Breaking Out

Can an online learning event be as engaging as a live one, or even more engaging? Online learning is notorious for distracted multitaskers and high drop out rates.

The secret, according to experts, is breakout groups. I’d point you to

How do you provide consistently high-quality breakout sessions? What’s the best way to structure them to stay on point? How do you ensure they’re facilitated well without professional facilitators in each room? How do you keep tabs on progress when you can’t walk around a room and visit tables?

There are challenges, but virtual breakouts offer at least four big opportunities:

Deeper Learning. Doesn’t learning happen best in small groups? The practice of learning in “Circles, Not Rows” has been our inspiration for years. In circles, people open up, reveal their real challenges and let in new ideas. Most adults learn better when having a dialogue about a current need. When sharing experiences, they learn better and the effects last longer. This is why Circle-style learning is so beloved by members of

Valuable Relationships. One of the worst aspects of moving online is that you lose the hallway, elevator, lunch or bar conversations where relationships are built. But with proper structure, the participants of a small group can connect even more quickly and meaningfully than when they make table-talk. This leads to meaningful relationships. If you keep the groups together, they form lasting bonds, sharing networks and helping each other outside the training world. As our friend Andy Billings from Electronic Arts quipped, “We spend time choosing the best presents (content) but participants just want to play with the boxes (relationships).”

Sustained Learning. What motivates participants to continue to practice learnings over time? Teams. People will show up for each other all day long before helping themselves. The Stanford research cited above shows it (16x more likely to complete a course than alone!), as does our experience. And all-of-a-sudden, the learning isn’t building-constrained. Go from a huge room of people meeting once, to small, intense groups meeting over time. Reinvest the saved travel time. Take advantage of peer accountability to drive sustained attention to a topic, and to support follow-through, which we know is required for behavior to change. If you do a good job framing the small group, and creating a dynamic of helping each other, they will stay together.

Teaming Skills. Take advantage of the team “dojo” to teach teaming skills in a safe place. Give participants turns at facilitating as part of the learning experience, and provide feedback to facilitators. Show how good meeting structure works. People can experience the power of psychological safety and vulnerability, and how to create it. Participants experience the effectiveness of team accountability, and how inclusion puts a plethora of diverse ideas on the table. Another one of our sayings: if you learn in teams, you’ll learn to lead teams that learn. Learning programs can play a crucial role in organizations struggling to improve collaboration by making team-based learning central to their approach.

The traditional “classroom” mode of presenting content to rows of individuals is a hard habit to break. Even our video conference tools are built more for presentations than conversations – one person is big by default with the others off screen, able to hide. And the closeness of Circles can produce uncomfortable conversations that some resist. Yet Learning & Development (L&D) professionals are no strangers to making people a little uncomfortable, for their own good, yes?

We believe that human connection is the magic ingredient in developing workers and leaders. Here’s how to put human connection front and center, and create an awesome event:

  • Small groups
  • Structured conversations
  • Facilitation
  • Intentional setting

Small Groups. Having people experience the entire learning journey in circles is the best way to translate live rooms to online rooms.

  • Form Circles of 4-9 people before or at the start. Be deliberate about Circle creation. Turn the time saved by travel into a brief meeting to
  • Restructure the session to go to breakouts 2-3 times while together. Have teams report out in between.
  • Have the Circle continue. Setting up 2-5 short sessions after the workshop will keep attention on topic and focus on its real-life applications, multiplying your returns. Once the connection is built, the gravitational pull of helping each other will keep the Circle coming back to attend these sessions.
    (We see over 80% attendance in our corporate Circle programs, even after 6 sessions).
  • Regroup. Why not gather again in 90 days, for an hour, and report out? What’s a learning journey without a final exam or performance? It’ll keep focus and give a real sense of closure.

Structured Conversations. It isn’t enough to let the small group just “talk.” Simple structures multiply the productivity of the group. We use the term “agenda” – but not as in a list of things to talk about, as in guidelines for how to run the conversation. For example:

  • Advance-plan questions or prompts for discussion.
  • Equal talk time. Use facilitation tricks like random order and a timer.
  • Reflection. 60 seconds to think after a question feels weird at first, but shortens and deepens responses, allowing everyone to be present to hear each other.
  • Meeting openings. Use a prompt to prime the topic and engage emotions, right away.
  • Meeting close. Make sure to integrate the discussion into action items, or learnings that you can report out.

There are many other structures that you can use when creating your agenda. A Circle fosters inclusive conversations, psychological safety, and peer accountability. The trick is to take the cognitive load off the newly formed group by providing them one clear choice. Over time, these structures are internalized and the conversation gets more organic.

laptop impactful facilitator

Facilitation. Wouldn’t it be powerful to have a facilitator in every breakout? Having a clear and thoughtful structure makes it possible for a motivated amateur to facilitate. One way to motivate them is to make facilitation part of the learning journey itself – this is a skill most professionals value.

I don’t want to undersell the value of experienced, skilled facilitation (as an exceptional example and shout-out, check out

“Offsite” Setting. L&D leaders go to great pains to locate live learning sessions in appropriate settings. It boosts learning when you take people out of their day-to-day mindset, fast. Isn’t it even more important to do that online? Think beyond the squares: use music, images, and strong openings to set a mood of openness and wonder, conducive to learning. Tech chaos can have the opposite effect.

circle session

And now the commercial – Circles is a gang of people with a process and platform for engaging, small group learning. We make it easy to design sessions, form small groups and measure how they do. We provide a purposeful setting, scalability, and professional service, powered by our technology. We can work with any major video conference provider for large sessions, and enhance the experience with Breakout Circles™️ that keep going.

Case Study Results: Millennium Forum

Do Circles work?

Hard data is hard to get. And then there’s the question: What outcomes are we looking for?

We’re proud of our partner, Millennium Forum. They run an amazing Circles program for K-12 teachers. Their research partners and team have helped them design ways to measure and learn from outcomes.

First, some context…

In general, we talk about three categories of outcomes:

• Educational. Circles make it easier to sustain and apply learning, extending programs like manager training.

• Social. Participants get close. They help and support each other in ways that transcend any particular topics.

• Cultural. A circles experience shifts you to be more inclusive, vulnerable, and accountable. Diversity becomes a strength.

Each Circles program and partner emphasizes different outcomes. Millennium’s “Theory of Change” focuses on the second and third categories. By taking care of each other, educators will take better care of their classrooms.

Their latest mid-year results show real success:

What about you?

Do you suspect similar outcomes from your Circles programs, only haven’t measured them? Are these high scores for helping teachers help students analogous to helping managers help employees?

Case Study: Adding Depth of Communication in a Fast-Paced Environment through Peer Learning

Managers at a growing national company operated within a fast-paced environment, where intense workflows often limited interaction opportunities. The company sought to cultivate a sense of unity among its managerial workforce, and to increase connectedness with the company culture and vision.

After careful consideration, Circles peer learning emerged as the best option to achieve the following objectives:

  • Building relationships
    – unite diverse department managers through engaging, in-depth discussions.
  • Conscientious leadership
    – create high-performing leaders that drive company culture and values.
  • Individual growth
    – promote an environment of continued learning and self-improvement.

Through Circles peer learning, participants deepened connections through meaningful conversations involving vulnerability, leadership principles and the power of story. A balanced culture of a unified collective and individual growth emerged through the Circles experience.

Circles supported facilitators to create a psychologically safe and inclusive space in which every member felt visible and valued. The experience was carried forward beyond the structure of Circles peer learning, and was developed as a company-wide practice focused on meaningful engagement.

Access the complete case study

Case Study: Cementing Leadership Development through Peer Learning

A world-leading food processing and packaging company runs an annual leadership development program for high-potential employees. The four-month international program aims to address individual leadership challenges to help participants transition into executive roles within five years.

After three iterations of the program, the company decided to try a complementary approach; one that would continue to keep participants engaged after the program, encourage ongoing networking with their peers and inspire them to continue the sessions themselves after the four month program. After some analysis, it became clear that peer learning circles might meet these objectives.

The goals of the circles were:

  • Engagement
    ​ – increase engagement beyond the leadership development program.
  • Relationships
    ​ – sustain meaningful relationships with peers for improved team performance.
  • Self-direction
    ​ – encourage self-directed sessions for continued learning and support.

With the peer learning circles, participants were encouraged to share both organizational ​and​ personal challenges – adding a new depth to the sessions. Building upon existing trust between the participants formed during the initial program, these sessions created a safe space for open and honest discussion, gently addressing specific challenges, and strengthening the team as a whole.

As a result, not only did participants deepen connections with their peers and build a trusted support system, they also understood the power of peer circles and committed to continuing the process beyond the program.

Download the complete case study

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

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Make human connections.

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