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I’m going to start this article on managing time at meetings with a strong statement: wasting other people’s time is disrespectful, and we do it all the time at meetings. In fact, I would argue that feeling your time was wasted is one of the biggest reasons that people hate meetings; they could have been doing something else. That’s why managing time at meetings is an essential skill for facilitators and participants alike.
The keys to time management at meetings are: a) allotting the appropriate amount of time for the discussion that needs to take place or the task that needs to be accomplished, and b) using simple strategies to ensure that time doesn’t get away from the group.
And sometimes, managing time at meetings means, well – not having meetings!
Tips for Managing Time at Meetings
Include Timing in your Meeting Agenda
If you’ve read my article on the 4 P’s of Meeting Planning, you know that I am a fan of PURPOSE. Purposeful meetings make good use of people’s time. More than that, though, purposeful meetings should have their purpose expressed through an agenda and that agenda should include timing.
How specific you are about timing is related to how rigid your meeting needs to be. Formal meetings with many attendees and a lot of tasks to accomplish might need tighter timeframes than staff retreats, for example. Likewise, the amount of time assigned to a topic should be directly related to its level of importance or complexity. If there are 5 topics on your agenda, it can be tempting to divide your time into 5 equal parts. But this is not effective if one particular topic is likely to need more discussion than others. Plan for that need ahead of time, and show attendees through your agenda that you are making more space for that topic.
Whenever possible, agendas should be developed collaboratively so that participants can express what they need or want from a meeting. As a meeting host, you may be surprised to learn that people have a lot to say about a given topic; you want to know that going into the meeting so that you can allocate time appropriately. Send your agenda out ahead of time, and consider asking for feedback on which topics need the most time.
If you are a participant, consider sending feedback to your host if you think a topic might need more time base on what you are sensing from your group. If timing is not included in the agenda, consider respectfully asking for it; that may prompt your host to spend more time thinking about how time is allocated.
Stick to your Agenda (with some exceptions)
An agenda is a statement of intention; it conveys what the group is planning to accomplish and how, and it allows participants to plan ahead for how they will contribute. Throwing the agenda out the window by not sticking to timeframes is disrespectful to participants and shows that you really aren’t living up to your end of the agreement.
In most cases, facilitators and participants have a responsibility to stick to the agenda and timing. This means facilitators need to speak efficiently, moderate group discussion effectively, and give time checks when needed. It also means that all participants need to avoid “stealing the floor” or hijacking the agenda, while participating in a way that helps accomplish goals.
Setting group norms and expectations around time can be a strategic way to avoid pitfalls like this from the beginning. If your group will be meeting on a regular basis, discuss as a group what it means to stick to the agenda and timing and how you will work together to achieve that goal. What will you do when exceptions arise? How will you kindly and respectfully call each other out if the agenda is getting sidelined?
There are always exceptions to this rule. A skilled facilitator can “read the room” and judge when a group needs more time for something, even if unexpected. Participants, too, may notice when timing is getting off-track and there are ways to assertively ask the host to adjust without criticizing them. Transparency is key for facilitators when it comes to timing. Share honestly when you are making a decision to alter the agenda, and discuss how you will adjust for it.
Use Assertive Timing Cues to Keep the Group on Track
The role of a facilitator, and to some extent participants too, is to guide the group along the agreed upon agenda and timing. Assertive facilitation can help meeting hosts with the task of sticking to the agenda – the trick is to balance strict adherence to an agenda with a flexible flow when needed.
A few tips for meeting hosts who need help with timing include:
- Lay out timing expectations when the meeting starts: “As a reminder, we’ve allocated about an hour for our time together today and we have three things to accomplish; because item 3 is a heavier, lift, we’re going to try to keep items 1 and 2 brief.”
- Gently assert timing agreements and shared space for comments: “We have about 20 minutes for this discussion which means we won’t have time for everyone to speak at length. Please keep your comments to about 2 minutes max so that everyone has a chance to contribute.”
- Give Timing Cues: “We have allotted about 5 more minutes to this discussion; let’s take one more comment then use our last 3 minutes to make a group decision.”
- Discuss Alterations to Timing: “I see that this discussion seems to need more time than we have allocated; we can do that if folks are ok with dropping this other agenda item, or we can cut this short but agree on how and when we are going to come back to it.”
The more you, as a host, continue to mention timing and how you are sticking with it, the more your participants will get the message and go along with that goal. Of course, you can’t win them all, but for the most part this kind of group norming is incredibly effective at keeping groups on track.
Participants can also use assertive timing cues, being careful not to be overly critical of a facilitator who may be adjusting on the fly. Keep your comments constructive and consider offering practical alternatives that will be helpful for the whole group, without taking over for the facilitator. Asking questions about timing is one way to do this: “I hear people getting really passionate about this topic; does our agenda have time for this much depth, or can we make some adjustments to allow for it?” If the group has set norms in advance, participants and facilitators may be able to refer to them: “We agreed that we would try to stick to our planned agenda, and I’m noticing that we are taking more time on this item, so I am hoping we can do a time check and see how we want to handle that.”
Consider Alternatives to Meetings
Lastly, though this article has mainly addressed use of people’s time at meetings, I also want to encourage you to consider whether a meeting is even the best way to accomplish your goal. There may be a more time-effective way to get something done, or even to have an important discussion, that better respects people’s time.
Signs that a meeting might not be the best way to accomplish something include:
- The issue is only relevant for a subset of the people who will be in the meeting (don’t waste everyone’s time having to sit there listening to something that has nothing to do with their job);
- You have to make a decision and you already know what you are going to do (don’t call people together under the pretense that you will listen to them if you really can’t or won’t);
- The task to be accomplished will be done better if just a few people are tasked with making it happen (don’t sacrifice efficiency for involvement if the task is straightforward);
- There is nothing specific on the agenda for this week’s regular meeting (don’t host it anyway, first ask whether folks feel the need to meet and what they’d like to discuss).
Whatever you choose, make sure that the meeting you are hosting is a good use of your participants time. Take your role as host or a participant seriously and respect other people’s time, too. You can only expect from others what you are willing to offer yourself.