Are Your Meetings Collaborative... or Just Crowded? Four Factors to Consider.

05/12/2015 09:15 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

We were helping our client Sandra spring clean her meeting calendar last week paying particular attention to her recurring meetings -- those time sucking (and often soul sucking) meetings that once calendared, never seem to go away. When we discovered a weekly 90-minute meeting that had 20 participants, we questioned its usefulness. She said "Well, I know it's a lot of time and people, but we need it because we're inclusive and collaborative."

In our view, that's not collaborative. That's just crowded.

Here's how to tell the difference.

  1. Price tag: Her 90-minute meeting is costing the organization over150,000 per year in people costs. If you could eliminate that meeting and hire one more person instead, would you? If the answer is yes, it's crowded, not collaborative.
  2. Magic number: Multiple studies tell us that the ideal meeting size is 3 - 9 people. In general, we strongly recommend deciding on the number of people based on the objective. But when it comes to collaboration, smaller is better. Here's why: True collaboration requires a balance of inquiry (seeking to understand) and advocacy (asserting a view or recommendation). The best teams have more inquiry, but when there are too many participants, people either check-out or use their "air time" to advocate. Either way, you're not collaborating.
  3. Social loafing: This is the well-documented tendency to exert less effort when operating in a group as opposed to working alone. The larger the group, the more social loafing. Do you have people showing up to meetings chronically unprepared, unable, or unwilling to pull their weight? If that sounds familiar, chances are, the meetings are crowded, not collaborative.
  4. Swarming: In a truly collaborative dialogue, the outcome is well-defined and everyone in the meeting brings a unique and necessary contribution to that outcome. That contribution could be expertise, decision authority, skills, or knowledge. It could be accountability for taking action on the outcomes of the meeting. Crowded meetings have people there to observe. They have multiple layers of management. People gamely show up, but don't know why they've been invited. You have a swarm. Avoid the swarm.

By the end of our session, Sandra's verdict was firm: the meeting was crowded and she was part of the crowd. She commented "That meeting is really a 6 person meeting while 14 of us watch. Not only am I going to excuse myself, I'm going to encourage others in my position to do the same. And I'm going to tell my boss I just saved our company over $100,000 per year!"

Do you suspect you're in crowded meetings posing as collaborative? If so, we suggest you:

  1. Audit your calendar and flag recurring meetings.
  2. Check the price tag, size, quality of engagement, and role clarity of your meetings [If you'd like our meeting cost calculator, shoot us an email and we'll send it to you.]
  3. Drop out where you can. By protecting your time, you'll have more whitespace to pull your weight doing independent work.

Join The Conversation!
At Stop Meeting Like This we are conducting research to identify and understand classic meeting archetypes (such as Sandra's inclusion driven culture) to determine if there are specific archetypes correlated to high performance. Our research will cover a range of industries, organization size, stage of growth, and geographic locations.

We'd love to get your organization involved. The aggregate research results will be shared with all participants and might help you start a meeting revolution in your firm! Send us an email and we'll do the rest.