Meetings are the most basic and fundamental form of information exchange in any society, perhaps in all of humanity. Once we developed the ability to talk, having meetings was next, before we could read or write. Yet, thinking back to my education as an engineer, not once do I remember being taught explicit skills for how to have an effective meeting. I’m not aware of a single continuous improvement exercise focusing on effective meetings in my time at WSU. It’s always assumed we have the skills to run a meeting. At the same time it’s commonly assumed that meetings are a waste of time. So the first rule of meetings is to only have one if it is needed — people must come together and have a dialogue to move forward.
So you made it past the e-mail, resume/application, interview, submitted your first proposal, and the boss says, “time to schedule a meeting about that proposal you wrote.” What’s your next move?
The short answer is that it depends. So we’ll start with a Taxonomy of meeting types, break down the key attributes of the meeting, and close with a few examples.
A Taxonomy of Meetings
College towns are phenomenal test-beds for social experiments. One of my classic essay prompts in thermodynamics tasks students with applying entropy in their personal lives. It’s a pass-fail short essay posted on a message board for their classmates to read. After seeing a topic personalized in so many ways you develop a better understanding for the topic and your class. One response I’ve never forgotten: a taxonomy of meetings and parties that correlated size to entropy. I’ve added more formality to the original essay here via definitions gleaned from the Urban Dictionary, we’ll start at the smallest form of exchange and build:
Date: Between just two people. Decisions are to be made and sometimes it’s necessary to control the flow of information.
Get-together: “What someone calls a party that they don’t want a lot of people to come to.” Get-togethers likely range between 3-8 people in size. Get togethers often occur with a specific objective that will involve some figuring out, like moving a heavy item in a yard, replacing an auto-part, testing out something new on the grill, etc. Socializing over drinking or some other shared food is likely.
Kick-back: “Small gathering between group (sic) of friends, more than a get together, less than a party (used in nor-cal central valley). Kickbacks have one simple rule. They are not parties. No illegit (sic) friends of friends of friends showing up empty handed and emptying your fridge. Kickbacks are the stress free versions of parties where the host doesn’t have to worry about shit (sic) breaking or cops being called. There’s a reason it’s called a kickback; as in kickback, and relax.” Kick-backs likely range in size between 8-24 people to conform with “no friends of friends of friends” rule. Drinking is likely with common music, dancing and other forms of empathy (pickup football game, etc) are possible as well.
Party: 24-60 people in size. Music is essential. Something usually gets broken, often on purpose. Parties are stressful for the host, unless they have a designated location for party hosting. Cops could be called.
Rager: “A party where everyone there calls everyone they know to come rage the house. Eventually theres (sic) like 500 people, the house gets trashed, and the cops come.” Generally more than 60 people. Everything goes. By definition, the “entropy” is high as the cops are expected. On the verge of a riot.
The reason this taxonomy stuck with me is that the sizes roughly correspond to group/classroom sizes for education. But these sizes also correspond to the groupings you see in companies and other realms. I was talking with a team-leader at Google once about size groupings and ran with a hunch. I told her she likely sees the following groupings at Google: 2 for permission, 3-6 for a design group, around 24 for a task area, 60 for a division, and everyone else. She said, “how did you know that?” Just experience. Here’s the same groupings above but applied through the specific purpose of a meeting:
Decision meeting: usually just two people, one with authority (boss?), where permission is granted or a decision is made. It’s often essential to control the spread of information beyond the two people involved.
Design group meeting: usually 3-8 people. Similar to a capstone design group size. This allows everyone person to have authority over a distinct aspect of the discussion/design. This number of people allows everyone to have input in the conversation and for the conversation to go in new and fun directions, while still keeping everyone engaged. Once you exceed 6, certainly no more than 8 people it becomes difficult to keep the group from partitioning. Very common to have a common goal as the group works closely together and to regularly schedule over coffee, beer, book readings, etc.
Elementary classroom/project team: 8-24 people. A facilitator is almost essential and information is no-longer multi-directional on an even plane. Rules and guidelines are more significant, but the group is small enough for everyone to know everyone else’s name and for the group to change topics and focuses throughout a day. Improvised discussions can still be easily facilitated.
University classroom/division meeting: 24-60 people. Very much a one way, data-dump conversation with minimal questions or discussion, which is typically reserved for the end. The purpose of these meetings is to inform. I’ve found that over the course of a semester, I’ll get close to learning everyone’s names in a class of this size. But not everyone knows everyone else. Increasing use of passive visuals such as powerpoints, etc.
Mega-class/company-wide meeting: More than 60 people. Often a CEO or other lead addressing a company wide problem or issue. Discussion or questions are unlikely and exceedingly risky. It’s a low empathy environment if you’re just using verbal communication. Visuals are expected. People are too far removed to see facial or other empathy cues. In the 1990’s British Anthropologist Robert Dunbar noticed a trend between primate grouping size and neocortex size. He then used these observations to estimate the maximum number of active social relationships a human can maintain between 100 and 250, with a common estimate of 150. Malcolm Gladwell associated Dunbar’s number in “The Tipping Point” with the limit on people that the Gore-Tex company allows in a single building.
From this breakdown it’s easy to see why the swelling classroom size/sophistication is forcing a phase-change to more experiential and active learning techniques augmented by digital media and communications systems. Although not explicitly viewed as such, these techniques and technologies are all trying to scaffold and build our empathy for the group. It’s also amazing that regardless of purpose, there is an underlying physical law for communicating that likely predicates these size groupings, although I’m not aware of one that has been formalized.
So one of the first questions you should ask after being tasked with a meeting is how many people are and should be involved — as that will dictate how you should structure the meeting.
Getting to the Point — How to Have a Meeting
You need to do your research and start planning early if you think you need to have a meeting. How much time you need to prepare should scale size and significance of the meeting. Ask yourself:
- Relevancy: Why does this group of people need to meet? What will the meeting need to accomplish? You’ll need to open the meeting with this point.
- Credibility: Why does the meeting need to happen on the chosen date/time? Who should call and lead the meeting? What are the rules the meeting must follow? Emphasize how decisions from the meeting will be implemented so that participants know the meeting won’t be a waste of time.
- Efficiency: What is the most appropriate structure and location to efficiently facilitate the meeting based on the above size taxonomy? It’s important to only include the necessary people in the meeting, and sometimes necessity is relative. A formal meeting setting and structure is likely not the most efficient if the purpose of a meeting is not work or action but interconnection and empathy. Carefully planning team-building meetings can be one of the most efficient ways to prepare for a big work meeting.
Once you’ve developed a structure for the meeting from above, you need to document this structure as a plan that will go out to the meeting attendees in advance of the meeting, typically at least 1 day. Here is a draft template my lab uses to structure weekly lab meetings: HYPER Lab Meeting Template. To understand the context for this meeting template — the purpose of the HYPER lab meetings is to prepare lab members to professionally facilitate meetings, keep the lab updated on weekly activities, and typically have 8-15 participants. Each week a different lab member facilitates the meeting and the alternate records meeting notes in the template. Here’s a general procedure:
- Warmup — the lab size is small enough and interconnection a key purpose of the meetings, so we begin each meeting with a team-based activity/warmup.
- Updates — each lab member provides updates on their individual progress since last week. This often identifies sticking points, and we quickly debate work arounds.
- Business — topics the lab is collectively working to advance and are assigned to particular lab members.
- Action items — items we expect to work on in the coming week and will move up to business in the next lab meeting.
- Close — remind everyone what they are working towards, and make sure everyone knows what they should be working on.
Follow through is essential. Nothing is worse than people not delivering on activities from week to week. It’s a key indicator of who is actually getting stuff done. Time to make decisions on the group members.
Although meetings are often run poorly, when the new kid runs a meeting well, people will notice. Better start practicing.