Last week, I attended a fairly large meeting with Nils, Rob, the client, the client's team, and the client's consultants. This three and a half hour meeting was probably semi-productive for some of the people in the room.
Wait, did I say three and half hour meeting? Since there were 10 of us in the room, that really makes it a 35-hour meeting.
Thirty minutes (or 5 man-hours) into the meeting we were still vigorously debating the project's first feature. There was lots of brainstorming and whiteboard note taking, but we were still on point number one of a ten-point agenda. That's when the heavens opened, a non-florescent light of hope shone down through the suspended fiberglass ceiling and our client professed the following:
"If this is a good start, then maybe that's where we should stop."
Everyone who's ever designed, programmed, built, or authored anything should consider that advise. Write some ideas down, get off to a good start, and move on to the next thing.
Even if we spent 2 hours completely solving feature number one, features two through ten would have some impact requiring us to circle back to the beginning.
Unfortunately the client's brilliant advice was largely ignored. Instead of stopping, and moving on to another feature, we felt compelled to fully "solve" the first issue. With ten people that would prove nearly impossible.
Short meetings that present problems, not solve problems, are the most productive. In 5 minutes, the problem could have been presented to all 10 people in the room. All 10 of us would have heard, first hand, exactly what needed solving. On our own time, we all would have thought about solutions. Then, through quick emails, mock-ups, a Wiki page, or in smaller sub-committees, we could have solved the problem.
The final solution will most likely be better and more innovative if one or two people come up with the idea on their own. With a large group bickering about the final product, the lowest common denominator probably wins.
The key to a successful large meeting is that all the people involved hear and agree on exactly what the problem is. Solve the problem later. That's what attending a meeting should be about.