I’ve been doing some coaching work with facilitators lately and I found myself talking about group size. The short version is that I often find groups of over five people tend to have relatively stilted conversations, which at their worst become what I call a plenary vortex: the fight for attention starts to diminish the quality of conversation.
David Gurteen dug out a piece of research related to this, contrasting the conversations in five-person groups with the serial monologues in ten-person groups. It doesn’t prove that five is a threshold, but it helps make the general point about larger groups.
It’s also worth six minutes to hear Chris Corrigan on this topic, as captured by Nancy Dixon. He points to the value of groups of one as well as pairs and threes. Not sure about his ideas about odds and even sizes but worth thinking about. He also makes some points at the end about how smaller group conversations create a more active kind of engagement than just shoving ideas up on post its.
This shades into a wider point about the value of allowing lots of social interaction between people and not over-controlling or rushing it. For more on that, check out Keith de la Rue‘s article on the art of conversation.
Finally, I think that some really amazing things can happen in larger group conversations… but this usually requires breaking out of some fairly well-ingrained habits, and that’s a post for another day…