Organising small groups within a larger event

Meerkats by  Julian Lim on flickr.

We’re pretty used to asking people to talk in small groups, but which kinds of groups work best for different kinds of conversations? If you’ve scratched your head wondering how to form small groups, take a look at these options.

Things you need to think about are:

  • Small groups made up of mixed or similar people?  Or let everyone choose which topic they want to work on?

  • All the groups work on the same task, or on different tasks?

  • Is there an upper or lower limit on the number of groups? Or on the number of people in a group?

Mixed or similar?

Should your small groups be mixed (for example, containing one person from an NGO, one person from a community group, one person from a large business, one person from government and so on) or similar (all the NGO people in one group, all the business people in another and so on)?

Mixed groups are appropriate for producing more creative outputs, while those with more similar people in them can sensibly be asked to formulate their joint opinion.  If the group as a whole needs to reach agreement about something, then at some point the conversation will benefit from mixed small groups. 

Sometimes the most important consideration is that people should be able to work on the thing that most interests them.  In this case, let people choose their topic and the groups form naturally from this.  The groups will most likely end up having different numbers of people in them. 

Same or different tasks?

Groups are sometimes asked to all do the same task.  For example, there might be a list of ideas and the small groups are asked to prioritise their top three.  Or every group is asked to create a vision of success and then feedback.  

Groups can also be asked to do different tasks.  There may be a handful of topic which have been prioritised by the whole group, which are then allocated to small groups to work on in more detail.  Or each group works on a different scenario.  If the groups are each made up of similar kinds of people, they might be asked to provide an expert judgment on a particular aspect of the wider agenda.


In Open Space or Unconference approaches, a group of one is fine!  That person gets the luxury of thinking about their topic uninterrupted.  In self-facilitated groups which need to reach a conclusion of some kind, an upper limit of 7 or 8 people is helpful.

Depending on the space you have available, it may be that you cannot accommodate more than a particular number of small groups.  What about the time it takes to get feedback from multiple groups? If it’s important to the overall aim of the event that everyone gets to know a bit about what each group talked about, then consider how many groups you can hear spoken feedback from and how to help this part of the process be effective and energetic - for example by being very clear about the brief for the feedback, or by using written feedback which people can read.

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There’s more on small group work in this free download.   

Making The Path By Walking

This post was first published in my Making the Path by Walking newsletter, November 2018. Scroll down to the footer to subscribe.