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The rule of eight for strong decision-making meetings

2021-04-30communicationorg-designmeetingsscaling

A rule of thumb is that a meeting with more than eight people isn’t a decision-making meeting.

When you have more than eight participants, you either need to change the format of the meeting, or you need to restructure the participants (and you usually want to do some deeper work on communication and organizational structure).

A common example that illustrates this point is what happens with a company’s main leadership group. I’ve seen this happen a few times now:

  • You start with a small leadership team of four or five people.
  • As the company grows, you add more leaders.
  • Soon the group grows to twelve people.
  • The amount of substantial, real decision-making goes down over time, and the meetings feel like a waste of time.

The way most people handle this is to view it as a meeting problem, instead of actually doing the deep restructuring of the communication paths and underlying teams: There are too many people in the leadership meeting? Split the meeting into two groups:

  • An executive meeting (for a smaller group of leaders)
  • A leadership meeting (for the leadership team)

The result of this isn’t usually what you would expect:

  • The executive team remains effective, because it is under eight people.
  • The leadership team is still a large group, so it’s not a decision-making body. But often that isn’t explicitly decided upon, and the group continues to try and use the meeting as a decision-making body.
  • The executive team meeting and the leadership team meeting now represent a more complex environment, and you have less shared state between the two meetings.
  • The result is usually a more effective core executive team, and a more confused larger leadership team.

It’s not that this structure is bad (it’s very common, and something that can work). It’s that the expectations for this structure may be unrealistic. The leadership meeting just isn’t going to be a decision-making group.

You have two better choices in this situation:

  • Make the leadership team meeting a status or announcement type meeting.
  • Structure the leadership teams into smaller decision-making bodies.

I tend to favor the latter approach. You want substantitive, impactful decision-making to be happening throughout the company, and even if you don’t design it that way, it will need to happen, so it will occur as an ad hoc, informally-specified, parallel version of what you’re designing otherwise, so you just end up with twice as many meetings.

One way you could approach it, for example, is to divide the leadership team into several smaller leadership teams, each focused on a part of the business. For example, a GTM and Product leadership team. Some leaders won’t completely fit into one or the other group, but do your best to align them with the parts of the business they should be a part of. For example, you might have a head of security. Security is tightly connected to the product, but also highly involved in the sales process. You might decide to put them in the GTM meeting, because that optimizes for the sales team being effective.

The important thing is to then think about the communication needs of these groups. You might decide to share the notes from these meetings to other leadership teams, or publish them on the wiki. You might have some sort of weekly communication coming out of each meeting. Or have a short sync meeting between the two once a week.

Here are a couple of other examples of this rule in practice:

  • You have a managers meeting, and you go from having four managers within your department to five, six, seven, and eight managers. As you approach eight managers, you should anticipate needing to split the group.

    I would usually divide this into two managers meetings. There are a couple of ways you could do this. You could optimize for organizational structure (they’ll probably end up needing to do this anyway). Or you could assign them randomly, if you want to strengthen connections across the organization.
  • You’re working on a project with a lot of stakeholders. They’d all like to attend your weekly meeting, where you’ve typically done a lot of your problem-solving. At first it’s easiest to just add a few people to your existing meeting. But when the group gets too large, it becomes unwieldy.

    I would typically make a list of who the problem-solvers are, and who the stakeholders are, and either move the stakeholders to receive status communication, or give them good notes from the meeting. Or have a separate stakeholders meeting, where we share status and solicit feedback (That can be larger than eight people). One thing to look at in this situation is why there are so many stakeholders, and if that truly makes sense. I’ve seen times when there were eight stakeholders and two engineers working on a project, and that always seemed a little suspect to me.

Note that it’s not impossible to make decisions in larger groups, it’s just harder, and requires more structure. Some techniques you can use are breakout rooms, polling, simultaneously editing a shared document, or approaches that use a lot of parallelism like sticky notes and grouping.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay