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Critical Group Size

I have been doing alot of team work over the last few weeks (okay so it was a university assignment, but it still counts).

I was in charge of the group, and at various times I would meet with them to work through problems.

I found when I was working with two other people that the group got alot of work done. We collaborated so well. However when a fourth and sometimes fifth person was introduced to the group the collaboration became alot more difficult. As the group grew bigger it either required a division of tasks (ie your three go over there and figure this out) or the need for a proper meeting (ie Okay I have the list of things we need to talk about, lets work through them one by one, only talking at the appropriate times).

Does anyone else find this? Is there a critical size for collaborative groups to be able to actively collaborate at the same time?

Aussie Chick
Friday, May 28, 2004

I think it is fairly well accepted that meeting of more than about five participants rarely get anything done.

If you have more than a few people, you tend to have a few hangers-on as well as the actual stake-holders.

I have found that for large meetings it really helps to have a professional facilitator present. I remember one particular client visit I did (a few years ago) to discuss the progress on a big project and the next phases.

I was dreading it, as the supplier representative, as I knew that the meeting would contain every senior manager from the client company, all with different opinions and different agendas.

Conveniently, they had hired a professional facilitator for the day and the meeting went incredibly smoothly, even though there were about twenty people present.

I also remember working with a couple of project managers who could do this job as well and they were impressive, even in meetings to discuss their own apparent failures.

Most people don't have the necessary people skills to be able to do this job well. Sure, many of us think we can, but few people can actually pull it off.

Steve Jones (UK)
Friday, May 28, 2004

In schools you can't have more than 25 students per class, so I guess there must be a similar number for real world meetings.

Friday, May 28, 2004

It really depends on the type of meeting. When you have a hands-on brainstorm team meeting, these indeed seem to work best with around 3-4 people that have a direct stake in the subject. Leadership in such a meeting can be less pronounced. When the group size grows larger, not only will there inevitably be hangers on, grinding away energy, but also an implicit hierarchy joust seems to emerge, which can be painfully unproductive in an "alpha" type of environment.

Some type of meetings do require a larger audience (e.g. large project team status meetings). In larger groups the meeting structure can not be emergent. A clear agenda, pace and moderation needs to be set in order to avoid the whole thing collapsing into an unproductive fragmentation, drop out or posing contest.

What I don't get is the trend in a lott of places to technology supported half-assed meetings. You know the type: a big group has to be there, they mingle specific narrow interst issues with broader topics. They last forever, and the most annoying dynamic reinforcing this is the wireless network/laptop tolerance. People just sit there doing their email, drop out of the sky when addressed, interrupt for clarifications on stuff that has no relevance to them besides "I'm bored and it felt like an interesting "academic" topic to me".

In Europe you also have to deal with the differences in cellphone culture. If you are leading a larger international meeting in Europe, be very specific about the cellphone policy at the start. Some nationalities will take offence at a person forgetting to turn of the ringer on his mobile, while for other cultures leaving the phone on "outdoors" volume, and also taking or making a call in the meeting is considered normal.

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, May 28, 2004

Dear Justme,
                    I like the cellphone reference. In Saudi the rule is the cellphone should be turned off unless you're the boss, in which case everybody else has to be quiet while the conversation goes on.

                    At one meeting in Saudi but with all British personnel we realized that the line manager, a vacuous yuppie if ever there was one, had lost the confidence of senior management,  when his cellphone rang and he was told to "take the damm thing outside".

                  As for a maximum class size of 25, well we had 45 each class this year and in China English conversation classes of 80 are not uncommon! For people talkng all at once, which in EFL actually sometimes happens by design, then 20 is an absolute maximum.

                  I suspect Aussie Chick's number of three is about right for people working on exactly the same thing. If the purpose is not to get work done but to make decisions (i.e a committee) then 5-8 seems about right, but most committee memberships are decided on a need to approve basis or a need to have so many to do the work allocated.

                For informing people from the top down, then 15-20 seems the maximum for getting specific feedback. For getting general feedback (like what problems do you see) as the Real PC rightly points out in another thread a meeting is not the best place unless that is the specific point of the meeting and it has been prepared before hand with quesionnaires and giving people time to talk.

                    Basically you must decide why people are with you. If it's to get work done, divide the work up as quickly as possible between small groups or individuals and have done with it.


Stephen Jones
Friday, May 28, 2004

I've found that unless you have very clear, non-intersecting roles, group sizes of larger than 4 almost never get anything done when meeting together.

Larger than that and you're talking about status meetings, which are only "productive" for communication purposes, not for work-getting-done purposes.

Friday, May 28, 2004

I'll agree with the 4-5 maximum.  With that size group, everyone can interact in a "high-bandwidth" fashion.  Beyond that size, communication needs to be either take-a-turn or one-way.

Good observation, Aussie.

Should be working
Friday, May 28, 2004

Reminds me of something I read in, of all places, The Illuminatus! Trilogy.  It was discussing the proper size for a group of conspirators.  Basically, every person you add to a group increases the number of individual relationships within that group... if I remember correctly, the number of relationships is (n!).

Now that I think about it, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress had a few things to say on this topic (and mightn't The Mythical Man Month as well?).

Anyway, yes, large groups are completely useless.  Working with more than 3-4 other people, you have to fragment the group in various ways to get things done, and that adds organizational overhead that can actually slow down your pace.

Sam Livingston-Gray
Friday, May 28, 2004


Saturday, May 29, 2004

I seem to remember reading that the US Marines are organized in threes.  Each layer has one person in charge of 3 subordinates. At the bottom is an "atomic" group of 3 marines working as an independent team.

Mr. Analogy
Sunday, May 30, 2004

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