Cancel all meetings that have more than seven people attending. 

There are many ways to make a meeting more productive, but according to recent research out of Stanford University, the most productive meetings have "seven, plus or minus two." In other words, between five and nine people. Any more attendees and the quality of contribution declines; any fewer and you run the risk of groupthink. 

Bob Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford, found that numerous studies now confirm that when it comes to teams, many hands do not make light work. According to Sutton, "performance problems and interpersonal friction increase exponentially as team size increases."

The Problems With Too Few

Smaller meetings can build a sense of intimacy that often leads to more meaningful and candid discussions. Fewer people also means more time to listen to and consider the perspective of each team member. The group, in turn, will feel heard and respected, and will often be more productive as a result. This level of candor and clarity in a small meeting can help align action and outcomes. Being small allows teams to stay nimble and make decisions quickly. 

However, meetings with fewer than five attendees can suffer more easily from groupthink, as stronger personalities directly imprint on others. Going small can also reduce the variety of perspectives and opinions available, as well as the diversity of experience and networks, which can undermine decision-making quality.

The Problems With Too Many

There are four key reasons that troubles arise when a group expands past optimal size:

  1. Larger teams can place overwhelming "cognitive load" on individual members.
  2. As a group expands past the optimal number of attendees, each member attending must devote more time to coordination chores (and less time to actually doing the work).
  3. More inter-team delegation occurs, creating opportunities for miscommunication and mistakes.
  4. When each member must divide his or her attention among a longer list of colleagues, the team's social glue weakens, undermining cooperation and team alignment.

Because of these impacts, when meetings grow too large, attendees can lose respect for the meeting, which leads to less preparation, participation, and action. This becomes a downward spiral, eventually castrating the meeting's ability to generate action.

If you meeting size has grown out of control, Paul Axtell, author of Meetings Matter, recommends the following four steps:

  1. Tell the team changes are coming and why. Then when you "uninvite" people, they won't be shocked and take it personally.
  2. Rethink invites. Who is needed? Who is not? Who adds unique perspectives? Who simply amplifies existing perspectives?
  3. Clarify responsibilities. Inform those who are invited what you expect from them and that they will now be responsible for conveying the meeting's content to those who no longer attend.
  4. Report results. After any change, it is important to check in with stakeholders to ensure that their experience matches your intent. Help others see the benefit of fewer attendees.

Taking these findings at face value, leaders should reduce the number of meetings that have more than seven attendees (plus or minus two). If your organization is doing otherwise, you are potentially sacrificing quality for quantity and undermining effectiveness for inclusiveness.

Published on: Jul 16, 2018
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