What to Do When Your Meetings Have Gotten Too Big

Executive Summary

Meetings with too many people aren’t productive. So what do you do when you find that you’ve miscalculated on the number of attendees at yours? One strategy is to shift the purpose of the meeting to match the size of the group. If you have 18 or fewer people, you could brainstorm; if you have more, turn it into an information-sharing session. You can also create sub-groups, assigning different teams to different tasks. A final option is to shorten or cancel the meeting and reschedule, with a smaller guest list, for a later date.

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From the agenda to the speaking order, leaders often plan meetings carefully. But one thing that frequently gets overlooked is the attendance list. Sometimes, it feels easier for the organizer to just invite an entire team or several — both to ensure that the right people will be there and to avoid offending anyone. But that can cause big problems: people who aren’t able to contribute might feel disgruntled, others might participate in ways that aren’t relevant, and some may feel you’re wasting their time. What happens when you realize you’ve miscalculated and there are just too many employees in the room? Here are a few ways to recover:

Shift the meeting to match the number of attendees
One approach is to follow the “8-18-1800” guidelines, which suggest matching the size of the meeting to its purpose (or vice versa, if you’ve invited too many people). According to the framework, if you’re trying to solve an issue or make a decision, you shouldn’t invite more than eight attendees. Meanwhile, up to 18 people can effectively participate in a brainstorming session, while many times that amount — up to 1800 or so — can listen to updates or information sharing. Thus, if your group is too large for what you’d intended to be a decision-making meeting, you can repurpose the gathering and instead open it up for brainstorming on an aspect of the issue that hasn’t yet been resolved. Reframing your purpose can help you salvage the gathering.

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Create sub-groups
Another way to manage an oversubscribed meeting — especially helpful during an offsite or brainstorm session — is to divide the room into subgroups. For example, at a technology company offsite that I recently led, the CHRO and I realized that that there were too many people to engage in deep discussion and debate so we quickly divided the room by tables to create  smaller brainstorming groups. At the end of the session, each one nominated a member to report their progress back to the larger audience in a more organized and efficient fashion.

Depending on the circumstances, this strategy can also serve as a quick exercise in leadership development. After one executive I worked with divided a too-large group into teams, he explained that he wanted at least one viable solution for a particular problem facing his company from each group within 20 minutes, but he didn’t give specific instructions as to how people should organize and manage themselves. The newly formed teams had to figure out how to work together effectively. The exercise generated new ideas, but also served as a visceral learning experience. If you take the time to dissect the groups’ various approaches afterward, it can yield even more useful insights.

Shorten (or cancel) the meeting
Given the abundance of meetings in the corporate world, few people mind when one is shorter than anticipated — so cutting down the time is another way to manage an overcrowded gathering. That was certainly the case for the CHRO at a company where I coach. When she realized the size of her program kickoff meeting was unwieldy, she cut the meeting from an hour to 30 minutes and discovered she was still able to convey all her key points.

If, after considering the above alternatives, you fear your meeting will nonetheless be a waste of time and politics make it awkward to uninvite some colleagues, you may consider canceling it altogether. You can always reconvene with a smaller and more manageable group later. Of course, this only works if you’re able to take it off the calendar in a timely fashion, so you haven’t inconvenienced colleagues who may be traveling to join you — and you can’t make cancellation a habit without incurring a reputational penalty. So use this strategy sparingly.

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