Agenda timing - good idea or not?

When setting an agenda, you may have seen some people like to ‘guess’ how long each item should take. This approach has its detractors; as it is almost impossible to know how a discussion will progress in advance and therefore you won’t know whether someone is bringing some deep-seated objections that need to be worked through, or if there will be blissful agreement on a subject and decisions will be easily reached.

It can still be a good idea though, if for no other reason than to have a rough idea of how long the entire meeting will take. The more meetings you run, the better you will get at estimating these timings anyway.  When we developed our meeting software, we decided to build this feature in for a couple of reasons. We also included something that helps to take the guess-work out of it a bit.

Our Magic Minutes software allows you to set the target time to spend discussing each agenda item. It uses these times to predict the end of the meeting based on how long you have spent so far, and it gives you a time indicator showing how much of the current agenda item’s time budget you have used. When you go over time, if helpfully goes red, and this is when you see speakers being elbowed by neighbours in the audience. This really helps to stop the wafflers. If the predicted end-time is considerably later than everyone had allowed for in their schedule, then it is a good prompt for the chair to speed things up or rejig the agenda.


In addition to this, you can use some analysis after the meeting on how long you actually spent compared to the targets. This can be useful for refining your estimates in future. If after a few meetings with the Finance section being budgeted for 30 minutes you find that you always spend at least an hour, then you can amend your estimates. Of course, you don’t need software to do this; however, it’s one other thing to worry about when you are writing the minutes and maybe chairing the meeting, so it tends to get forgotten otherwise.

You can also use the historical timings to challenge yourself on whether you are spending the right proportion of time on the most important things. Imagine if after a year you looked back and you were disappointed to see how little time you had spent on Health and Safety, or Strategy, and perhaps too much on Customer Complaints? You could use the data to change the approach you take to these items in the future, and perhaps send the analysis to the attendees who need to know.

So, on balance, we are in favour of putting time budgets on agendas and then recording the time spent. You don’t have to refer to it all the time, but it helps the chair to keep things on track, even with poor guesses. Why not give it a go, you might be surprised what you learn.