The Knights (and efficiency) of the Round Table

In the September 2011 issue of The Harvard Business Review, Charalambos Vlachoutsicous recounts a story in “How to Cultivate Engaged Employees” where a CEO for whom he consulted reported significant improvements in engagement and productivity by holding meetings at a round conference table.  We might have heard similar tales where round table settings dampened a hierarchical atmosphere putting people more at ease.  A rectangular table by contrast plays to hierarchy.
Interestingly, we can explore the sensibility of this further with geometrics.  The maximum volume achievable with a given surface area is a sphere.  For example, soup cans are cylindrical since you can’t stack spheres on a shelf without them rolling off.  A cylinder is as close as you can get to sphere allowing for a flat bottom. (Why other liquid containers might not be cylindrical I suspect has more to due with the strength properties of the packaging material vis-à-vis the product it is holding.)
Similar to the sphere, the greatest achievable surface area within a given constraint of a linear boundary (perimeter or circumference) is a circle.  And how might we best fit a circular table into a conference room? Well, if not a round room then a square one – just not rectangular.  A square is, as you might now guess, is the four-sided polygon shape that maximizes area for a given perimeter.
So it seems that King Arthur’s choice of table design not only supports an environment void of hierarchy – promoting collaboration , it is also quite efficient in design.
As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.
Thanks for reading and Have a Great Day!
Matt G.

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2 Responses to The Knights (and efficiency) of the Round Table

  1. rcrocker13 says:

    I agree that the a circular table will lead to a more collaborative discussion among members. The problem with the circul, however, is that more of the space in the corners will be wasted with circular table in the middle of it as well as the space in the middle of this circle. You may argue that the cost of the space wasted is less than the value that comes of the discussions that results from the new setting; this I also agree with. The win/win, I believe, is to have highly knowledgeable moderator/s at the front of a room housing a semi-circular sitting arrangement. This is the setting of many classrooms and/or forums and favors both space utilization and discussion. This setting does not fully avoid hierarchy, but does a much better job than the rectangular table. But, once you get to a certain number of attendants, your discussion will suffer. So, probably best to keep the meeting small in all cases.
    Lots of possibilities…

    • Matt Gorman says:

      Thank you rcrocker13. Indeed LOTS of possibilities. I can see that with a very large table the center might seem as underutilized space. And I believe as you pointed out, it is a small cost compared to the collaborative upside. My jury is out on the semicircle. If that person in the center is truly only never more than a facilitator/moderator without authority to keep the discussions on track, then downside is possibly averted. In the case of a classroom where the teacher would be in the center of the half-circle, that is more about lecturer and learner and less about collaboration – at least only during lecture times. I spent two years in such a room for business school. Since that is more a ‘speaker and audience’ dynamic, the anti-collaboration ‘feel’ is less destructive. The semi-circle class room did foster collaboration among the students – so much so that we were recently ranked one of the best programs in the U.S. for peer-to-peer learning.
      Thank you for your consideration and comment.
      Matt G.

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