A scientist… dissects the wild kingdom of breakout sessions

Are breakout sessions failing scientists? Yes, because we too often fail to leverage the diversity of the group.

Deeply ingrained in our scientific architecture is the process of group ideation, often referred to as a breakout session. They happen at conferences, workshops, and more informally within our own research groups. Sometimes these breakout sessions are neatly organized, with each participant allotted a brief time to share their thoughts before an unstructured discussion ensues, other times the discussion drags along until the coffee or beer relieves us from our misery. Seldom are they effective at truly achieving our goals. Why do we do them? In my field, we do them to save a planet on life support. We should be nailing these.

After a decade spent in breakout sessions my conclusion is that we can do better. My own experience with breakout sessions has ranged from highly generative discussions that produced valuable visions for community science to situations where I have felt somewhere between unable to contribute to completely paralyzed. In the process, I have noticed that we universally rely on large group conversations that reinforce conventional roles and points of view. That structure in turn precludes individual reflection, equal participation, maximum idea generation, and careful synthesis and idea selection, in effect, winnowing the process to one that both research and experience shows can be highly ineffectual.

From reading about and reflecting on group dynamics, we are all prone to certain types of behaviors which influence our airtime in a group. Indeed, in a group of 8, on average 3 people will consume 70% of the airtime (Thompson, 2013). Fighting for precious airtime are several archetypes we can all inhabit depending on the situation. One archetype is the Advocate. Advocacy may lead us to favor ideas that benefit our own interests. At worst, this can lead us to dismiss ideas of others. Although related to advocacy, the Expert can also have particularly strong points of view around problem definitions and the resulting solution space. This can lead to dismissal of new ideas. The Talkers are people who prefer to solve problems by talking them through. Finally, there are the Free Riders, who share fewer ideas and participate less frequently in the conversation (free riding is the actual scientific definition, as discussed in Diehl and Stroebe, 1987). We have all been in this category at one time or another. Although none of the traits above are in themselves inherently bad, when Advocates, Experts, Talkers and the Free Riders all end up a room together, it can feel like Sir David Attenborough should be narrating.

If you look at the wild kingdom of breakout sessions from another angle, one where we are striving to harness the power of diversity in problem solving (Page, 2007), there are numerous ways our current practices end up orthogonal to our intentions. For example, group brainstorming can often perpetuate cultural and/or personality differences, as some groups are actually better at individual reflective problem solving (Kim, 2002). There are also cultural differences around feedback — in some cultures criticism and direct questioning of an idea are the norm, in other cultures this can be taboo (Molinksy, 2013). Finally, social processes, such as power differences across gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, scientific domain, and career levels may result in a reluctance to speak out, from evaluation apprehension (Stroebe and Diehl, 1994) or a lack of psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999). In a process structured around talking and critical feedback, these differences can result in a group that is largely left out of the conversation. Sadly, it may be that the Free Riders are often our students, postdocs, visitors, early career scientists, and brave souls from another discipline, who are likely to have the most innovative ideas. The suppression of airtime that can result in a breakout session is also shown to reduce the number of novel ideas (Diehl and Stroebe, 1987), likely by reducing the overall number of ideas. For these reasons, and many others, research has shown that group brainstorming is the least effective approach to ideation (Mullen et al., 1991; Stroebe and Diehl, 1994; Baruah and Paulus, 2008; Paulus et al., 2012; Thompson, 2013).

The dynamics of this wild kingdom, combined with very few opportunities for training in how to facilitate group conversations, have led some to question whether brainstorming, as is often the intent of breakout sessions, has any place in the sciences (Nature Editorial Board, 2017). Such criticism is shortsighted but also reflects a trend towards poorly executed brainstorming, as described above. As scientists, we brainstorm in our own minds every day. In a very simple way, brainstorming has three components:

The first part of a brainstorm is intended to be generative — ideas can build upon each other in new and interesting ways, and sometimes removing constraints can lead to novel ideas that can be scaled back to reality later. Although some studies show that combining debate and ideation can be advantageous, they were done under conditions that preclude the emergence of the wild kingdom.

The second part is synthesis — what are the themes that emerge from largely unconstrained but iterative ideation?

The final part is the razor, where selection criteria is used to determine which ideas move forward. What are those one or two compelling ideas that really put your hair on end? Or have the most potential to change your field? These are the ones you want to carry forward to see if they have legs. Some will not. Robust criticism is central to the process.

The above sounds simple but it is not. One reason why brainstorming has a bad reputation is that we often either do all three steps at once or do each of them poorly. At the d.school, I have been fortunate to be around really experienced individuals that can move fluidly through the process, listening to and building on each other’s ideas like a flock of nimble blackbirds, instead of predators seeking prey. For the rest of us, simply knowing whether we are being generative and building off each other’s ideas (often called “yes, and”), synthesizing to find overarching themes and/or divergent ideas, or questioning potential solutions based on our particular selection criteria, might be a good start. However, we also need to be intentional about the architecture that surrounds a breakout session.

Students from Earth 10: Design for a Habitable Planet in the synthesis phase of a breakout session. Sticky notes sometimes get a bad rap. An advantage is that this approach to ideation allows many ideas to be put forward fluidly. This approach can be less successful when the problem isn’t carefully defined or the synthesis and selection rules aren’t rigorously applied.

How we can design more inclusive and successful breakouts? I happened to raise the question with Sarah Stein Greenberg, director of the d.school. She shared with me a worksheet she had designed for a group of ocean scientists and I decided to experiment with it in my normal academic activities. The worksheet embraces the three phases I described above and includes more space to develop one particular idea into something concrete (we will share the worksheet and more details on the research in a subsequent post). It has revolutionized the way I think about breakout sessions. First and foremost, it gives everyone a chance for reflection and to develop ideas to the same level, making it easier to see consistent themes, as well as really novel ideas. It also removes the blocking that can happen in groups and provides a framework for equal air time. By sharing the worksheet among pairs or small groups, it creates a vehicle for meaningful conversation. Most importantly, it addresses many of the practices that research has shown lead to more productive ideation. Does it result in more inclusive breakout sessions? My best evidence is that I see a room full of smiling, laughing and engaged scientists.

Of course, this is only one approach. Simply managing airtime can go a long way. Embracing the anatomy of the wild kingdom to intentionally create a container that leverages the variety of participants is another approach to get more ideas on the table. A design colleague I know has everyone individually collect their ideas on a piece of paper or set of sticky notes, then they go around the table sharing and grouping the ideas, reserving comments for a subsequent round of synthesis. I would love to learn about other approaches people are using to design breakout sessions for everyone who might be in the room.

Thank you to Sarah Stein Greenberg, Vicky Chung, and Matt Rothe for their brilliant editorial suggestions. And now, for the standard disclaimer: my opinions are my own and not those of my institution.


Baruah, J. and P. B. Paulus (2008). Effects of training on idea generation in groups. Small Group Research 39(5): 523–541.

Diehl, M. and W. Stroebe (1987). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups — toward the solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53(3): 497–509.

Edmondson, A. Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 2 (Jun 1999): 350–83.

Kim, H., (2002) We talk, therefore we think? A cultural analysis of the effect of talking on thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 83, 828–842.

Molinsky, A., (2013), Giving feedback across cultures: Harvard Business Review, v. https://hbr.org/2013/02/giving-feedback-across-cultures.

Mullen, B., et al. (1991). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups — a meta-analytic integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 12(1): 3–23.

Nature Editorial Board (2017). Brainstorming is not the way to discuss scientific issues. Nature, 545, 134.

Page, S. E. (2007). Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton University Press.

Paulus, P. B., M. Dzindolet, and N. W. Kohn. (2012) Collaborative creativity: Group creativity and team Innovation. Handbook of Organizational Creativity. Edited by M. D. Mumford. doi:10.1016/b978–0–12–374714–3.00014–8.

Stroebe, W. and M. Diehl (1994). Why groups are less effective than their members: On productivity losses in idea-generating groups. European Review of Social Psychology 5(1): 271–303.

Thompson, Leigh (2013) Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, Harvard Press.

* The list is by no means exhaustive. I chose a selection of references that I found to offer either insightful discussion or a helpful review of the topics.