The large room problem

People think being alone makes you lonely, but I don’t think that’s true. Being surrounded by the wrong people is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Kim Culbertson

I don’t think anyone ever had a breakthrough idea in a meeting room. I’ve always found meeting rooms a Petrie dish for safe mediocrity. There are twenty-eight different communication channels in a room of eight people; in a room of twenty, one hundred and ninety. In a conference of three hundred, just under ninety thousand. The exponential is clear – the more people, the more latent potential but, the greater the tendency toward groupthink and mediocrity in practice. 

During this last year and a bit, I’ve experienced meetings in possibly the largest meeting room in the world, a.k.a Zoom. I’ve been in calls from four to over a thousand people, over several hundred meetings. Whilst my observations would not meet scientific research criteria, I’m grateful for what I’ve learned. Dialogue needs four people to appear and quickly dies once there are more than eight.

My hypothesis appears to have some basis other than my observation – Robin Dunbar’s work on Friends supports it, as does this article from IncLynne McTaggarts work also lends a hand. Then, of course, there’s common sense.

Yet, because technology gives us large rooms to shout in, we shout away. A quick look at any of the social media, or LinkedIn, shows the same. People are attracted to large numbers. Perhaps it’s the celebrity syndrome, or maybe that it’s easier not to be seen when we shout in a large room, but whatever it is, enormous amounts of energy are spent not making a difference.

Being heard means being accountable for what we say, and that requires us to trust those doing the hearing if we are to use our voice to say something out of the ordinary. That, in turn, takes us back to the exponential. Voices don’t get heard in a crowd.

I’ll move to a gardening metaphor. Voices need to be tended, like new growth in a greenhouse. As that voice becomes more confident, it gets hardened off outside the greenhouse by being exposed gradually to local conditions, until eventually, we transplant it into the local soil, and it has to make its own way. Do it too quickly, and it withers and dies.

One of the unexpected joys of this last year has been the opportunity to see this process in action as people from very different backgrounds have met regularly to talk about what they have been noticing in these unusual times. Ideas have sprouted from these agenda-free dialogues that have taken root in the world outside our conversational greenhouse. It has been a real lesson in the power of conversation versus the sterility of meetings, particularly meetings in large rooms.

As we find our way through the confusion most of us face, I think the lesson is clear. Start with conversations, with interesting people you trust, about what you’re each noticing. The crucial ideas and initiatives to see you through to the other side of confusion will follow. 

Meetings are fine if you want to pass the time maintaining the status quo.

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