Is there a magic formula for creating chemistry during a meeting, event, or conference?
The short answer? No. And, yes, Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.
We start by getting crystal clear on the event’s purpose . Next up: Who and how many to invite.
“It’s not scientific. And yet the size of a gathering shapes what you will get out of people when you bring them together,” Priya writes. “In my experience, there are certain magic numbers in groups. Every facilitator has his or her own list, and these are obviously approximations, but here are mine: 6, 12 to 15, 30, and 150.
Groups of 6: “Groups of this rough size are wonderfully conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling, Groups of 6 are, on the other hand, not ideal for a diversity of viewpoints, and they cannot bear much dead weight. She notes that to make the gathering great, there’s more responsibility on each person. “Churches often encourage their members to join “small groups” of 6 or so members, who meet weekly to have dinner and share prayer requests, pains, and joys. It helps to make the church a smaller place.”
Groups of 12 to 15: Priya’s next interesting number is around 12. “Twelve is small enough to build trust and intimacy,” she writes. “At the same time, 12 is large enough to offer a diversity of opinion and large enough that it allows for a certain quotient of mystery and intrigue, of constructive unfamiliarity.”
She notes: “King Arthur’s famous table had 12 seats. Jesus had 12 apostles. The U.S. presidential cabinet, which expands as new departments are born, now consists of 15 secretaries plus the vice president.”
Above this number, Priya notes is when organizations start to have “people problems.” She calls this reality the “table moment,” as the organization’s members can no longer fit around a single table.
“It is a milestone that causes more problems than you would imagine. I once worked with a technology company that hit this size and began observing conflict and mistrust in a culture that had previously been collegial. When the size of the group was still under a dozen, the entire company could grab a chair and sit in one conference room to discuss anything. Once the staff grew to 20, meetings started to exclude people,” she writes. “Exclusion was probably good for focus, but it changed the vibe of the company.”
One other note: if the purpose of our meeting is to make a decision, we may want fewer people. “Decision-making bodies like the Supreme Court purposely have an odd number of deciders in the group to improve the probability of a decision,” Priya observes.
Groups of 30: “Thirty starts to feel like a party,” notes Priya. “If smaller gatherings scale greater heights of intimacy, the group of 30 or so has its own distinctive quality: that buzz, that crackle of energy, that sense of possibility that attaches to parties. Groups of this size are generally too big for a single conversation, although I’ve seen that done well with experienced facilitators and the proper arrangement of a room.”
Groups of 150: “The next interesting number lies somewhere between 100 and 200,” writes Priya. “When I speak to conference organizers who think about group dynamics, the ideal range I hear again and again is somewhere between 100 and 150 people. While they disagree on the precise number, they all agree that it’s the tier at which, as one organizer told me, ‘intimacy and trust is still palpable at the level of the whole group, and before it becomes an audience.’”
A Belgian hotelier Priya knows recommends weddings of around 150 because, it is “the size at which everyone could see one another at the same time and thereby function as a kind of organism.”
This number roughly matches what some anthropologists have come to regard as the natural size of a tribe. At 150, everyone can still meet everyone else, if people make the effort. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, 150 is also the number of stable friendships that people are able to maintain, which has come to called “Dunbar’s number.” Above 150, it’s still possible to gather well, but it’s smart to think about dividing people into smaller subgroups.
Tides of humanity: Priya refers to gathering sizes beyond these numbers as “the sea of humanity. Think Bonnaroo, the World Cup, Tahrir Square, the Million Man March, the hajj in Mecca, the Olympics. These are gatherings where the goal is not so much intimacy or connection as tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd.”
Reflection: Think about an important upcoming meeting or event I am planning. What is my desired outcome for the meeting? How many people should I include?
Action: Discuss with a colleague.