There is art and science to facilitation. This post leans more towards the science, particularly related to time. While a facilitator is not simply a timekeeper, a good facilitator uses time intentionally to achieve the desired ends of the meeting.
When designing a meeting, I keep the following in mind related to time:
o Time = Task. When the desired purpose of the meeting requires more than the available time, the answer is not to speed up. It doesn’t work. Rather, the time should be extended or purpose for the meeting scaled appropriately. This is something you want to figure out well in advance of the meeting, not in the middle of it!
o Human Time. In meetings, we aren’t bringing machines together to produce outputs. While there is a task at hand, completing it should require the people present to interact. Otherwise, why have the meeting? The time people need to work together will depend on the participants. Have they worked together before? How do they feel about each other? How do they feel about the task? How familiar is the task/topic? Knowing your audience in advance will help you to appropriately budget for "human time".
o Min/Max Time Blocks: Establish an upper and lower threshold for the time blocks you use to structure the meeting. Set the minimum too short and people will feel frantic; too long and you’ll lose productivity or attention. I don't think there are any hard rules for this. There has been a recent popularization of the idea of 90-minute cycles as integral to human functioning. There is debate on the average attention span, but it seems safe to say, it varies. You might need to experiment a bit to see what works well for you and your participants. I find that a minimum of 20 minutes and maximum of 90 minutes between breaks or topic changes works well.
o Screen Time: It’s important for there to be a shared, visual focal point for meeting participants. It doesn’t always have to be a screen projecting a PowerPoint slide. I try to limit screen time in meetings, favoring liberal use of whiteboards, walls with post-its, or flip-charts as the focal point -- even better when participants are actively involved in creating it.
o Time Off: Any meeting longer than 90 minutes should have a break – even if just to stand and stretch. During an all day (8 hour) meeting, about 2 hours will be breaks. This isn’t lost time – often, it’s productive time, that's just undirected. A generous lunch break can provide time for a needed conversation, a pondering walk, or a rest in the sun – all of which can improve participant engagement during formal meeting time.
o Multi-tasking Time: Although findings are clear on the negative impact of multi-tasking on productivity, many organizational cultures tolerate liberal use of devices during meetings. This is unfortunate. My best solution is to get agreement - with meeting leaders as well as participants - to limit use during active meeting time, with more generous time budgeted for breaks for device checking. The alternative is radically reduced meeting effectiveness…unless, of course, you only work with organizations full of supertaskers!