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kick the cooks out of the kitchen

Have you ever been in a large meeting, a room filled with sharp, creative minds and yet, at the end of the hour, you have accomplished nothing?

This is what I like to refer to as “too many cooks in the kitchen”–there are simply too many people in the room to effectively and efficiently make decisions. Sometimes you’ll have higher-ups who want to be in every meeting and, in the rare instance they actually attend, intimidate great ideas into submission. Or just as bad, there are the times when too many people show up to influence a cool, new project, using up precious time to provide competing opinions without reaching consensus. Sound familiar?

Coming from a background of agencies both big (1400+ employees) and small (fewer than 12), I’ve learned there’s an art to balancing those who would like to be there and those who really need to be there to get things done. Some experts say including between 2 and 7 people in your meetings is the ideal range, but you can’t always find the right 4.6 people to join.

Despite all the conference room chaos, I’ve found two solid ways to “free up the kitchen.”

  1. If you must include a large number of people in the decision-making phase of a project, host a smaller pre-meeting with key team members representing crucial areas of the larger team. In this smaller meeting, you can speak freely and be less formal but come to a consensus quicker. The meeting can even be done as a lunch or happy hour outside of the office to keep it causal and eliminate pop-ins from others—including naysaying leadership. You can then meet with the larger group armed with recommendations and guardrails for a more rational and effective meeting. You will have already been able to eliminate the less viable options, identify the frontrunners, and be armed with reasons why to keep the meeting on track. Early in my career, I worked with a leader in my company who was very negative and would often cut down other’s ideas. The pre-meetings helped by letting the team share their out-of-the-box ideas and prepare our arguments to defend our ideas.
  1. The second solution is to limit the decision-making phase to just a small group of team members, again representing the different areas of the larger team. This smaller group will set the direction of the project with little or no input from the larger team and bring in the rest of the team during the execution phase of the project. This approach isn’t meant to exclude team members, but rather to quickly focus the team, and is optimal when it comes to quick turn projects or those with a tighter budget (less people = less time and money), but keep in mind, you will usually need a blessing from stakeholders to go this route. I was recently handed an exciting project to run. I scaled back who was in the room to keep us from hemorrhaging time and money, and we brought in the others later to make sure we could use their talents. This helped ensure the project was as exciting as envisioned.

 
Real talk: Sometimes the solutions above aren’t options, in which case here are some helpful tips to set you up for success.

  1. Make sure you go to your meeting with a clear agenda.
  2. Keep close tabs on how long people are talking, and how many ideas they contribute.
  3. Make sure the loudest voice in the room isn’t the only one being heard. You can do this by writing all ideas on a board to give them all the same weight.
  4. A quick vote, even an anonymous one, can sometimes be a safe way to get a quick decision.
  5. Don’t be afraid to get creative or go old school with your methods (e.g., make people raise hands, limit the amount of time they can talk for, use a talking stick), whatever you need to do to keep the peace and make progress.

Every project and team is different, so trust your gut and don’t be afraid to test out or combine solutions. And unless your project is about brain surgery or rocket science, don’t stress too much. Happy cooking!

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