Is there an ideal number of people for a meeting?

How many people can a meeting productively accommodate?  What is the best physical format?

The client has a chain of 40 service centres.  Each month, the managers of those centres attended a monthly meeting.  The forty managers sat in a large u-shaped configuration with the business owners seated at the head of the open U.  The client owners’ complaint: ‘All of the managers are passive.  They won’t say anything.

People’s experience of meetings informs us that some meetings work better than others.  There are many reasons why this is the case and this series of blogs attempts to unpack them.  Two factors that are particularly important, and they are related, is (a) the number of participants, and (b) the physical setting.

Reflect on an informal social occasion such as a party, BBQ, or informal chit-chat after a church service.  How many people do we normally see in a cluster?  Rarely do we see more than six, and generally less.

We also know that the greater the diversity in a group, the richer will be the conversation.  Yet, on the downside, the larger the group, the greater the possibility that (a) some voices may not be heard, and (b) that side conversations will occur.

So, what is the ideal number for a conversation or meeting group?  My recommendation is for the group to be as large as possible (to provide diversity) and as small as possible (to provide intimacy and participation).  Experience tells me that five or six is an ideal number, a size akin to sharing a meal with friends.

CARTOON 1.png

So what happens if there are more than six people choosing to attend the meeting?  The answer lies in accommodating participants in multiple table groups, each of five or six people.

What about the physical geography for the meeting?  Up until the turn of the century, formal meeting spaces were commonly rectangular and designed with either theatre-style seating or with a large rectangular table with a senior person seated at the head of the table.

These two formats work if the intent of the meeting is for the powerful to ‘tell’ those with less power.  However, if participation and engagement is beneficial, then other formats work better.

My preference is for meeting participants to work at small circular tables, thus eliminating any ‘power’ position.  Avoid those larger circular banquet tables commonly used at weddings and business breakfasts.  Conversation across these tables is impossible.

If small circular tables are unavailable, then rectangular tables work, three people per side.  If there are multiple tables, arrange them like a fan, or like the petals on half a daisy, so the long axis faces the rostrum or screen.  People are seated at the sides of these tables, looking down the long axis.

In a rectangular room, presentation facilities are normally at the narrow end of the room.  Where possible, consider rotating that orientation 90 degrees, so the screen and rostrum is in the middle of the long axis.  Here the fan-like half-daisy table configuration works particularly well.

Where the number of tables is greater than will be comfortably accommodated in this fan configuration, then place a second array of tables behind the first array, with the tables in the second array offset so they look between the tables in the first array.

Returning to the clients and their monthly meeting of 40 managers, the secret to invigorating the meetings was to change the physical setting.  Managers now sit at table-groups of six.  The owners each sit at different tables with their managers.  At each natural break, everyone moves to a new small group.  The transformation in energy, engagement, idea-sharing and commitment has been remarkable.

© Ian Plowman

June 2017