The 6-Person Discussion

What’s the right size for ideas to germinate and lead to action?

Across my team (and as we collaborate with other teams), there’s often the need for people to feel out new ideas, to do a little bit of debating and a bit of brainstorming, and then to make progress.

Here’s what doesn’t work:

  • Whole-team meetings. If your team (or org) is more than eight people or so, that’s too big for everyone to feel comfortable speaking up. Or, if you have an unusually talkative team, it’s too big to keep the meeting to a reasonable length. Whole-team meetings are good for pushing out information from a top-down source, but not for discussing what to do with that information or how folks feel about it.
  • 1:1s. If there’s a new idea or challenge that a particular person wants to dig into during our 1:1, that’s great. But as a strategy, thinking “I’ll discuss this idea with each of my reports in our respective 1:1s” has never panned out for me. Either one person has other concerns that derail the thing I meant to discuss, or my thinking evolves substantially so that the first person’s discussion is lame and the last person’s is nuanced and it’s too hard to go back and equalize.
  • Delegating the team to discuss on their own. Left to discuss in small groups, folks tend to either assume the worst (“this new change means our jobs are probably in danger”) or to seek consensus too quickly.

For the past year or so, I’ve been experimenting with a format that seems to be working well: 6 people, one moderator (that’s me).

Repeat with as many meetings as needed to fit in everyone. As in, if you want to spread an idea among 18 people, run 3 separate 6-person meetings.

What a waste of time, right?

On the surface it seems like it. I realize that any advice that calls upon you to potentially triple or quadruple your meeting time sounds raises skepticism. But I’ve found that I spend far more time the other way. Sometimes I end up doing damage control in 1:1s or small groups because people have taken an idea and assumed the worst and gossiped about the potential awful outcomes. Sometimes it’s just that an brainstorm peters out and a week goes by without anyone taking action.

So here’s the rough format I’ve been using:

  • Assemble your 6 people. (preferably balance loud and quiet people, senior and junior people so there isn’t a dominant faction.)
  • 1 hour, pick a time when people aren’t going to feel antsy that they’re pulled away from a normal work task. I like Fridays at 3pm, though 11am works well so people can go from this to lunch.
  • Pick your topic.
  • As moderator, introduce the topic: “We’re here to discuss ______ and decide on at least one action to take in the next week”.
  • Pick a starting question (“If we’d already solved _____ problem, what would we be doing better?” works well).
  • Go around having each person answer. If one person’s answer starts to provoke discussion, halt it until everyone has gotten a chance to talk.
  • Go back to whatever point provoked discussion before and discuss.
  • Ten minutes before the end, prompt the group to pick 1-3 actions that they can put into action immediately (no dependencies on other people, projects to finish, budget, etc.)
  • Afterwards, share the notes from the session. If you’re running multiple sessions, share the notes after each, then do an overview after all sessions are complete.