Time – The Ultimate Asset in Meetings


Today’s blog is about a topic I have never written about but it is SO important, I do not know why it has taken me 75 blogs to get to it. It also is extremely difficult to give you a really good tool for what I want to convey to you. I don’t know of any set “recipe”. Darn. I am talking about planning for the effective use of time when facilitating meetings! This is a sub-competency required by the IAF (International Association of Facilitators) for the Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) program called: Prepare time and space to support group process.

I have written previous blogs on effective use of space (see resources below) so now I will tackle time.

I asked several facilitator colleagues if they could share their best tips on effective use of time with groups. My contributors for today’s blog were Peter Seah (Singapore, CPF, IAF assessor), Dr. Seow Bee Leng (also from Singapore, CPF), Marem Flores (Oregon, works with North Star regularly) and Dorli Duffy (Vancouver, B.C.) Thank you so much Peter, Bee Leng, Marem and Dorli. See my colleagues information in the resources section below. We’ll do our best to answer these four common questions I’ve heard from other facilitators and meeting leaders:

1. How much can you fit into a ½ day and full day agenda?

2. What do you do when you are running out of time… have not nearly completed what you set out to do and there is only 30-60 min left?

3. What is a rough estimate of time for classic activities in a longer agenda?

4. What are the best tips we can give you about ensuring effective use of time?

When we first start out planning a multi-hour or full day agenda, time management often is one of the critical challenges. We may have no experience on how long things take to process in a group. This is tricky for the in-house facilitator because you may not have the authority to interrupt or manage your colleagues. For the outside facilitator, you may not know the group culture well enough to know what is the best pace for them. The key place that seems to “knock us off” schedule is the time it takes for people to have discussions, both in the small and the large group.

So here are our tips on this related to the four key questions we chose to focus on today. The first three are ones I still have trouble with even at stage 8 and 9 of the facilitator journey:

1. How much can you fit into a ½ day and full day agenda?

In a half day agenda, you can have a very good in-depth discussion about a tough problem including a warm up activity and a closing activity. Or, you can have about three succinct topic related activities plus opening and closing. You can plan a retreat, review a project or make a difficult, not overly complex decision generally in a half day session.

What you cannot or should not attempt in a ½ day is:

  • A strategic plan
  • Revive a team which is not working well
  • Make a decision which will have multiple year implications (unless you have had several other meetings to discuss and the team/organization is poised to make the final decision)

Half day events are teasers. It takes a long time for a group to settle into safety with each other on key decisions or product developments. Half day events are for teams who are doing well, have some background in what has been discussed, and are ready and willing to get down to business on a single topic or two.

Full day events allow for much more cohesiveness to happen. They are reserved for events such as:

  • Revamp a program that is not working
  • Get a good start on establishing strategic goals (a full strategic plan is at least two full days)
  • Have an effective team-building day
  • Make a far-reaching complex decision

See also question #3 for a typical ½ to full day agendas which have two distinct types of aims.

2. What do you do when you are running out of time (and there is only an hour or two left)?

This is a tough one. Here are my fall-backs (with a little help from my friends Bee Leng, Peter and Marem) for this situation:

Check in with the group in one of these ways:

  • “Here is where we are in the agenda. What would you like to adjust so we can best meet our outcomes. Which pieces would you be willing to shorten or skip today?”


  • “I am sensing you are very interested in continuing this conversation on this topic. It likely means we’d have to skip something else on the agenda which is fine. How do you want me to proceed? And, how much more time would you like to continue this conversation?”


  • “I am noticing we are a few hours behind schedule. I have discussed this with a few members of your group at the break and here is what we are proposing for an agenda change (Make the suggestion). What are your reactions to this change? How many of you are willing to make this change? Please give me a thumbs up, down or sideways.”

(Note more on these techniques and phrases in our Meetings that Rock Light and Essentials courses coming soon!)

3. What is a rough estimate of time for classic activities in a longer agenda?

Phew! This is where a recipe would be nice but there are so many factors. But here goes, my sort of recipe. But first I need to rant and rave a bit…and give you some disclaimers.

1. Here is an example of the timing of an agenda where the group is really focused on producing a tangible product such as a decision, a document, a plan, a policy, an evaluation of a program, etc. In other words, they are task focused. In the Technology of Participation (ToP)® methodology, we would say the major emphasis is on the rational aims.

  • Opening and context setting (15-30 minutes)
  • Background sharing of pertinent information on the topic (15-60 minutes)
  • Working out the options, strategies, key components of the product you are creating using a variety of energizing and focusing activities to stay focused and develop creative solutions (60-180 minutes)
  • Summary and final refining of the product (15-60 minutes)
  • Closing reflection and celebratory activity to ensure you honor the spirit of the work (10-30 minutes)

Total agenda time: 2 – 6 hours. Add lunch and breaks.

2. Here is a different example of the timing of an agenda where the group needs to focus on an intangible result such as team cohesiveness, resolving a difficult conflict, airing grievances, honoring a team member, etc. In other words, they are focused on the human spirit or in the Technology of Participation (ToP)® language, or the experiential aims.

  • Opening and context setting (30-60 minutes)
  • Kinesthetic, visual and/or verbal sharing activity to help prepare the group for deeper reflection (30-60 minutes)
  • Mix of individual reflection (1-2 rounds of 3-6 minutes), small group sharing (1 -2 rounds of 10-30 minutes) and large group processing (1 to 2 rounds of 15-45 minutes) of key topic at hand (total approximate time of 45-180 minutes)
  • Summary and conclusion on the topic (20-30 minutes)
  • Closing reflection and celebratory activity to ensure you honor the spirit of the work (30-60 minutes)

Total agenda time: 2.5 – 6.5 hrs. Add lunch and breaks.

See below resources section for my input on this.

4. What are the best tips we can give you about planning effective use of time?

(Here are our top tips with a little help from my friends: Bee Leng, Peter, Marem and Dorli)

    • First and foremost ensure there is a balance between emerging participant needs and pre-decided overall workshop goals. Be sure to check in with group if you are changing things.
    • Ensure clarity on objectives and expected outcomes and send the agenda out in advance (setting expectations for what we will be doing and how time will be used)
    • Gather information in advance where possible (e.g., conduct a survey in advance of a meeting to collect ideas and perspectives that can be shared at the beginning of the meeting (“This is what you said about . . .”) — This saves time to do this in advance vs. collecting it during the session.
    • There is always a tension between the facilitator’s intended timeframe and the participant’s preferred timeframe. For example, you as the facilitator may decide that the group needs to reach consensus on a topic based on a request they made to you. Yet, sometimes the group has unresolved issues or obstacles to gaining consensus. In this case, you may be doing them a disfavor by pushing them too soon to consensus. So slow down, add in time to discuss the obstacles and then quicken the pace to help them reach consensus.
    • Participants can talk and talk and talk. Your job is to facilitate the talk that uses the group’s time effectively. Sometimes it may feel like you are interrupting their talk, however most of the time doing this respectfully will make everyone happier. A way to do this is to give them great questions that help lead their discussion towards a useful conclusion. ORID, a ToP tool or six hats are ways to structure questions. Our meetings that Rock essentials will have tons of techniques on tips.
    • Brief interim summaries are helpful to remind the group of where they have journeyed so far with the discussion.
    • Balance active work with reflective/contemplative work. Sometimes we think time for reflection is an extra or add-on activity. But it actually helps the group to internalize what they have already done. It takes some experience in knowing how to strike a balance between active and reflective time in the agenda. See question 3 above for examples of this balance.
    • Structure vs. unstructured work is another way to think about this. Structured work is where you the facilitator, are providing very specific questions on activities for the group to follow. It is helpful also to include some unstructured time where you are not overly guiding them.
    • In preparing the agenda for the group once you have had a thorough conversation with key group members, it will be helpful for you to do a visual map of what your agenda looks like. Color coding is helpful. For example, you can code the non-negotiable agenda items in a certain color to remind yourself that these are the key pieces to spend the most time on. I like to use the mind map technique to map out my timing. Here is a photo example. Want to learn more about mind mapping? Check out the resources section below.

    • When you break the group into small groups, you can keep them moving along by providing them written instructions, frequent time checks and clear questions to answer during the time. Sometimes newer facilitators are reluctant to interrupt the flow of small group discussions. My favorite, most respectful way to do this is to write out a phrase on a sheet of paper that says, e.g., “5 minutes left”. I quietly go to each group, catch the eye of any group member and nod my head to indicate we’ve both acknowledged my message. It is intended to be an unspoken agreement that this group member will pass that message onto the rest of the group at an appropriate time that is not me interrupting them at a critical moment.

  • Use of a parking lot to “hold” items not central to the discussion
  • Capturing the discussion clearly (and visually) so that people can track where we are / have got to/ are going
  • Summarizing “where we are and what we have done and what still needs to be done” regularly


Colleagues’ Information:

Dr. Seow Bee Leng website: www.continuumlearning.com

Peter Seah LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/peterseah-transformingconversationsconsulting/

Marem Flores LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/maremflores; Supporter of violin music and arts education at: www.rodelflores.com

Dorli Duffy LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dorlimduffy/

Referenced Blogs:

My Observation of the Timing of Two Different Types of Agendas:
(reference to question #3)

  • For the task oriented one, less time on opening and closing activities, more time and focused energizing activities on getting good background and processing the decision or developing the product.
  • For the experiential focused agenda, more time on openings and closings, creating safety, possibly more focus on discussion in a variety of settings – small group and large group, more individual and group reflection time, and more closing time to honor the work done.

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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