  • Preselect.  Pre-assign a number, letter or color to each person on the nametags or name tents.  When you need to break them into groups, ask for all the As to join together, all the Bs, etc.
  • Presorted toys.   Many teams keep Koosh balls and other small toys on the tables.  Place just enough toys that there is one for each person.  Vary the toys so that they can be easily sorted.  For example:
    • Small stuffed balls – football, soccer, basketball, hackysack etc.
    • Koosh balls – different colors.
    • Duplos or Legos – different colors and different sizes.
  • Physical characteristics. Observe obvious physical characteristics that would allow you to break people into small groups.  (Caution: make sure you won’t offend anyone!).  For example:
    • Clothing – people wearing blue shirts, brown shirts, light-colored shirts etc.
    • Gender – male, female.
    • Shoes – people wearing tennis shoes, sandals, oxfords etc.
    • Hair length – short, medium, long.
    • Pierced ears – those with and those without!
  • Stratified.  Separate the team based on some functional characteristic.  For example:
    • Geography – where people live or work.
    • Work Unit – by work group, unit, department, division, organization, company etc.
    • Position – by grade level within the company such as employee, supervisor, manager, executive etc.
    • Age – Boomers, X-ers, etc.

Be clear about your expectations, the sub-team’s deliverable, time frame and, if necessary, the process they should follow.  Then, let ’em go for it!

If you like this activity, check out my book, Team Energizers, for 49 other team activities!


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Creative Ideas to Celebrate Team Performance

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KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

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