Think Small

What’s the largest meeting you’ve ever attended? Not a lecture or an All-Hands meeting; an actual work meeting but with so many people you just knew it would be a waste of time the minute you entered the room. 

Work meetings don’t need an audience. Work meetings are designed (or should be designed) to achieve something concrete — a tangible step toward some grander mission. While we aim to achieve that with others, the general rule for effective meetings is: the smaller the forum, the more effective the meeting is likely to be.

Meetings are costly. A one-hour meeting with eight people costs the organization a full working day. Scheduling just five such meetings results in a complete work week lost. Of course, this doesn’t mean the meetings are necessarily redundant and won’t achieve essential results. But if you can accomplish the same results or better ones with fewer people in the discussion, you should definitely try. 

Larger meetings are not just more costly; they are also harder to run effectively. The more people attend the meeting, the less attention each of their ideas gets. The discussion becomes shallower even if everyone has the best intentions. Think of how much time you are idle in a typical large meeting. Even if you start by being fully attentive, chances are that you will lose focus and attention as more people take the stage for a minute or two. Larger meetings can quickly become a semi-random sequence of thoughts and insights that don’t converge into coherent outcomes. Apart from not achieving tangible goals, such discussions increase burnout and frustration and reduce engagement. Simply put, people know when they are wasting their time, and most people don’t feel good doing so. 

Knowing all that and trying to cut the costs of communication and increase the utilization of meetings, many organizations have set a strict rule: never invite a meeting with more than four people. Or five. Or six. No matter the threshold, the simplest solution seems to be to limit the number of participants and hope people will not find clever ways to override it. From a simplistic cost perspective, these solutions seem ideal. No matter what happens in the meeting, investing (or spending) the time of four people is a significant improvement over investing the time of eight people. The underlying assumption of this view is that the four people could achieve the same results as the eight and that whoever set up the meeting chose the right four people to do so. When you try to improve the effectiveness of something as subtle as communication, mechanical rules are hardly a robust solution. You can meet all the technical rules of “an effective meeting” and still waste the time and energy of everyone involved. 

A better approach is to ditch the generic technical solution and design the meeting to maximize its effectiveness while minimizing its cost. Let’s explore three ways to do that, focusing on keeping the forum small and lean.

Define Your Expectations 

In an effective meeting, every person in the room counts. 

We have a meeting to achieve something. Well, not just something, but a goal connected to a grander, overarching mission we have defined before the meeting. We need people other than ourselves to achieve that goal; otherwise, we wouldn’t have needed the meeting in the first place. When these two facts are combined, it is easy to see why we’d better invite the people who can help us achieve our goal. Anyone with something meaningful to contribute to achieving the goal is potentially essential to the meeting; anyone else is an audience at best, and we don’t want an audience in a work meeting. The group of genuine contributors might still be too large to run an effective meeting, but asking ourselves who will add value to the conversation is an essential first step. Otherwise, we are left only with arbitrary criteria for reducing the number of participants. 

So, how can we know who is essential for an upcoming discussion? A simple way to ensure that is to write one short sentence for each participant that describes what we expect them to contribute. Let’s say you are a Project Manager and plan a meeting to mitigate the delay in the project. Here’s an example of what you might expect from each potential participant in the discussion: 

  • Project Manager: Analyze overdue tasks and their impact on the project’s targets. 
  • Group Managers responsible for delays in their domains: Share ideas for addressing the gap and their implications. 
  • Project Owner: Approve an action plan based on the Group Managers’ ideas. 

The first thing to note is what (or rather who) is not on that list: People who don’t have anything to contribute to achieving the goal of the meeting are not on the list and, therefore, are not required in the meeting. Instead of embedding this discussion in a larger project status meeting, we’ll have a focused conversation with the few people who can impact the issue at stake. Other stakeholders might need to know the outcome of the discussion, but they will gladly spare their precious time and settle with a summary of the meeting. If we can’t define what the value of a specific person is in that particular meeting, there is no reason for them to attend it. 

A subtler implication of defining the expected contribution of the participants is to allow at least some of the material (and sometimes all of it) to be shared before the meeting, thus making the face-to-face discussion even more effective. The Project Manager, for example, can share her analysis of the delay in preparation for the meeting. Instead of surprising the Group Managers with an analysis they see for the first time during the meeting, they can process this input and enter the discussion with their already-formed ideas. This minor change can have an amazing impact on the quality of the discussion and the utilization of precious face-to-face time. 

In some cases, sharing material and insights before the meeting omits the need to attend the meeting altogether, which means we get to reduce the number of participants even further. 

When we take the time to define the expected contribution of each participant and communicate it to all participants, we get a chance to identify the ones who can really affect the discussion and promote its goal. The result is not just a smaller meeting, but better engagement of the people who attend it. No one is an audience; everyone actively contributes to the conversation. 

Split Meetings

Most employees and managers in most organizations are frustrated with the meetings they attend. What is the most natural thing one can do with an activity they find frustrating? That’s right: have less of it. It is, therefore, no surprise that our natural inclination is to reduce the number of meetings and not to increase it, and one popular way to do so is to have bigger meetings. 

If our analysis leaves us with ten potentially active contributors, we might be inclined to set up a single meeting with all of them. We want to get it over with as soon as possible, and we wrongly believe having everyone in the same room is the most cost-effective way. If we want to give everyone the stage, we might go for a longer meeting that allows a deeper understanding of the perspectives of all participants. But, of course, longer meetings are harder to schedule, especially when so many people are involved. Longer meetings also require more attention and energy from the attendees. It is not trivial to deeply listen to and contemplate the perspectives of nine other people and have a meaningful conversation afterward. Longer meetings are effective when the discussion cannot be confined to a short time frame, but the more people participate, the more challenging and less effective they become. 

A more robust solution is to split the meeting. I know, setting up more meetings sounds counterintuitive. But when you examine it from the perspective of cost and quality of communication, it is easy to see how having two or more smaller meetings could be better than having one meeting with more people. Having two deeper conversations, each with five people, is more effective than a shallow discussion with ten people trying to converse in a limited time frame. Of course, for the split to be effective, it must be well-thought-out. Randomly splitting the list of participants into two or more groups will rarely be effective. 

Consider a case where you would like to define a mitigation for a critical risk in your organization. There are ten relevant managers that could affect or could be affected by the mitigation. Another important stakeholder is the manager responsible for that domain, who has to approve any mitigation plan (assuming it impacts other commitments). A possible option is to divide the ten managers into two groups of five and have two separate brainstorming sessions to develop mitigation ideas. You can define the desired outcome of each such session as “coming up with the best mitigation alternative and analyzing its impact.” By the end of these two sessions, you will have two alternatives to choose from, and you could set up a meeting with the domain owner to present the alternatives and ask her to pick one. 

Can a series of three meetings be more effective than one? Absolutely. The cost of each such meeting is smaller, the discussion is more profound, and the outcome is likely to be overall better. Brainstorming with ten people in the presence of the manager in charge is not optimal for creativity, openness, and depth. The smaller meetings increase the value of every minute spent in them, and their total cost will likely be smaller. 

Layered Flows

A special kind of split discussion is possible when there are many relevant views and ideas and a natural way to consolidate them into fewer and more coherent perspectives. When you can define boundaries around certain domains or when the potential participants belong to a couple of organizational groups, it is natural to have a layered communication flow and ask fewer people to represent the aggregated views of others. 

Imagine a discussion designed to improve your organization’s joint work of development and testing groups. Each group has five people and a manager. Each person’s experience might differ, and their perspectives on the challenge and potential solutions might vary. But this doesn’t mean you must assemble all 12 people and have one extensive discussion. There is no practical way to hear everyone and process their input, and even if there was, such a discussion could get very heated (or muted if people don’t feel safe expressing their thoughts). With so many voices, it might be impossible to gain a deeper understanding of the problems and consider some ideas for mitigation. 

The alternative is to layer the discussion: having two separate group discussions, each with the group manager and her team members, and then a one-on-one discussion between the two managers. In the group discussions, the conversation is likely to be more open. People will be more inclined to share their perspectives, and everyone will have the capacity to process what is being shared. By the end of each meeting, the manager would be able to form a coherent view of their group’s experience and how to amend the situation. This doesn’t mean the other side will automatically agree. However, an intimate discussion between two people is a better setup for reaching an agreement than doing so in the presence of all team members. I’d go even further and have another discussion with each group after the managers decide how to approach the problem. These final meetings aim to communicate the decision and harness the team to execute the plan.

Having five meetings instead of one seems like a radical approach. When you consider the quality of each discussion, though, it becomes clear that the chances of reaching a better solution are more significant with the layered approach. We are not ignoring each team member’s personal views and experiences; we make sure we hear them, process them, and consider them. At the same time, we avoid a cacophony of 12 people trying to have a discussion. All views are on the table but are mediated and converged to a more coherent perspective, so resolving the problem is more likely. An effective communication flow doesn’t mean fewer meetings or fewer people involved. Effective communication requires a holistic design that balances effort with discussion quality. Remember our goal: we are meeting to achieve a predefined target, and when we try to optimize that, not all communication flows are equal. 

Smaller is often better, at least when you wish to improve the outcome of your meetings. Mechanically limiting the number of participants in a meeting is not an effective approach, though. A more viable alternative is to design the meeting consciously. Start with defining the expected contribution of each participant and be sure not to invite anyone who can’t actively promote the goal of the meeting. Split the meeting if needed. A couple of smaller meetings is a more practical design than a single larger one. Use a layered communication flow; it will allow you to hear many voices while increasing focus and avoiding incoherency. 

When it comes to effective meetings, think small.

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