In Praise of Meetings

I know. I know. We all hate meetings...But should we?

I’ve been thinking about meetings lately as I read social science work. It has helped me understand and appreciate meetings.

Conversational size is four. 

I’ve often wondered why the best work in a meeting occurs when it’s just four people, sometimes five.

Anthropologists who observe social situations have observed the natural size of group conversations is four or fewer. Notice next time you are at a party notice what happens when a fifth person joins a conversation. At first there might be an effort to keep one conversation, especially if there is a person with high status who is speaking. But fairly soon, the group breaks up into smaller conversational cells. 

When I was younger and less certain of my status, I took it personally when this happened. It turns out we’re all just humans. Wish I’d known that when I was 20.

Meeting as ritual.

Another insight comes from reading The Evolution of Human Cooperation by Charles Standish. He puts forward the idea that the more group coordination required, the more ritual associated with it. He cites examples of different types of activities and the associated rites and magic associated in ancient Polynesian and other civilizations. The central ritual of modern organizations is the meeting. And it is true that the more coordination required for a project, the more meetings. Rites and magic are optional.

Meetings as deep work.

I am reading Deep Work, where Cal Newport advocates for more time spent in contemplative work away from the distractions of email, text, Slack, and shared office space. 

Twice in my career I worked on my own (in the mid 2000s and again in 2016). Each time I found myself pulled into other people’s agendas through email, text, and other media (in the 2000s it was voicemail; today it is Slack & social media). Turns out I use meetings to keep me focused.

A good problem solving meeting (4 people or less) – is like deep work. We keep each other on task. We are focused for 30-90 minutes on a small set of related topics.

Within a company, it is important to have a combination of deep work meetings and deep work of individuals. Too many larger coordination meetings is either a sign of excess complexity or poor meeting management. Or maybe inadequate magic.

Larger coordination meetings can be effective, however, for communicating goals and solving internal logistics problems. They even help build creativity by cross fertilizing ideas, problems, and solutions. A study to observe how scientist work found that lab meetings were crucial to effective & creative research. Turns out big breakthroughs in science are more likely a result of a staff meeting than being hunched over a microscope.

It seems, though, that these meetings are also the ones at highest risk of someone falling asleep. I wish I had words of wisdom to eliminate this problem. I suppose one is: don’t do these meetings more than once a week. Second: if someone falls asleep, don’t invite them to the next one.

Natural breaks in meeting sizes

Work by Robin Dubar (you may have heard of the Dunbar number) seems to show that our social networks exist in layers of intimacy with about 5, then about another 10, followed by about another 30, then a total of about 150 people.

I think these numbers also correspond to the rough size of different meetings. If you want to solve a knarly problem or brainstorm effectively, don’t have a group bigger than five.

If you want to have a conversation among a larger group where one or two present information and others ask in depth questions, 15 people is about the max. It is a useful limit for a coordination meeting, corporate boards, and most committees. It is the maximum size of meeting that has direct decisions and results in cooperative learning.

If you have a meeting with roughly 50 people, you can only have one presenter at a time and limited questions and comments. These meetings can be used for updates and community building, but not for decisions or creativity. They should be short and infrequent.

Meetings to build identity and shared values

Really large meetings of 100 and more are not about decisions or “real work.” They are important and can be effective, however, as long as they are done with the right goals in mind. These meetings are about creating a sense of connection and identity of the group. Also, they are best done at the end of the work week, preferably with beer.

Meetings of thousands and larger are about broadcasting and instilling shared values. Both are used to communicate high level goals and get the organization aligned on the same objectives. Most leaders are terrible at these types of meetings and it makes them a huge waste of time.

What makes for an effective large meeting? The most important are stories that connect what the organization wants with what individuals do every day. That is why skilled politicians use stories so often. A second insight I learned from reading Harari’s books (especially Sapiens). A big meeting is about building shared mythologies — by “mythology” I mean epic stories, not fake stories — that help define the culture of a company, non-profit, or state. That is why speeches for big audiences so often invoke the founding of a country, company, or organization.

I’ve learned to appreciate meetings that are well executed, right-sized, and well timed. A well run organization will have lots and lots of opportunity for deep work for individuals and small groups, occasional large meetings of about 45-50, and rare very large meetings over 100 people.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash