Meeting size often impacts its effectiveness, and not how you might expect.

Think back at some of the meetings that you have attended. Think about both very large meetings with tens of participants as well as very small meetings of two to five people. And think about other meetings with between 8 and 12 or even 15 people.

As you think about those meetings, consider which meetings were the best. Which meetings were the easiest to speak in. How about which meetings seemed to be the most orderly? When did you feel like you got the most accomplished? Which meetings felt like they were best for BIG topics? Which meetings felt chaotic or frustrating and why?

Everyone already knows the problem of meeting frequency. Otter.ai had a great post on meeting statistics in 2021. The big takeaway was that there were 10% more and most people said they hated them. “In fact,” that article found, “70% of all meetings keep employees from working and completing their tasks.” Back in 2015, the Harvard Business Review (HBR.org) even took up the question of “How to Know If There Are Too Many People in Your Meeting”. Their conclusion? Don’t invite more than 8 people for action meetings. Keep brainstorming meetings to around 18 people. And if you are “rallying the troops”, then the sky’s the limit.

In assessing meeting dynamics from various meetings that Navvee led or participated in, Navvee made an interesting finding that is similar to but more specific than the HBR article.

Effective action meetings have 5 or fewer participants.

In smaller meetings of 2 to 5 people, regardless of whether it was a virtual or a live meeting, people tended to be more courteous. They were more likely to share airtime and let others get a word in. The agenda tended to be tighter and focused on achieving a very specific set of results or actions. While some smaller meetings every once in a while got chaotic or out of control, very rarely did it detract from achieving the result of the meeting.

Smaller meetings were generally shorter and prone to earlier finishes once the agenda was fully covered. While poorly structured meetings without an agenda or specific planned outcomes were still unproductive even with fewer people, they tended to result in the participants assembling a structure for the next meeting.

Meetings of 8-10 and even up to 12-15 people tend to become more frustrating and less civil.

As soon as meetings grew larger than 5 people and made their way into larger conference rooms or required more screen real estate to see all of the participants faces, decorum suffered. People interrupted others to be heard. Others often tried to maintain the floor by droning or prattling on without significantly adding to the discourse. It was much easier to lose track of the objectives of the meeting. Taking notes was much more difficult and the resulting work product often echoed the chaotic interaction. And some participants left the meeting without having a chance to interact, forced to either abandon their input or relegate it to a follow-up email string.

In short. as the number of people in the meeting grew beyond 5 people and extended to 10 or 12 people, the level of frustration almost always increased. Productivity generally declined. Sidebar conversations increased with meeting leaders having to call everyone back to a single conversation or topic multiple times. “Parking lot” or “we’ll get back to that later” topics increased. The agenda was increasingly difficult to follow. And people generally left the room or the teleconference feeling drained and irritated.

Meetings that exceed 20 people return to civility and almost parliamentarian or college classroom manners.

As soon as the size of a meeting grew to 20 or more participants meeting dynamics changed. It was as if everyone in the meeting was back in their college classrooms. Meeting formalities returned. People raised their hands. They stopped talking over others or were apologetic when they did. Side conversations became fewer and less impactful. Now whispered and brief, the participants often left the room to complete their discussion rather than disturbing the whole room of meeting participants.

Larger meetings also tended to have a single designated meeting leader or emcee. It was critical to maintaining meeting order.

Similar to the HBR findings, however, the larger the meeting the better suited they were to brainstorming or big picture and strategic topics. Meetings captured action items, but not without a significant amount of discussion. That said, oftentimes the discussion was critical to refining the action plan.

Conclusion: Meeting planning must make attendee quantity a key consideration.

Navvee concluded that the best meetings are either fairly small or very large. In-between sized meetings tended to be more like meeting purgatory and impacted productivity.

A key exception to these findings are demonstration or presentation meetings. These meetings disseminate a one directional message to multiple stakeholders at once. Well structured and organized presentations with few distractions minimized the effect of participant numbers.

If you are planning a meeting, make the number of participants a key consideration. Your meetings will feel and be more productive.

For more assistance with meetings large and small, consider engaging with Navvee for assistance. Navvee’s Advisory Services packages help ensure productive meetings for you and your team.