How many people does it take for a productive meeting?

Senior managers spend nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, on average.

However, around 70% of these meetings are seen as unproductive by senior managers – and they’re the ones calling the meetings!

Priya Parker, author of ‘The Art of Gathering and Why it Matters’ and a Conflict Facilitator has a barrel of advice if, like me, you get invited to pointless group love ins dominated by a handful of individuals.

Few people, if any, need to be there for all of the meeting. Others can’t hear it anyway above the noise of their own vacuuming.

If you’re looking to make gatherings more constructive, Priya suggests using the following guidelines.


Firstly, do you need a meeting?

Priya posits that if nothing will change as a result of a meeting, then there’s no need for a meeting.

Only gather around what you can’t do over email. If people could be getting on with something more productive than attending your meeting, they’ll be grateful not to go.


The ultimate purpose of a meeting

The overarching purpose of any meeting is NOT ‘topics to be discussed’ but ‘questions to be answered’.


Length of meetings

Length of meeting: the average length of a meeting is an hour. However, there’s this rule of thumb called, PARKINSON’S LAW which dictates that work expands according to whatever time is allocated to it. So, you give an hour, it’ll take an hour, give it 30 minutes and that’s how long it’ll take.

That’s not because someone’s interrupted by calling time but because psychological research shows that if your err on the side of narrowing your meeting time frame, the increased pressure makes decision making faster and the meeting more productive.

If you’re feeling a bit tentative about axing your hour long meeting down the middle, then reduce it to 45 minutes and see what happens.


When are there ‘too many’ people?

There’s no hard and fast rule for this but here’s a rough guide:

Updates: Victoria Fine in her article here recommends 7 people. In an hour then everyone will have 8.5 minutes to contribute. It’s not buckets of time but enough for one or two comments if everyone is given 5 minutes to speak. I’d go for 3 people giving an update of 5 minutes in an hour. That way, just over 6 minutes worth of feedback from each individual in total. To keep your updates short and sweet, go here.

According to ‘Running Meetings’ published by Harvard Business Review (HBR), these number make for optimum gatherings:

  • Problem solving / decision making: up to 8
  • Brainstorming: up to 18
  • Rallying the troops: as many as you need – no limits.

However that’s offline. Online, unless you’ve got breakout rooms, you’ll have just a couple of people dominating and the rest will be checking their Twitter feed. So keep it to a maximum of 8 – unless you’re rallying the troops, in which case a strong motivational tide can sweep up any number of people.


How do you deal with leaving people out?

Some may complain about not being invited so there are three ways to deal with it here:

  1. make your agenda modular: only invite the relevant people to bits of it.
  2. ask for contributions: say ‘I’m having a meeting and we’ll be talking about these topics. If you have any input, please send this to me for discussion at the meeting. If you want to join future ones, you’re welcome.”
  3. pinpoint your purpose: the more specific your purpose is, the more likely people will exclude themselves by saying ‘I’ m not relevant to this.” 

    Then who do you invite?

    HBR included the following participants to a meeting, but note that some may be included in either a separate gathering or an email:

      1. those with the knowledge and experience to contribute.
      2. anyone who can impact or is impacted by the issues under discussion.
      3. those who need to implement any decisions made.
      4. people who need this information in order to do their jobs.


    Your Action

    1. Decide on the purpose of your meeting. Is it updates, problem solving or something else?
    2. Determine who needs to be invited to that particular meeting, those who can be seen separately and people that don’t need to attend at all, ensuring the number is set according to the type of meeting you’re having.
    3. Write the message to handle the ones you’ll invite, those you’ll see separately and, if necessary, the people who would like to think they need to be there but, in fact, don’t.

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