The Cure for Bad Meetings

by Dan Greenberg

Many people dread meetings at work. Their calendar has too many of them and most of them are boring and ineffective. And heaven forbid you have to lead one! Hours of preparation are devoted to the hope that maybe someone will say to you afterward, “You know, that was actually a good use of time.” The solution to terrible meetings may be as simple as including the right number of people.

Optimal Meeting Size

There’s a sweet spot for meeting size and by all accounts it’s 5-9 people. Run that search and the first two pages of results will all recommend something in that range. If you have too few people, you might miss out on important information (though once you realize that, you should all just get up and walk over to the person who has it). With too many people, it’s too hard to accomplish anything of value.

The Forwarding Disease

Even if you are careful and limit the number of people on your invite, the meeting may get forwarded to practically everyone no matter how tangentially related they are to the topic. This is a problem, especially if it leads to a large meeting with over a dozen people. One option is to make a rule that for every attendee who gets added to the meeting, someone needs to be dropped off. Establishing a norm like this establishes trust in the meeting organizer; it forces them to think through the optimal number of people to include in the meeting and makes it disrespectful if attendees interfere with their careful planning.

Other Tips & Tricks

This Harvard Business Review article proposes a useful rule of 8-18-1800:

  • If you are looking to make a decision, keep it to 8 people.
  • If you are looking to brainstorm, keep it 18 people.
  • If you are holding a pep rally to motivate the troops, feel free to invite upwards of 1,800 people.

Paul Axtell suggests you ask the question “For whom would I cancel the meeting if said person could not attend?” and limit the invite list to only those people. This is an excellent approach that forces focus on a vital few participants.

This Article on Minute reminds us that we can decrease the size of the meeting by not attending. If you are not a key decision-maker, will not provide a unique perspective, do not have an emotional stake in what is being discussed, and do not need the information in the meeting in order to do your job, odds are your presence will not be missed. Explain this to the meeting organizer and see if they know something you don’t that justifies your attendance.

Meet to Act

Meetings become healthier and more pleasant when they have a purpose, when they lead to action that helps you accomplish your work. These techniques are valuable approaches that you can use to improve yours. If you have others that you rely on, please join the conversation and let us know what they are.