The Efficient Meeting Hypothesis

This is a minor departure from my typical topics, but was something I wrote for work and wanted to share more widely.

Meeting efficiency drops off sharply as the number of people in attendance climbs. A meeting with two or three people is almost always a good use of everyone’s time. If it’s not, the people involved simply stop meeting. Meetings with 4-6 people are worse, but are still generally OK. Meetings with more than 6 people in attendance (counting the organizer) are almost universally awful.

Why are meetings inefficient?

People do not exchange opinions the way machines exchange information. As the number of people grows, so does the number of different opinions, the number of social status games being played (consciously or not), the number of potential side conversations, etc. Achieving consensus gets harder.

In my experience, six people is the limit for anything resembling a useful caucus-style meeting. Above six people, it’s less likely that a given topic (at a given level of abstraction) is of sufficient interest to everyone present. Tangential topics drift so far that by the time everyone has had their say it’s hard to get back on track. Side-conversations start to occur regularly. People who naturally think and speak slowly simply won’t get to speak at all since there will always be somebody else who speaks first.

Why don’t people exit useless meetings?

People mainly stay in useless meetings for two reasons:

  • a variation of the bystander effect where everyone assumes that somebody else must be getting value from the meeting, and nobody wants to be the first to break rank
  • a fear of missing out, because the topics discussed at useless meetings are often so variable (due to tangents and side conversations) it’s hard to know if maybe this will be the moment where something relevant is discussed

How to run an efficient meeting

Keep it as small as possible, and always under 6 people.

How to run an efficient meeting with more than 6 people

You can’t. But if you really think you *have* to…

Give your meeting a rigid structure. Note that this does not just mean “have an agenda document that people can add to ahead of time”. At the minimum you need:

  • A moderator whose only job in the meeting is to moderate (either the meeting organizer or somebody explicitly appointed by them).
  • A talking stick or some digital equivalent. Basically: an explicit process for deciding who gets to speak, and when. A good moderator can manage this entirely verbally for medium-sized groups, but it’s hard. Something explicit is much better.
  • A formal meeting structure and topic, set in advance.

Again, a structure does not just mean “an agenda” or “a slide deck” but some common conversational rules. Here is a list (definitely not exhaustive) of common or useful meeting structures:

  • Stand-Up: each person in turn gets a fixed amount of time (enforced by the moderator) to present to the group.
  • Presentation: one person presents for the majority of the meeting, and then (optionally) holds a question/answer session afterwards.
  • Ask-Me-Anything: the moderator works through a list asking pre-curated questions to specific people.
  • Parliamentary Procedure: this would typically be Robert’s Rules of Order.

Some common pitfalls:

  • Never try to make consensus-based decisions in a meeting with more than 6 people. If a decision has to be made then you must either:
    • Have a smaller meeting. OR
    • Appoint one person the decision-maker in advance, in which case the meeting is actually about presenting and arguing to that person, not the actual making of the decision. OR
    • Use a majority-rules process (typically a vote), in combination with a more parliamentary structure (Robert’s Rules of Order or others).
  • The moderator absolutely cannot talk about anything other than the meta-level (moderating) unless they also hold the talking stick. Ideally the moderator has no stake in the actual topic of the meeting to begin with.
  • The moderator cannot be “nice”. Shut down tangents and off-topics aggressively.
  • Avoid automatically-recurring large meetings like the plague. They shouldn’t be frequent enough to bother auto-booking them to begin with, and the manual process will make it much easier to stop holding them when they are no longer useful.

4 thoughts on “The Efficient Meeting Hypothesis

    1. I wasn’t really accounting for observers. I agree that’s a useful pattern, and I would not count them as long as they legitimately observe and don’t actively participate.

  1. Re: making decisions in larger groups, there’s some evidence that consensus-based decisionmaking can work with enough structure (i.e. it doesn’t _have_ to be majority-vote based). For example, the “humming” process used in IETF (https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc7282), which draws inspiration from the consensus-based Quaker business meeting.

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