Q. Is there a “right” number of people to have in a meeting? I find I can manage about 15 people, as long as they’re not too argumentative, and still keep control. Once the numbers get much bigger I find it too difficult to focus sufficiently on what someone is saying at the same time as trying to watch out for other contributions or possible disagreements. What often happens is that bit by bit people in large meetings switch off as they find it hard to get their say. I recently ran a meeting where we thought about 18 people would come and in the end 35 arrived. At first I was pleased because obviously everyone was very interested in the subject, but the meeting was a disaster because people felt frustrated that they couldn’t contribute as much as they wanted. I was run ragged trying to manage everyone and make sure I captured everyone’s ideas on the flipchart. In the end we muddled through but it wasn’t very satisfactory.
Well, congratulations that so many people wanted to come to your meeting; you must be doing something right. But we do sympathise trying to manage as many participants as that, using methods designed for smaller numbers. In fact your question doesn’t have a straight answer. Despite what many people will tell you there is no ‘right’ number. You need rather to think about it as the having the right meeting planned for the people who need or want to contribute. The ideas that follow should allow you to have successful meetings no matter how many get involved.
Getting the Right People
If meetings are going to be effective, and particularly if any decisions are going to be made and followed through, you need to have the right people in the room. If the right number is five then you have yourself a fairly easy meeting to manage but if the number is 500 you’ll have to plan a little differently. Conventional wisdom often advises that meaningful discussions can’t take place once you have more than about 20 people in a room, but they can and must if the decision requires input or participation of greater numbers.
The reasons for this are very apparent if you think about it for any length of time. Imagine a project that impacts all the divisions and departments of an organisation. And worse than that, it’s a pan-European organisation with inevitable differences from country to country, and this project will impact all of them. How can you possibly get all the information from across this complex system so as to be able to make good quality decisions? And how can you ensure you have the buy-in from all the diverse areas of this organisation? Of course, these will remain challenging questions no matter how you organise your meetings, but you certainly don’t help yourself if your first action is to exclude lots of people from the discussions because you artificially restrict your numbers. When it comes to meetings it isn’t a choice between quality and quantity; sometimes you only get quality if you go for quantity.
Right people, wrong process
So you’ve invited all the people you need to your meeting and whatever that number is, returning to the original question, you now have the right number. A better question to ask at this point is What is the right process to use? The reason our contributor had so many problems was that the plan for the meeting wasn’t appropriate. Managing large numbers, even many hundreds, is possible but you do need to use very different methods. This article will give you the tools you need.
Here are some things you can do in advance to ensure you have the right people and process for your meeting.
- Decide who needs to be in the meeting. If you have called the meeting then you will have an initial view of who the key people are. It is then advisable to have brief discussions with some of the key people to find out their views. There are a number of ways you can do this depending on time, number of people, who is involved etc. For example, you could: –
✩ Make a 5-10 minute phone call with each participant before the meeting. The call could go something like, “Hello, I am calling you about the meeting we have scheduled on date. The purpose of the meeting is state the purpose of the meeting. However, I am wondering if you can spare me a few minutes to share your thoughts on what we should be aiming to achieve in the meeting…. Given these objectives, who do you think needs to be in the meeting?”
✩ E-mail everyone with a set of questions. For example, you could send something like, ‘Thank you for committing to come to the meeting on date. The purpose of the meeting is state purpose of the meeting. I would appreciate your input into the design of the meeting, so please can you spare a moment to consider the following questions and send me your replies by date.
– What would you like us to achieve in the meeting? What specific objectives do we need to achieve?
– Do you have any issues or concerns about the meeting?
– Who do you think should be at the meeting?’
The key to getting the right people in a meeting is to be really clear about the roles of the people participating. While it is important not to stifle good decision-making by limiting the numbers, it is also important to make sure the meeting isn’t full of voyeurs!
If some key people cannot make it to a meeting it is worth considering whether you can get their input in advance of the meeting and then incorporate their views without them being there. This can be particularly effectively done through the use of partially-completed wall charts, populated with the views of those people not able to attend. The big question with using this type of approach is whether they will have/need ownership of the decision made in their absence.
- Once you have decided on who needs to be at the meeting, it is important to make sure you have enough space. For large groups this means there is enough space for the group to be seated in a ‘cabaret’ layout with space to move between the tables. ‘Cabaret’ means the group is arranged around circular tables, ideally in groups of no more than 8.
- Once you know who needs to come to the meeting you can get on with the meeting design. Having a robust meeting design is even more critical with large groups as it is more difficult to improvise.
There are some common techniques that make for good meeting design when you are working with large numbers of participants.
- One of the key principles to large group design is enabling share of voice. If you imagine yourself in a situation where there are large numbers of people and then ask yourself how you feel about contributing in these situations you are likely to feel emotions like, ‘I don’t want to speak up in front of all these people’; ‘There’s no point, I am just one person’. So, in designing meetings for large groups we need to allow people to be heard and make it easy for them to contribute. Techniques that facilitate this are: –
✩ Designing the discussions to be held in small groups (usually at tables) and then connecting back to the main group. It also helps to allow personal reflection time in the small group discussions, as this helps people collect their thoughts before contributing. This is why the ‘cabaret’ style layout works so well with large groups.
✩ Cabaret layout allows for a style of working whereby the depth of discussion happens at tables. This is facilitated by setting up the discussion to the whole room and then allowing small groups to hold discussions at their tables. To aid this process it is useful to have a session brief on every table, stating the purpose and steps of the session. A great way for groups to manage their discussions is to provide them with a tabletop chart (usually A2 or A1size), divided into sections with questions to fill in.
- The other aspect of working in table groups is to establish some ways of working at the tables from the start of the meeting. We usually recommend that table groups share the jobs to be done in discussions and ideally rotate these roles throughout a meeting.
✩ Facilitator – to lead the discussion
✩ Recorder/Reporter – to make notes and report back for the group, if required
✩ Timekeeper – to keep the discussion to time
- When the groups have completed a discussion it is important to connect back to the whole group. This can be done in various ways:
✩ Presentation from each table or a selection of tables.
✩ Posters or completed tabletop charts hung round the room. Then everyone invited to walk around the room to review the outputs.
✩ Asking for key points from each table and looking for different points to be added each time until there are no new points.
✩ Graffiti walls are a great tool for larger meetings. They are literally a wall of blank paper for people to write comments on. Conversations can develop over time and this allows people to express views and have side conversations publicly.
✩ Mind maps are a way of connecting information about a topic by putting the topic at the centre of the page then creating themed branches off the topic to form a diagram of interconnected branches around a central topic. Large-group mind mapping is a way of capturing lots of different views quickly in a way that allows people to see the linkages between them. This tool usually requires someone to facilitate the discussion and someone to record. It starts with an explanation of the central topic/theme for discussion. When the group starts to contribute they say whether their point is a new branch on the mind map or they name the branch their point is related to. It is important to have a competent recorder so that you can keep the pace up in a session like this. I have witnessed these sessions run very slowly and low energy when the recorder can’t keep up. One way round this is to use two recorders, each taking alternate points.
- When designing meetings for larger groups ‘don’t do for the group what they can do for themselves’. For example, handing out a document in a meeting of 12 people you could pass a copy to each person. Now imagine the same task with 200 people – handing out becomes impracticable. So, the bene t of thinking in this way is twofold.
✩ It is not practicable to do everything for everyone in a large group
✩ It encourages shared responsibility for the work being done, rather than the usual lemming mentality that can occur in large meetings.
✩ The practical solution to encouraging the group to support itself in a meeting is to provide resource tables with materials available for a table representative to collect.
- One of the great benefits of having a large group can be the diversity of perspectives you get in the meeting and the wealth of experience. However, you only get the real bene t from this if the table groups are mixed and change throughout the meeting. Sometimes work needs to be done within functional groups, in which case sitting them all at one table can be beneficial. The key is to think about the impact of the seating arrangements as part of the design in the preparation.
- Once a meeting size becomes more than about 30 people the tendency is to go for meetings that are ‘death by PowerPoint’ i.e. loads of presentations and one-way information. These types of meetings rarely have any long-term impact; at best they create a bit of a buzz on the day. By minimising the amount of presentation you maximise the amount of working discussion that gets done in a meeting and make the most of the brainpower in the room. We try to apply this principle in both large and small group meetings!
An example from Katherine: I recently had a conversation with a client that went like this…
CLIENT: “I have decided to call a meeting of all the people who work in X. We are going through lots of change at the moment and it’s causing a few problems. There are lots of rumours flying around about what might be happening, most of which are unfounded, and people are not working well together as there is a lot of mistrust. I thought we could spend a day together, give everyone a better sense of where we are heading and clear the air.”
ME: “Sounds like a good idea. Do you have any plans for the agenda?”
CLIENT: “Yes, I have got a presentation about the overall business direction. I’ve also asked each of my Divisional Heads to prepare a presentation about their functions. I thought we could have a few questions and answers and then I have invited an external consultant to come along at the end of the day to do something motivating with them.”
This example shows a common mistake made in meetings. The reason people need to come together in meetings is to have conversations, not to be presented at. Conversations are even more important if there is conflict in the group. A well-run meeting will have well-structured conversations to achieve the overall objectives, whatever the size of group.
- The other critical point to define before any meeting, but particularly one with larger numbers of participants, is the decision- making process. In the absence of any defined decision- making process, people in a group tend to think they are being asked about something, so they make the decision, which assumes consensus decision-making, the most time-consuming process.
For example, if the outcome of the meeting is to understand the vision for the future, what position are you in?
– You have a vision that needs explaining to get common understanding.
– You have a vision that you need to get buy-in to.
– You have a proposal and want to get ideas to improve it.
– You don’t have anything yet and want to collect ideas as input to your proposal.
– You don’t have anything yet and want everyone coming to the meeting to jointly create the vision.
For each outcome of a meeting it is useful to really think through which style of decision- making is appropriate.
- The final thing to consider as part of the design of your meeting is the onward communication. What needs to be communicated, and to whom, after the meeting? By thinking about this in advance it is possible to design it as part of the meeting. There are also options for sending out templates from the meeting with spaces for additional contributions afterwards, but only use this approach if you plan to take action on the comments!
- If you find yourself in a meeting and start to realise the right people aren’t there, the key thing is not to ignore the problem. Any decisions or agreements that get made without the right people in the room are likely to get overturned anyway, so it really is a waste of time just ploughing on. The tactics I have used are: –
✩ Front the issue with the group if they seem to be ignoring the problem ‘Do we have the right people in the room to make these decisions?’
✩ If the answer is ‘no’ then it can be useful to ask, “How can we get the right people involved?” and “What actions can we take to convene a meeting where the right people will enable effective working?”
- If you find yourself with more people than expected, one of the first strategies we would suggest is to thank everyone for coming (and congratulate yourself on your meeting magnetism!)
✩ By clarifying the meeting purpose and outcomes at the start you can sense-check that everyone is there for the same reason and not for something else.
✩ We would recommend being transparent with the group about your surprise and be explicit about what you will need to do, something like this… “Thank you all for coming to our meeting today. I am surprised and pleased to see how many people are keen to get involved in this matter. I have to confess that I did not anticipate getting such a response to my invitation and my agenda was for a smaller group. My proposal is that we aim to have the same conversations in the same order but I will need to improvise the process to make it productive with a larger group. We will need to start the meeting as one group, to get everyone on the same page, so it may feel like the start of the meeting is a bit hard work. However, once we get going I will make opportunities to split into groups to allow depth of discussion.”
✩ Find ways to break the group up into smaller groups to have the conversations, for example,
✩ Working in pairs
✩ Small group working (up to 8 per group)
✩ Divide the task into working parties
✩ Work in parallel streams
- Only sort out in the meeting what you really need to
✩ Find areas of common agreement early.
✩ Focus the time you have together on resolving areas of difference.
✩ Put things to the vote early.
Facilitating large groups
Assuming you do have the right people in the room and you have designed the meeting to work effectively with a large group, then you are a long way down the road to success. However, there are some useful tips for facilitating large groups.
- When you open the meeting, make sure you talk about the objectives you want to achieve in the meeting, the agenda for how you plan to achieve the objectives and the roles and ground rules expected in the meeting.
- Give clear instructions. When you set up a group task there are some key tips to getting this right by being clear about why and what you are asking.
- The key thing with a large group, though, is to give it your best and then let them get on with it. Don’t ask for questions of clarification as you will either get stunned silence or anarchy!
Our top tips for ensuring you have the right number of people in your meetings are: –
- The most important aspect of having a productive meeting is having the right people there, regardless of how many.
- If you need a large group (more than about 18 people) to get the work done, then design the meeting using large-group techniques.
- If you realise key people are missing at the start of a meeting, decide whether the meeting is worth continuing with.
- If you know in advance that key people cannot come to the meeting, consider ways to obtain their input and include it without them present.
- If more people than expected turn up to your meeting, modify your design to use large- group techniques.