It’s about time!

  • Our management meeting ran overtime and so I was late for the client meeting. The client was not happy.
  • I don’t know why we schedule the meeting for 8.00am when the boss does not turn up till 8.15.
  • We spent so much time on Sophie’s agenda item, we ran out of time to deal with my issue.

Time management is often a negative for meetings.  Here is how to turn it into a positive.  There are three distinct aspects of a meeting where clever time management pays off handsomely.

Starting and finishing times

It is not unusual for a chair, observing that all expected participants are not present, to suggest something like: ‘Let’s give them a couple more minutes before we start’.  Unintentionally, such a decision punishes those that are punctual and rewards those that are tardy.  So for the next meeting, the previously punctual people may be a little less conscientious.  So the actual starting time drifts out even further.

Now the nominated starting time is an important element of the social contract created by the publishing of the agenda.  People rightfully expect the social contract to be honoured.

Here is a suggestion.  Make the nominated starting time something unusual, like 8.57am.  Publish this as the intended starting time.  Start the meeting at exactly that time, even if half the invitees are not present.  And, if and when the latecomers do arrive, do not brief them about what they have missed.  As a result, you can be confident those latecomers will be very punctual next time.

And what about meeting finishing time?  First, specify it.  You will recall numerous occasions when this is not done.  Second, specify the finishing time 5 minutes before the hour or half-hour.  Why?  Because people often schedule back-to-back meetings and do not allow themselves transition time.  Third, regardless of the published intended finishing time, work hard to finish two minutes ahead of that time.  This is so different to people’s general experience, they will be delighted.

Speaker time

A forthcoming blog described the differences between introverts and extroverts and the implications of those differences for your meeting.

One of those differences is that extroverts tend to be long-winded.  Another related difference is that introverts soon tire of external stimulation and switch off.  So what an extrovert says is often not heard by the introverts.

We do not need to know who among us are the extroverts or the introverts.  Yet we need to acknowledge those difference exist and need to be managed for mutual benefit.

The secret is to equip each participant with a one-minute sand-timer.  Introverts can listen (to either introverts or extroverts) for up to one minute before they start to turn off.  Extroverts, if they wish to be heard, can use the timer to self-coach in being concise.

So, within each table group, the conversation is a series of one-minute contributions, taken in turn.  The quality of listening improves remarkably.

Time and complexity

Any agenda item is, in essence, a discrete conversation.  And that conversation has a logical architecture.  The four phases of a conversation include (a) the focusing question, (b) the contextual information, (c) idea generation, and (d) decision-making.

So an agenda item might be: (a) A question on notice only; (b) Gathering or reporting on contextual information.  Whether expressed or not, this form of agenda item is preceded by a focussing question. (c) Seeking ideas.  By implication this form of agenda item is preceded by the former two phases. (d) Making a decision.  This form of agenda item is more complex since it is preceded by the other three phases.

A moments thought will reveal an ascending order of complexity across the four phases.  And the greater the complexity, the greater the time needed to deal with it.

Each agenda item should be tagged with (a) its planned starting time, (b) its planned finishing time, and (c) its planned duration.  Every participant now shares responsibility for time-management.

Now, during the meeting, there is a distinct possibility that any particular agenda item will run over time.  When that occurs, reduce a following agenda item by the same amount of over-run time.  Or drop a latter agenda item altogether.

NEVER, ever, allow the meeting to run over the published finishing time.  To do so is to violate the social contract initially created by the agenda.

© Ian Plowman

January 2018

Author:  Ian Plowman is a consultant, facilitator and social researcher with a history and professional interest in organisational psychology.  He works with individuals, organizations, industries, communities and government agencies.  He holds a Doctorate in Management, an Advanced Master’s Degree in Business Administration, a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology and an Honours Degree in Clinical Psychology.  Ian helps clients to develop skills and awareness to remove blockages and raise their levels of creativity and innovation.

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