When I am asked to help an organization improve its meeting culture, one of the “symptoms” often cited is a lack of participation – according to the meeting planners, not enough people are showing up.

In another client organization, one of the stated problems is too MANY people showing up to meetings in which their participation is not needed.

This has got me pondering the questions: What is the optimum number of people for a meeting? How do we know we have the right people in the room? Is more always better? Do we always need to have the whole staff, the whole department, the whole committee, the whole board?

It all circles back to my first rule of meeting planning: Get clear about your purpose.

Why are you having this meeting in the first place? What outcome(s) do you desire? What work does this meeting need to do for you?

Once we’ve clarified the WHY and the WHAT, then and only then can we begin to think about the WHO.

If you need to make a decision, should you invite everyone who might be affected by that decision? Or only those who actually have the authority to MAKE the decision?

Who has the skills, the passion, the knowledge to do the work you need the meeting to accomplish? Do you need team players to unify around a course of action? Do you need a diversity of opinions to open up your thinking? Do you need a passionate argument to elucidate the shortcomings and strengths of multiple possible options? Don’t invite someone to a meeting just because they need to KNOW the outcome of the meeting, that can be communicated later. Only invite those whose voice is needed in order to determine that outcome.

Writing on this very topic, Maggie Dugan at Knowinnovation humorously describes nonproductive meeting attendees as Tourists, Political Appointees, and Eeyores. Tourists don’t create overt problems, but their lack of participation drags down the energy. Political Appointees, invited to “represent” some constituency, may come with their own competing agendas. Eeyores don’t believe anything good can come of anything.

I recently designed a conference session to bring together buyers and vendors in a specific industry. Attendance was open to anyone who wanted to come. There were at least six vendors for each buyer in the room, making it difficult to have a balanced conversation! I’ve seen meetings go down the tubes when there were vocal folks in the room who were not committed to the organization or the project, who wasted a great deal time trying to convince the group to abandon their mission. I’ve been in meetings where only a third of the room was even participating in the discussion, while the rest played with their laptops or Blackberries. I’ve watched as the three experts in the room who were actually able to make the necessary technical decision were forced to sit through two hours of naive blathering by group members who had little to no understanding of the issue.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is never a need for a whole-staff meeting; there is. My intention is to debunk the idea that more representation is always better. And to reinvorce the mantra: GET CLEAR ABOUT YOUR PURPOSE.