Master Facilitator Journal

Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0405, August 18, 2009

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This week we look at a logistical question around group facilitation that we've not often explored in this journal. How do we optimize the size of groups based on the task we need to accomplish? To support this week's article I've drawn from research data contained in a paper written by Nicholas C. Romano, Jr. and Jay F. Nunamaker, Jr. entitled, Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice. This paper offers an excellent summary of meeting research data on many meeting issues, including group size, the results of which are summarized in the Application Section of this article.

Virtual Small Groups. With the advent of the new Maestro Conference technology that easily allows breakout groups in teleconferences, group size is now becoming a question in the virtual arena as well. The ability to have a very clean, clear audio connection though the use of the telephone, and then be able to easily separate people into subgroups of virtually any size, fills what was one of the key deficits of meeting virtually. The potential of this technology to increase productivity, collaboration, teamwork, and problem solving in an increasingly virtual world is incredible. Maestro Conference is offering a contest this week for three free memberships valued at hundreds of dollars. Go here to participate and check out the features of this provocative new system.

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The Point

Optimizing Group Size
Optimize group size according to the task.

Group Dynamics Skill

Something we've not explored in this journal is optimizing the size of groups based on the task you need to accomplish. In this issue, I've adapted research data from a paper written by Nicholas C. Romano, Jr. and Jay F. Nunamaker, Jr. entitled, Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice. This paper offers an excellent summary of meeting research data on many meeting issues, including group size, the results of which are summarized in the Application Section below.

The first thing to consider regarding meeting size is that this is a variable over which you have some control! It is wise to consider that each person invited to a meeting is invited for a reason other than to be simply included. They are invited because they bring something tangible to bear on the meeting objectives.

Another important point around meeting size is that the complexity of group dynamics grows exponentially with the number of attendees. The findings of Romano and Nunamaker suggest that groups should be as small as possible while at the same time offering as many points of view as possible to avoid group think. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity in the selection of meeting participants. Participants who can hold divergent or conflicting points of view will be useful to have in most any meeting environment.

From the standpoint of group size with regard to training workshops, note that as the size of a group grows opportunities for full participation and intimacy lessen. This is why dyads and triads are so popular in training situations. In dyads, everyone has the greatest opportunity to verbally participant in the shortest amount of time. And in a one-on-one environment, intimacy and trust have the great opportunity to grow.


The following points summarize specifics around group size according to the research of Romano and Nunamaker.

  • Larger groups require more structure. Groups larger than seven quickly become too complex to effectively manage without the use of a facilitator.

  • Ideal group size is five to seven members and an odd number is participants is recommended to avoid deadlocks. Groups smaller than five may lack the breadth of expertise necessary to tackle the task.

  • Disadvantages of small groups. While the research results point to an optimally small group size of five to seven members, this small group size also offers two potential disadvantages:

    "First, only a few viewpoints are represented, which may lead to decisions of lower quality and impact than might be achieved with larger groups; and second, the small group may not have the critical mass needed to achieve the best creative problem-solving."

  • Ideal group size for decision-making and problem-solving. Research suggests that groups of seven to fifteen participants are ideal for decision-making and problem-solving meetings citing the following advantages:

    "All participants may easily be involved; everyone’s thoughts may be communicated; it is small enough to be informal and spontaneous and also large enough to allow for a facilitator and a scribe; and it seems to be the size which best creates synergy.

    They point out two disadvantages:

    First, complexity is such that clear structure is required; and second that a recorder and facilitator are both required, but there are high costs in terms of time to record everything."

If you have anything to offer on your observations of group size in the arenas of training and facilitation please share them with me and I'll include them in an updated version of this article.


What are your experiences and discoveries around optimizing the numbers of participants in groups?
Please share your thoughts and experiences with me by replying to this email.

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