Why So Many Business Meetings Fail

A successful meeting — one in which good decisions get made and are then implemented — has four characteristics:

1. Openness: The outcome is not predetermined. The person running the meeting does not hog the podium. Everyone feels free to speak.

2. Candor: There is a willingness to discuss the unpleasant things, to air the conflicts.

3. Informality: The leader makes it clear that every objection that is raised will be addressed — and encourages everyone to get involved in the discussion.

4. Closure: At the end of the meeting, everyone knows exactly what he is expected to do.

It is easy to embrace the idea of open dialogue in a business meeting, but it is much more difficult to make it happen. If you have tried it yourself, you know what I’m talking about. There is too much time wasted listening to comments that are simply uninformed, naive, narrow-minded, or just plain silly. Still, you should try.

In my experience, it’s often a matter of numbers — having the right number of people for the intended purpose of the meeting.

Malcolm Gladwell, in “The Tipping Point”, observes that there are numerical limits to what the ordinary mind can do. So if our ability to process information and make decisions is limited numerically, it makes sense that there should be some corresponding limit to the number of people that can effectively deal with a particular problem or issue.

These are my recommendations:

* For brainstorming: I believe three is the perfect number for generating breakthrough ideas. You need two smart people who know the market and think of themselves as idea makers. Plus another smart person whose opinion the idea makers respect. It is also possible to brainstorm with three idea makers. The important thing is to understand the dynamic. At any given point in time, two of the idea makers will usually be engaging in a dialectic while the third person listens attentively as the audience. This tension between performers and the audience brings out the best in everyone. Of course, the roles can shift fluidly. You can put more than three people around a table at your next brainstorming session, but it will not improve the outcome. If anything, it will dampen the mood.

* For roundtable meetings: The rule here is “no more than eight” — and it’s a very good rule. Put two-dozen people in one room, and you’ll get nothing but “less” out of a roundtable meeting. Less legroom, less energy, less creativity, and less satisfaction. So resist the temptation to be “inclusive.” Touchy-feely temptations are almost always best avoided. You know that.

* For classroom-style seminars: The limit for a classroom-style seminar seems to be 25 to 35, depending on how dynamic the speaker is. If you put more than 35 in a room, the leader/teacher will lose control, because he won’t be able to zero in on individuals.

* For lecture-style seminars: There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the audience for a lecture-style seminar. It appears to depend on the power of the speaker. I know some good speakers who are compelling with 50 people but lose their touch when the crowd gets larger. I have done a reasonable job with groups as large as several hundred. But the real pros, such as Tony Robbins, can keep thousands enthralled.

And while I’m on the subject of numbers, there’s also a limit to the number of people that one person can manage. Five is the best number for a department. Six or seven can be manageable. Even eight is possible. If you have more than eight people reporting directly to you, you are in trouble. If you think you have everything under control, you have more problems than you realize. The whole trick of good management is to keep this level of management small.

There seems to be a natural, human limit for any working group. Malcolm Gladwell observes that there is a great deal of historical and anthropological evidence to suggest that human beings cannot effectively congregate in groups much larger than 150 people. He cites numerous records of tribal groups, exploration teams, military outfits, and so on. All of these groups have naturally limited their own growth to that number. I don’t know why that should be — but it certainly is an interesting thought.