Making round-table discussions work

10March 2011
Katherine Woods

Katherine Woods

This post is authored by Katherine Woods, Partner. Full bio →
Katherine Woods
Katherine Woods

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When I work with large groups I always design my meetings for a ‘cabaret’ layout. By this I mean, round tables with groups of upto 8. This layout allows a meeting design that gives depth of discussion at tables, and conclusion sharing in a whole group.

I have recently attended two, very different, business networking events that were run with this style of working. I got some interesting insights into what it can be like for participants to work this way.

The first event had 10 people on the table with a table host. The table host got us to introduce ourselves, and then introduced the topic for discussion, social networking. What I found interesting was that the group had very diverse experiences and, with no specific question to answer, the conversation really lacked focus. I was also the only female on this table and found it really hard to contribute. I am no shrinking violet, and I spend my life in male dominated business meetings, so this caught me by surprise.

In the second event, the table group was about 8. I got volunteered to be the table captain and there was a specific question to be answered, ‘if I had a magic wand, what would I wish for myself in the next 12 months?’, which everyone had been advised in advance. Interestingly in this group, the group facilitated itself, got equal contribution and all I did was make notes and report back. I also noticed that in this discussion there was no right / wrong thinking in the group, just exploration. Whereas in the first group, although it was positioned as a discussion, there was a lot more judgement of people’s contribution.

So… my conclusions…

  • Smaller is better. Even just going from 10 to 8 worked better, 5 seems to be perfect for deep discusssions.
  • The question is so important. Having the right question is essential to stimulate the discussions you want.
  • Small things can make a big difference. Even just knowing the question in advance can change the contribution you get.

  • Thanks Katherine. It has been my experience that we try in our company sometimes to include too many cooks. It’s because we’re pretty bad at communicating what decisions were made in meetings, so everyone feels like they have to be present, even if they have nothing to contribute. Keeping numbers small is key to discussion like you say.

  • Beside some early exercises at some ‘German Stammtisch’ with encouraging results he decided to give it a first major public launch at the UN Climate Summit in ’94. The author invited known and unknown participants who meet with unexpected guests at Round Tables.

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