Establishing a meeting “time budget”

Making optimal use of the group’s time is one of the critical success factors in any meeting. So how do you decide how much time to allot for each issue on the agenda?

Keep in mind that each meeting represents a unique opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile. Agenda planning, therefore, should not be viewed as a “cookie cutter” process in which every meeting follows exactly the same process.

These guidelines are intended to provide agenda planners with a starting point for designing meetings that both satisfy the organization’s needs and leave participants feeling that their time was well used.

How much time do you have?
Start by determining the duration of the meeting. Be realistic! If you know that in your context meetings typically start 20 minutes later than the announced time, consider that when planning the agenda.

Include time for Beginning and Ending.
The issues to discuss or decide are only one part of an effective agenda. Time is also needed to open and close the meeting. Dedicating 5-10% of overall meeting time to each of these aspects can greatly enhance the success of the meeting.

Here are some examples of these elements and the purpose they serve.

Remember to add breaks.
If the meeting will last more than 90 minutes, you need to set time aside for breaks. (See: Why your meetings need breaks).

Calculate the time available for discussing and deciding.

Prioritize the issues for discussion/decision.
Make a list of topics proposed for discussion/decision in the meeting and classify them by level of urgency, controversy, complexity or other criteria relevant to the group. A matrix like this may help establish priorities.

In general, issues that are complex and/or controversial require more time for discussion and/or making a decision. Information-only items (such as reports) often take a lot of meeting time without adding much value. We recommend finding other ways to share information that is not directly related to discussions or decisions on the current agenda.

Sub-divide the time for each item for discussion or decision.
For example, if you have a total of 20 minutes available for an issue, consider the following use of that time.

If this seems like too little time to produce the desired outcome, then look for ways to reassign time from other agenda items until you have “balanced your time budget.”

Words of caution
If your meetings usually have a long list of undifferentiated agenda items (what we sometimes call the “laundry list”) with no specific outcomes identified or time limits assigned, the group is setting itself up for boredom, frustration and other forms of needless suffering. Changing these habits takes a firm commitment on the part of the meeting conveners and facilitators. Implementing the agenda-planning practices described here can have a positive effect on team morale, meeting productivity, and lead to better results for the organization and those you serve.