If you frequently collaborate with colleagues, attend a book club or even get together with friends to drink copious amounts of beer and discuss fantasy football, chances are, these meetings repeatedly go completely and utterly off the rails, especially when your group is on the larger side. This is where the fabled Rule of Seven, which suggests never inviting more than seven people to a meeting, supposedly provides a solution. The decree claims that limiting gatherings to seven people makes coming to a decision much, much simpler, because there are fewer cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, which puts less strain on our individual and communal brains. But is this just another obscure rule conceived by some self-proclaimed entrepreneurial guru, or is no more than seven actually the magic number for successful meetings?
“Generally, I tell leaders that it’s more a Rule of Eight, but seven is close enough,” says Richard Lent, cofounder of Meeting for Results and author of Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success. “In any event beyond that size, you need to plan to keep all engaged on the work of the meeting.” As he explains in his book, “In groups of seven, eight or more, individuals sense there is little ‘air time’ for them to contribute, and they begin to occupy their time in other ways.”
Indeed, the Rule of Seven is based on this basic phenomenon. In 1956, while conducting research on human memory, Harvard professor George Miller observed that humans could only hold seven objects in their short-term memory at any given time, so it makes sense that individuals might begin to tune out when too many people are chiming in with unique thoughts during a meeting.
So, if you must have a large meeting, Lent recommends splitting into smaller groups within that meeting, a tactic that he explains to me with an excerpt from his book: “Each person gets to speak in a small group, and that discussion is then summarized in a report back to the whole group,” he writes. “Such a structure can be set up quickly without changing rooms or chairs and done in ways that manage time efficiently. It can seem like a very natural process, which in fact it is.”
Lent says that the meeting leaders should encourage each of these groups, while discussing, to answer three main reaction questions as “a way to get more balanced reactions to some proposal and slow the tendency to focus on the negatives.” The specific questions are:
- What do you like about this plan?
- Where do you need more information?
- Where do you have concerns?
Once each small group has had a chance to discuss the matter at hand and address those questions, Lent recommends enacting a go-around, which “involves giving each person a brief turn to speak to the topic without interruption.” Not only does this help everyone get a chance to share their thoughts, it allows each person to feel like they have a say in the consensus, rather than just being forced to agree with whatever the meeting leaders eventually decide upon.
HR expert Staci McIntosh has similar feelings about the Rule of Seven and how to navigate larger meetings. “The Rule of Seven is a nice theory that makes some logical sense,” she says. “But it’s not realistic in every situation. I’ve spent 30 years in four different organizations and rarely seen it actually followed.” In addition to the advice provided by Lent above, she suggests, “Use meeting tracking tools, like a scribe, an agenda or a whiteboard, so everyone knows what’s happening at the moment,” and “always have an agenda that clearly states, at the top, what’s to be accomplished at the meeting.”
All of this, of course, is a very calculated means of keeping a meeting on track and to the point. For another perspective, though, I also spoke with Timm Woods, a professional game master who once wrote a dissertation on the overlap between education and role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons. Woods touches on the beauty of perhaps taking a more relaxed approach to meetings (and games), which he says is especially important when you have tons and tons of people involved. “What I observe is, when it’s a group of four or even three players, they come to solutions very, very quickly,” he says. “What’s interesting is, when you have seven or more people, all of a sudden, the planning gets a lot more bogged down. I think, in a game, that makes things more interesting in some ways.”
“Part of what Dungeons & Dragons almost models for people is how, when you have four adventurers, it’s a good meeting,” Woods continues. “When you have eight adventurers, it’s a tough meeting at that point — and you still play, but you play within that context.”
The suggestion here is that, even when too many people are involved in a meeting, all of whom are throwing out thoughts, if you go with the flow, some great ideas will still come to the surface. “What I’ve come to observe over the years is, whenever I push things forward, it looks like I’m seizing control and doing a lot of talking,” Woods explains. “But listening is so instrumental, and I spend so much of my time not just listening to what players say, but how they say it. The underestimated skill — if it were Dungeons & Dragons, I’d call it insight — is the ability to read the room. It’s so instrumental.”
To that end, when the room has had enough of the matter at hand or even the whole point of the meeting, maybe consider moving on to something else. “It’s not just about getting through the material,” Woods emphasizes. “If people are coming into this meeting frustrated about something earlier that happened, then they’re going to be confrontational. So, wrong time for the meeting, honestly. That’s more evidence of why six or less is better, though, because you have better odds of lining up everybody’s energy levels and interests.”
Woods does say, however, that there are a couple of things that you can do prior to a meeting to ensure that everyone is on their best behavior. “If everyone’s eaten, nobody’s cranky, everybody had a good day at work, then good communication is going to happen,” he explains. “But if we don’t have those situations lined up in advance, good communication isn’t going to happen, and this meeting or gaming situation is going to do maybe less than what we want it to.” (Hey, there’s a reason why big meetings often involve snacks.)
All of which is to say, while keeping your groups to less than seven people and taking deliberate actions to keep your meetings on track could be helpful, in situations where none of that’s possible, make like a game master — be dynamic, stay on your feet and never fear moving in different directions, allowing the feelings of the groups to be your guide. “The more people you have, the more, as a meeting leader, you have to be able to step back and do almost the meta-meeting,” Woods says. “In Dungeons & Dragons, we say there’s the game — you have to go kill the dragon — but then there’s the meta-game, which is, ‘Well, we can go do anything we want.’ Is everyone having fun with this quest to go kill a dragon, or do we want to do a different story maybe?”
“The meeting is about the context,” Woods concludes. “But it’s about the meta as well.”