Do We Really Need 32 People at This Meeting?

“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” — Thomas Sowell, American economist and social theorist.

“Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” ― George Will, American journalist.

Do We Really Need 32 People at This Meeting? by Laura Stack #productivityMeetings may just be the bane of our workplace existence.

I don’t mean events like professional conferences; those generally represent valuable educational experiences. No, I refer to those self-proliferating time-wasters that bring co-workers together to discuss ways to maximize team productivity, but instead accomplish the exact opposite. They seem to expand as time goes by; and when everyone has to have their say, they can drag on for hours, killing productive momentum.

Yet meetings remain absolutely necessary if organizations expect to meet their strategic goals. The higher you rise in an organization, the more of your time is spent “working” in meetings: making decisions, determining strategic direction, and collaborating with other leaders. At their best, meetings help us share information, coordinate plans, ensure alignment, maximize limited resources, and spark innovation.

To have a productive meeting, you must know why you’re meeting, stick to the agenda, and limit attendance only to those who can contribute. For example, if you oversee the sales team, and a meeting involves purchasing new software for the corporate accountants, do you need to attend? No. Do you even need to show the flag? No. On the other hand, Fritz the bean-counter may need to attend your quarterly sales meetings if he tracks your department’s costs or net profits.

Use these guidelines to decide how many people should attend, based on meeting type:

1. Communicating company strategy. These all-hands meetings can include everyone in the organization, as long as the moderators limit questions and stick to a strict schedule. These meetings often include speeches by thought leaders or subject matter experts.

2. Brainstorming. Limit these sessions to 25 people at the most, and consider breakout sessions where smaller subgroups handle specific topics and report in to the moderator.

3. Problem solving/Discussion. Fewer than 15 attendees works best here. If you have more people who should participate, especially when company direction is involved, consider breaking into two or more meetings.

4. Action Planning/Alignment. Everyone should have a thorough understanding of the organization’s strategic alignment and their place in it. Smaller is better, especially when seeking buy-in: fewer than 10 attendees on an intact work team works well here. That said, at least inform your entire group about your strategic goals; this feeds back to Item #1 if you lead an especially large team.

5. Decision Making. This province belongs to execs, and then only to those it directly impacts: CEOs, CFOs, Presidents, Chairmen, Directors, etc. Limit the meeting to six people.

The Straight and Narrow

Some people believe that anyone a meeting might possibly affect, even tangentially, should attend. Inoculate yourself against this idea. Otherwise, where will it end? You’ll lose days of wasted time, and half the people who attend the meetings will either doze off or go catatonic before you finish anyway.

When in doubt, decline. Don’t invite people who need not attend. Don’t attend meetings where you have no useful input. Some observers suggest (half seriously) that you kick out the least valuable attendee anyhow. Apple’s Steve Jobs always kept his meetings small when possible, and wasn’t averse to excusing people if he thought they didn’t belong. You may want to do the same—they will thank you.



  1. When it comes to suggesting improvements to meeting structure, intention and result, I think we should schedule a meeting to discuss it first. We’ll make it an agenda-less, stream-of consciousness-meeting so that the other attendees won’t feel uncomfortable.

    It must have the following characteristics:
    – Have no agenda
    – Have as attendees, a bunch of people selected randomly from our respective address books
    – Make sure that the one person who would have positive impact can’t attend because of a conflict but proceed anyway
    – Have at least 3 unrelated discussions going on in the room at the same time
    – Shy away from accountability
    – Have at least one person to blame for something (they must not be in the room at the time)
    – Have at least one explosion of debate
    – Have at least one person break down in tears
    – Have at least one winner of meeting bingo (examples in Google’s image collection)
    – Bonus points are awarded if a new variant of meeting bingo is invented during the meeting
    – Be filled with pointless digressions as in “Before I get to the sales numbers for this quarter, did I tell everyone about my theory as to why oranges are actually orange?” or dangerous digressions such as “Have I shared my new religious epiphany with you yet – membership application forms will be distributed at the end of the meeting”
    – Conclude with a rah-rah and an intention to get together to continue the dialog
    – Follow up with a memo espousing the great progress that was made

    After many years on Wall St. / Fortune 25 / US Gov / US military, I believe I have seen the best and worst in humanity when it comes to meetings.

    Unfortunately, with those clients, the stakes are high as is the sense of urgency.

    But with that comes my rule of meetings:

    The more important the meeting is, the more people we will invite and therefore the less productive it will become.

    But still, we hold onto hope. However, to explore this hope, we need to schedule a meeting!

    Create a great day!