• Small Groups

    Small groups have fewer than 20 or so members, making it easier for people to actively participate. They meet as small gatherings or as break-outs of large meetings and offer many opportunities for creative, flexible interchange of ideas and lively, meaningful participation.


  • ​What are small group techniques?
    Small group techniques help people participate freely and actively. They include special activities or formats that help interest and engage people. They foster active participation and steer participants toward constructive activities and dialogue. They help avoid complaint-oriented or conflict-driven sessions. 

    Small group techniques have certain basic characteristics: 

    • They emphaze active participation and interaction; 
    • They are usually run by a group leader or facilitator; 
    • They have a task, theme, or goal; 
    • They help reach consensus or develop priorities; 
    • They gather a range of ideas, opinions, and concerns; 
    • They are applied to either planning or project development; 
    • In a breakout group, a small group task reflects the larger group agenda; and 
    • Breakout groups report back to the larger group. 
    Specific small group techniques covered in this section include breakout groups, workshops, seminars, community juries, roundtables, study circles, conflict utilization opinionaires, decision science, delphi, dialogue facilitation, nominal group process, open space technology, Samoan circle, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), synetics, and value analysis. Brainstorming is also used in small groups and is discussed as a separate technique. (See Brainstorming

    The definitions given here are generated from common practice and various materials. However, the techniques are far from standardized, and their names, conduct, and organization vary throughout the country. Some techniques overlap, or a "hybrid" meeting or process uses elements from each. The key to using them is to identify the element or structure that addresses the needs of the participants and the goals of the meeting.

    Why are small group techniques useful?
    They encourage broad participation and promote a sense of equality among members. Individuals speak and are heard. Participants ask questions and comment freely. 

    Small group techniques foster interaction between participants. People are encouraged to speak frankly and openly. Ground rules, such as allowing only one person to speak at a time, help level the playing field between participants. Open and fair meeting processes promote give-and-take and interaction. 

    They make a larger meeting more efficient and productive. Break-out groups use various techniques to address a specific issue. Many ideas are brought forth in small groups that might not surface in a large gathering. The larger gathering becomes more productive as break-out group findings on specific topics are reported and incorporated. 

    Small group techniques foster dissemination of information to the broader community. Representatives meet in small sessions, cover issues, and report back to their constituents. The Portland, Oregon, Metro holds small group meetings in neighborhoods throughout the region. Spokespersons from each group report back to their peers, their elected officials, and other people about transit issues. 

    These techniques usually make meetings more fun and interesting. The interactive nature of small group activities makes them spirited and engaging. People are willing to attend and participate when they know the session will be interesting and productive. The Dallas, Texas, Area Rapid Transit uses small group meetings to obtain candid reactions to innovative proposals. 

    Small group techniques offer a strategy for achieving a meeting goal. They help keep conversation on track or establish a step-by-step process for handling discussion. They help develop consensus or an action plan. To review elements of its 2020 long-range plan, the New Jersey DOT sponsored four issues groups—economic development, goods movement, and mobility and quality of life—made up of key stakeholders.

    Are there special uses?
    Small group techniques are useful on controversial issues. They provide a non-threatening venue for all sides to express opinions and encourage mutual respect and constructive listening. They help reduce tension and defuse polarized groups. 

    Small groups provide a forum for technical issues. Complex issues and concepts receive needed explanation and review, because each individual has time to absorb material and ask questions. Participants feel more confident in an analysis if they understand the technical issues and methods involved. The Connecticut DOT used small groups of participants organized by modal interest (i.e., those favoring transit and those favoring highway options) to develop alternatives for repair or replacement of a major bridge. 

    Small group meetings can re-charge a participatory process with interesting and different ways of looking at a topic. Disenchanted group members are encouraged to rejoin if they see a way to achieve goals in a new and focused process. To critique and revise its public involvement program, the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) called together 60 community leaders and organized them into small groups to work on specific elements of the process. 

    Participants affect the substance of plans and projects through small group work. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission used a small group to simplify its Transportation Improvement Program for easier understanding by the public.

    How are small groups structured?
    The style, format, and organization of small group meetings vary. Some techniques are familiar and regularly used; others (frequently with fancy names) are less common. Some use innovative, creative group processes.

    • Breakout groups are subdivisions of a larger meeting to deal with specific issues. 
    • Small groups meet in separate areas—corners of a large room or several smaller rooms.

    ​Each group appoints or elects a discussion leader, and each participant has a chance to express an opinion. Afterwards, groups report back to the large meeting. 

    In neighborhood meetings to discuss transit service issues, the Boston Transportation Department asked break-out groups to identify priority issues. After each group reported, the larger meeting set priorities to report to the regional transit authority. In Washington, D.C., breakout groups from sub-regions worked within a larger meeting on the area’s long-range transportation plan and reported their area concerns to the larger group. 

    Some small groups are established from the beginning, instead of being formed from a larger group. The format is designed specifically to accomplish the goals of the session. 

    Workshops are small groups that focus on one or more topics, working intensively over a short period of time. (See Conferences/Workshops/Retreats

    Seminars give participants an opportunity to learn about a particular topic and exchange information and viewpoints. A seminar usually focuses on a single topic. Often, a seminar offers a short presentation followed by discussion by a panel or participants. A seminar is distinctive in the high level of interest and knowledge participants bring to it. In Wilmington, Delaware, the Metropolitan Area Planning Coordinating Council began a larger meeting with a seminar with experts to stimulate discussion. Wisconsin DOT sponsored five issue-based seminars on land use, economic development, urban and rural issues, tourism, and freight shipping for its long-range transportation plan. 

    Community juries consist of individuals impaneled to hear testimony related to a specific issue. Jurors, chosen for their impartiality, hear reviews of an issue by neutral experts. The jury discusses and deliberates and subsequently issues its findings. Always non-binding and with no legal standing, the findings of such juries can pinpoint "fatal flaws" or gauge public reaction. The Minnesota DOT assembled a community jury to determine public attitudes toward congestion pricing as a traffic-reduction measure. The jury met for five days of hearings with more than 20 witnesses and voted in favor of reducing traffic but against congestion pricing. The jury then voted for increases in the gas tax and for allowing its use in funding transit improvements. 

    Roundtables are meetings, usually around a table, to examine an issue through discussion by all participants. Each participant is a stakeholder, so the issue is debated from many sides. Free discussion and diverse opinions are encouraged. Experts in a field can participate, as well as residents, business people, and interest groups. Roundtables are often breakout groups, focusing on one or more topics related to the entire issue or project. Seminars and workshops often use a roundtable format, but what is distinctive about roundtables is their emphasis on thorough discussion of an issue. The Kansas DOT, Albany’s Capital District Transportation Committee, and the San Diego Association of Governments use roundtables in many projects and long-range planning efforts. The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority held numerous roundtable discussions with community and business leaders to identify priorities for its regional transit plan. 

    Study circles hold a series of meetings to discuss critical issues. Members are assigned readings and other tasks between meetings. The process is very structured, often using study guides and discussion questions developed by an agency or a steering committee. Participants discuss each facet of the issue in detail. The same group meets periodically to investigate and debate the issue. Participants are appointed or self-selected. In Lima, Ohio, 40 churches with Caucasian, African American, and other members held study circles led by trained leaders to discuss ways to alleviate racial tensions. Study circles on race relations have been formed in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana; Portsmouth, Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio. 

    How do people work within a small group

    Problem-solving strategies are essential for small group accomplishment. Small groups need a specific format or process to achieve the goals of a meeting. These alphabetically listed techniques can be used within the specific meeting structures cited above. 

    A conflict utilization opinionaire uses survey techniques to explore how individuals deal with conflict. It enables a group to use writing and discussion to deal with conflicts or controversies. Before addressing the project issue at hand, a group of 8 to 20 people meet and fill out a questionnaire or complete a writing task to express their attitudes about conflict. They then discuss how staff or leaders should deal with it and suggest the best techniques for reaching consensus or understanding. 

    Decision science is a process of reaching consensus or formulating alternatives. It narrows the focus of discussion to the distinguishing characteristics of various options. A group begins by agreeing on elements that are not in dispute. The group agrees on as many points as possible; for example, "We all agree that we should minimize the impact on the agricultural properties," or "We think improved access to that abandoned factory will encourage economic development." Eventually the group reaches points on which they do not agree. By laying a foundation of mutually agreed-upon assumptions, decision science enables subsequent discussion to directly target unresolved issues. The technique requires a facilitator to develop the consensus items and organize discussion to resolve an issue or formulate a group of alternatives. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used this technique to develop water management alternatives and explore structural versus operational solutions to water resource issues. 

    Delphi (also known as policy delphi) reaches consensus by asking a small group of experts to give advice. The results can generate further discussion at committee or public meetings. The delphi process begins when an agency distributes questionnaires to a panel of experts, whose responses are then tabulated. Results are sent back to the panelists, who reflect on their colleagues’ opinions and either alter their stances or provide reasons for holding to their own positions. This process is continued until basic concepts and elements of a project or plan are identified by a majority. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) conducted a delphi process to define critical issues facing the region and to suggest possibilities for the future. These findings were presented at ARC’s Outlook Conference in May 1992 to launch the VISION 2020 public process. Delphi is considered a survey technique as well as a way of involving small groups. 

    Dialogue facilitation lets participants speak on deeply-held personal beliefs about an issue. People hold conversations that are outside the bounds of the topic under discussion. They can focus around a meal as an icebreaker. Here, individuals do not know which side of the main issue other people are on; they chat about families, interests, etc. Participants then discuss the main issue—not as enemies or antagonists, but as individuals. Consensus is not expected. Rather, the goals are to open up communication and knowledge that differing opinions can be held. Using a principle of family therapy (you have to live together, so you might as well get along!), dialogue facilitation asks each person to participate in conversation. 

    A nominal group process is a term used for several different methods of identifying issues and priorities. One variation, employed by the Pennsylvania DOT, uses index cards for participants to register priority issues and other information; the cards are then tallied or analyzed. In another variation, participants generate ideas silently as individuals, and then list them as a group. They discuss what each means and then silently and individually rank the ideas. Yet another method is to have experts discuss an issue with a small group and prepare suggestions for participants’ reactions. To develop priorities for watershed management, the New Jersey Water Resources Authority held successive small group sessions. In the first, after a brief presentation, experts and participants discussed the issue. In the next session, the experts presented in ballot form an array of personal concerns and opinions culled from the previous discussion. The group used the ballot to rank their collective views. The top quarter of the selected priorities formed the basis of a survey mailed to other people participating in the public involvement effort. The results helped to define the Watershed Management Plan. 

    Open space technology is a method of assigning meeting leadership. The Colorado DOT used this to manage breakout sessions of a large group. Participants introduced a topic or concern, wrote it on a card, and posted it on the wall. Examining the cards to choose a topic, group members signed their names on the card of their choice. Topics with the largest number of names were chosen for discussion groups. People who introduced the topic were responsible for leading a breakout session on it. The Colorado DOT chose issues from these sessions as part of a management review effort. 

    A Samoan circle derived its name very loosely, with only vague reference to the Pacific island group called Samoa. In fact, the formal structure began during a land use study in Chicago. Its purpose is to organize discussion of controversial issues or within large groups, instead of holding a free-for-all, no-holds-barred complaint session. It serves to identify stakeholders or to give priorities to actions to be taken or areas of agreement, although this is not a frequent used. A Samoan circle has no facilitator, chair, or moderator. Participants are expected to maintain their own discipline. They gather in two concentric circles—an inner circle with a table and four chairs, and an outer circle, with ample walking and aisle space. Everyone begins in the outer circle. The issue is presented, and discussion begins. Those most interested take chairs in the inner circle. Those less interested stay in the outer circle. All are able to move in or out of the center as the discussion flows or topics change. Each speaker makes a comment or asks a question. Speakers are not restricted in what they say or how they say it, but they must sit in the inner circle. Someone wishing to speak stands behind a chair; this signals those already in the circle to relinquish their chairs. No outside conversations are allowed. Comments are often recorded. Votes of opinions held by non-speakers are taken at the end, if desired. To close a meeting, empty seats are taken away one by one until there are no more chairs. 

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers frequently uses the technique for both internal and public meetings to define priorities and stakeholders in project planning. The Village of Northfield, Illinois, used it to organize discussion of controversial proposals for community development plans in a forum of 150 residents and officials. The technique was used in a meeting of FHWA officials and representatives of six Midwestern states in discussing ways to improve working relationships around environmental protection concerns related to projects and planning. 

    SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis takes an analytic approach to a concept or issue, identifying its strengths and weaknesses, along with opportunities it represents and threats to its success. Using those criteria, the group evaluates chances for success or effectiveness. Priorities are resolved by voting and reaching consensus within the group. The Iowa DOT used the technique in establishing the basis for its strategic plan. In a related technique, force field analysis, a group defines "helping" or "hindering" forces and their effects on the group’s objective or discussion. 

    Synetics recharges a discussion by diverting it away from the issue being addressed. After discussing an unrelated topic, a group analyzes the dynamics of the side discussion to shed light on interpersonal relationships during discussion of the main topic. 

    Value analysis helps evaluate alternatives and their consequences in terms of values (say, a clean environment or governmental cost reductions) widely held in the community. This technique is frequently used in the utilities industry. Participants compute the attractiveness of each alternative, assign points for each value, then total them into composite scores. The technique shows what values are in conflict and what trade-offs might be possible. It is often used in siting decisions—for example, by the Florida Power Corporation. It has been used by the Department of Energy in planning for a Tank Waste Remediation System in Washington State and for the Santa Barbara County (California) Oil Transportation Plan. The Oregon DOT has used it to evaluate specific agency actions in relation to project alternatives’ analyses. The Ohio Housing Finance Agency used it to establish suburban integration incentives in Cleveland.

    How do agencies use the output?
    Agencies use results to refine plans or projects and move a process forward. Small groups generate information, ideas, and opinions. The Wisconsin DOT interviews small groups about preferences and viewpoints. Small groups are a way to achieve consensus. 

    Small groups provide creative solutions or new ideas and scenarios. In a small group session in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, a local resident architect sketched out a bold idea that became the conceptual design for a major roadway reconstruction. Small groups foster further interaction between agencies and the public, often with a heightened level of trust.

    Who leads?
    Agency staff or outside experts lead small groups, but training is necessary to lead them effectively. Training overcomes individual worries about acting as a discussion leader. 

    Community people also lead small groups. A neutral outside facilitator is important for small groups dealing with difficult issues. Some agencies offer training for local residents in leading discussions; others use outside experts. In Wilson, North Carolina, a local bank donated the time and expertise of several senior staff members to supplement agency managers. Working on the county’s strategic planning/visioning process, the bank staff helped facilitate breakout groups focused on specific transportation topics. 

    Small groups usually have one or two leaders. Co-leaders are chosen from opposing sides of an issue to make sure all positions are adequately heard. This is important when no one group leader is viewed as neutral or objective on the issue being discussed. 

    The choice of a leader depends on the complexity of the technique. In cases where a specialized technique is attempted, it is important to have an experienced leader.

    What do small group techniques cost?
    While actual monetary costs are minimal, staff time for preparation and management is sometimes considerable. The staff records events and reports back to a larger group or to the agency. A person is assigned the role of recorder to write down ideas on newsprint or blackboard. In some instances, agency staff facilitate. Triangle Transit Authority in North Carolina used staff members as facilitators of sub-groups analyzing transit potential and land use/development impacts of a new fixed guideway. 

    Training staff or participants to run small groups is a factor. Training improves productivity and leads to fewer meetings, thus offsetting training costs to some extent. One alternative is retaining consultants to manage small group sessions. Also, with minimal training, participants can play other roles that help cut outside costs, acting as recorders or reporters or in other support roles. These roles reduce the need for staff effort. 

    Meeting facilities become a cost when a neutral location is desired. To contain costs, publicly-owned facilities such as schools or colleges should be considered. 

    Equipment, supplies, and refreshments usually have modest costs. Adequate provisions engender good will between a sponsoring agency and group participants.

    How are they organized?
    The format and organization of small group work need to be carefully conceived. Good preparation is necessary. The choice of technique must be targeted to the intended goals and topics of the meeting and whether the process is short- or long-term. The organization of the process should aim to achieve limited goals within a specified deadline. Policy-makers must be informed of the process and its goals to assist in its support. 

    Small group techniques must respond to both agency and participant needs. Agencies may want to solicit opinions, develop action items, and evaluate alternatives, while participants want to explore impacts, suggest various alternative actions, and make their voices heard. To remedy low attendance at large regional forums, the New Jersey DOT sent staff out to hear from certain populations about its long-range plan. Small groups met on Saturday afternoons in senior citizen centers, colleges, and center-city neighborhoods. 

    Participants need to feel that a meeting is structured well enough to produce results. Audio-visual techniques—video, overheads, displays, laptops—are just as important in small groups as in large meetings, particularly when technical information or concepts are being discussed. (See Video Techniques.) They help engage participants, grab their attention, and establish a firm beginning. Meetings should be dynamic, fun, and interesting for participants. A method of summarizing, documenting, and reporting findings and agreements must be established before a meeting. Even a large meeting that is not well-attended can produce results when participants work in small groups to focus on specific issues or tasks. 

    The process must be fair and open. All participants need to have equal roles and be treated as peers. A group must be as inclusive of as many points of view as possible. Potential interests and stakeholders must be identified before assembling a small group, so that no one is ignored. If a large number of interests are represented, agencies often hold more than one small group session. 

    A method for selecting leaders must be determined before a group meets—whether leaders are to be appointed or chosen by the group. In some cases, it is appropriate to train small group leaders and clarify the responsibilities they are to undertake. 

    Participants need to understand the process, their role, and the expected outcome of a meeting. As in a larger session, the context, purpose, and goal of a meeting should be carefully explained and understood. If the process is unusual, participants need an animated leader to explain it and carry it forward. 

    Specialized and unusual techniques have specific guidelines for implementation that should be carefully explained to a group. Before beginning a meeting, it is essential to review the use of small groups, the proposed format, and the procedures, as well as possible issues that may arise and the results anticipated. 

    Adequate facilities and supplies are important. Groups use easels with newsprint and markers to record ideas. Refreshments help create a comfortable, informal atmosphere. Equipment such as overhead projectors aids in reviewing a proposal. Breakout rooms are desirable for small-group sessions that are part of larger meetings. Supplies must be available for specific techniques, such as cards for the open space technique. 

    Implementation validates both the findings and the process. If follow-up is required, staff or appropriate parties make sure it is done. A small group that is part of a larger gathering should be linked back to it. Pennsylvania DOT held large public meetings for its statewide pedestrian and bicycle plan, breaking into smaller facilitated sessions. Participants identified critical design problems as they affect cyclists and pedestrians. The groups then offered possible solutions and reported their key findings to the large group.

    How are they used with other techniques?
    Small groups must be integrated into an overall public involvement strategy. A regular series of small group meetings ascertains participants’ views. Small group meetings are held periodically to update community groups and interested people on the progress of a planning effort or project development. Such meetings supplement larger group meetings by developing detailed information or exploring specific issues. 

    Small groups adopt techniques available to larger groups, including charrettes, facilitation, visioning, and surveys. (See Charrettes; Facilitation; Visioning; Public Opinion Surveys) Alternative dispute resolution techniques such as mediation are used when an impasse is reached. (See Negotiation and Mediation

    Small groups can meet by teleconferencing. The use of telecommunications brings people together without the need for extensive travel. (See Teleconferencing)

    What are the drawbacks?
    Preparation takes time and extends a project or planning process. But small groups also save time in the long run if they provide opportunities for many people to participate and become familiar with a proposal’s its elements and impacts. 

    Small groups require care and feeding. Space must be available and notices distributed promptly and to the right people. Staff often lead meetings or record their progress. Agencies sometimes provide a neutral site and refreshments for the group. 

    The support of small groups requires a commitment from both the agency and the public. Both need to be assured that small group meetings are worthwhile, productive, and needed and that the results will be of use in the overall process of public involvement. It is sometimes appropriate to have agency officials participate in small groups or observe the process to demonstrate its utility.

    Are they flexible?
    Small groups are inherently flexible. They are used in a variety of situations, with a number of different organizing techniques, at various times in the process, at nearly any location, and with a wide variety of participants. They are organized to respond to specific issues and participants. Also, small groups meet just about anywhere. Many meet in public agency offices, schools, or universities; some in private business facilities. Staff members from the New Jersey DOT have met with small groups in private homes. (See Non-traditional Meeting Places and Events

    Small groups contribute to almost any larger process. The intended use of small groups must be identified early in a meeting process so interested people can comment. In a large meeting, breakout sessions should be identified on the agenda.

    When are they used most effectively?
    Small groups are effective at many different times in a process. They are effective at the beginning to alleviate polarization and early perceptual problems. When a process stalls, small groups restart public involvement or move it forward. They are used before issues reach an impasse, or if participants are feeling excluded. They are used in either planning or project development to prioritize issues or work on action items.

    For further information:

    Breakout groups: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, D.C.
    (202) 962-3200

    Community juries: Minnesota Department of Transportation
    (612) 296-3000

    Decision science: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    (415) 989-1446

    Delphi: Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia
    (404) 463-3100

    Dialogue facilitation: Public Conversation Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts
    (617) 923-1216

    Nominal group process: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation
    (717) 787-1068

    Open space technology: Colorado Department of Transportation
    (303) 757-2838

    Roundtables: Capital District Transportation Committee, Albany, New York
    (518) 458-2161

    Kansas Department of Transportation
    (785) 296-2252

    Samoan circle: Dallas Area Rapid Transit
    (214) 749-2581

    Seminars: Metropolitan Area Planning Coordinating Council, Wilmington, Delaware
    (302) 737-6205

    Value analysis: Oregon Department of Transportation
    (503) 986-3438

    Washington State Department of Energy
    (509) 720-9656​

 Technique Ratings

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 Technique Information

Smaller Meetings
Project/Study Scale
Local/Sub-regional, Regional, Corridor, Statewide, Multistate
Public Engagement Goals
Consult, Inform, Involve
< 3 months, 3 - 12 months, > 12 months

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