We all know the frustrations of sharing meeting time. After all, time is the most valuable resource we have in our lives – and time in a team meeting is even more precious because we have the purpose-aligned people all in the same place at the same time. Wow! Given how relevant they are, how we spend our time together is key. 

Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom studied what makes collaborative groups successful. Her results, a list of core design principles (CDPs), provide a roadmap that helps see what needs to be in place so we can cooperate well. For example, each group needs to figure out conflict resolution (CDP 6), decision-making (CDP 3), and ways to hold each other accountable (CDP 4). 

My objective in this article is to show that how we spend our time in meetings is vital, which can be shown with regards to all the CDPs. To this end, I am applying some of the Core Design Principles to that very specific issue: meeting time. 

Time that we spend together in a meeting is, in the language of the commons, a “common pool resource”: it’s “rivalrous” because when I take up air time, you can’t speak. The 10 minutes someone sucks out of a meeting today will just be life time spent, and we can only spend it once. Meeting time is also “non-excludable” because I can’t lock away time like I can lock away money in a safe. During meetings, we’re in it together, one way or the other. 

Disclaimer, my background is meeting facilitation in sociocracy – to me, that’s the gold standard of productive and inclusive meetings with agreements on how to share our resources well. 

Since Ostrom’s principles – and in her legacy, the core design principles phrased by Prosocial in Ostrom’s legacy – and sociocracy are a strikingly good fit, I’m adding how we do things in sociocracy to implement ways to address the Core Design Principles (CDPs). 

Drawing of three thought bubbles

CDP 1: Shared identity and purpose

Sharing meeting time only works well when it’s completely clear what the purpose of a meeting is,  everyone is “in” on the shared purpose, and members share the same norms and values (identity). If one is disengaged and in the meeting for a different reason than everyone else, “fair” time management will be hard to find.

If a standing group is meeting, their overarching purpose or aim needs to be defined. If an ad-hoc- group is meeting, it needs to be clear what they have been mandated to accomplish by whom.

I like something I’ve seen groups do: a habit of reading the organizations’ or circle’s purpose at the beginning, before setting the agenda.

How sociocracy addresses this:

Whenever a group (= circle) is formed, the aim of the circle has to be defined as well.  Membership in the circle is based on members consenting to both the aim and to the inclusion of each other as members. Even an ad-hoc group would still be formed with a defined desired outcome and membership. That way, a group doesn’t just meet for the sake of meeting. As for me personally, if it’s not clear what a group is meeting for, or members do not, I refuse to join. It’s that easy!

The way circles are formed, the goal is to find a good “chunking” of tasks and accountabilities so that a meeting only consists of topics that are relevant to everyone in the room. Done well, this is already a big contribution to honoring people’s time.

Drawing of three thought bubbles

CDP 2: Fair distribution of costs and benefits

How do “cost” and “benefits” translate to meeting time? Here’s how I see it:

  • Every time someone speaks, there is meeting time “cost” to the whole group. Even if time is volunteered, we have to honor that people are spending a part of their precious life time on this shared purpose.
  • The benefit of meeting time spent is clarity and forward motion on the shared purpose. Every member needs to get out of the meeting what they need. Probably, everyone is depending on the clarity that arises when the group works through a tension together. An individual member might be depending on a group decision to carry out their tasks after the meeting. To make sure everyone gets what they want, everyone needs to have a say on the agenda.

There has to be enough structure to hold all aspects of the meeting. For example, an ADMIN section in the meeting helps everyone be heard on logistics like meeting time or meeting notes. To me, having a structure is a way to enable cost and benefits to be distributed fairly and to honor people’s time.

How sociocracy addresses this:

In sociocracy, we approve agendas by consent before we jump into a meeting. That’s our way of making sure everyone gets what they need from the time we spend together. We follow a basic meeting pattern that follows the principle of “a place for everything and everything in its place” to make sure nothing and no one gets forgotten.

In addition, I prefer for “air time” to be distributed more evenly. That doesn’t mean that everyone speaks exactly the same length of time. We’re not walking around with a stopwatch and needs might vary over time – but the reality is that the distribution of air time in bad meetings is often completely and chronically out of balance. One way to address that is to use a practice like rounds in sociocracy: everyone speaks one by one. No interrupting others, no ongoing monologues. Rounds ensure meeting time is actually shared. The guardian of the process is the facilitator who holds people accountable to the defaults, like rounds. Facilitators adapt and improve their facilitation through feedback in meeting evaluations as well as in selection processes. Like all roles, facilitators are selected with consent from the team. That way, everyone has a say and an opportunity to give feedback on multiple levels and on many occasions.

Drawing of three thought bubbles

CDP 3: Fair and inclusive decision-making

Decision-making about how we spend our time in a meeting has to be inclusive and transparent. Everyone needs to be able to have a say about how time is spent. Meetings can’t be hijacked, neither maliciously (rare) or unconsciously (quite common). 

In my experience, most run-off-the-mill groups are lightyears below meeting my most basic standards of fair and inclusive decision-making about meeting time. Basically, there is often no explicit process to negotiate meeting time in the first place. If something is not explicit, it’s hard, if not impossible, to be inclusive and fair. 

How sociocracy addresses this:

It all goes back to agenda setting. Yet, from a sociocratic perspective, having an agenda is only the first step! You also need to 

  1. Get consent from everyone on the agenda. That means being willing to change the agenda until there is consent from everyone present.
  2. Be accountable to your agenda. That might mean interrupting someone if they monopolize time.  
  3. Know how to change your agenda if something unexpected happens.

Accountability and changing the agenda, to me, is where process breaks down most often. If an agenda item goes over time significantly, we’re out of consent. Being out of consent means it’s not fair and inclusive anymore. The way to get back on track is to voice that and to amend the agenda and seek consent again. It’s quite easy actually but it’s rarely done. It can sound like this: “ok, we had said we’d spend 10 minutes on this but we’re now 20 minutes into this agenda item and I think we should solve this now. Do we have consent on adding 10 more minutes here and going 20 minutes over time?” [or “postponing the last agenda item instead?”]

Drawing of three thought bubbles

CDP 4 + 5: Monitoring agreed behaviors and graduated responding to helpful and unhelpful behavior

In a meeting without a clear process or structure, it’s very hard to monitor behaviors – if we don’t have agreed-upon behaviors (CDP 1 – identity/values/norms/), how would we monitor them? That’s a key issue in unstructured meetings – no guidelines, no agreement on process norms,  and nothing to hold anyone accountable to.
People also often shy away from giving feedback and decide to roll their eyes and leave the meeting. These are all codependent behaviors that will, in the long run, deteriorate meeting culture. Which is why these core design principles made it onto Ostrom’s list of what’s needed for successful co-governance!

How sociocracy addresses this:

Sociocratic meetings have an agreed-upon agenda and agreed-upon process patterns. Now people can be accountable to them. Ideally, a meeting agenda will have time information (like: “we will talk about Topic A for 15 minutes”) so that there’s clarity.
Once that clarity is created, it makes it really easy to monitor. In addition, rounds make it more observable how many people have spoken how much because rounds would be broken.
That means, facilitators need to be willing to interrupt people who speak out of turn or for a long time. Ideally, they are able to do so gracefully and respectfully, always aware that people violate a process most often because they are unaware, not out of malintent.
A meeting evaluation is a good place to give feedback to how meeting time has been spent. In a meeting evaluation, anyone can comment on content, interpersonal dynamics or process of the meeting: a place to voice when meeting time hasn’t been shared fairly. Closing the feedback loop on process in a meeting creates a place to monitor what has worked well and what hasn’t, which gives us a chance to improve. 

Yet, playing “process police” is not helpful. It has to be clear that any process we decide to follow is a rule by ourselves for ourselves. We have agreements because we believe they will help us have more enjoyable meetings with integrity, not to have excuses for putting people “in their place”.
That said, whoever is breaking an agreement repeatedly, and without a change of behavior when reminded, is violating basic ground rules of collaboration and needs to be held accountable. Ultimately, every organization needs to define how a circle can remove members of a circle. We will talk more about this on the next topic.

Drawing of three thought bubbles

CDP 6: Fast and fair conflict resolution

For meeting time, can there be conflict resolution? If we have a sense that we aren’t allotted as much meeting time as would be fair, what can we do?
This is a tricky one because we can’t just, during a meeting, go to an ombudsperson for help. Yet, for chronic issues, this would probably be necessary.

How sociocracy addresses this:
Feedback is a powerful tool, and underused basically everywhere. Yet, an intentional conversation can be a way to resolve chronic tensions that come around time management in meetings. I’ve already mentioned meeting evaluations as one vector to give feedback or voice a tension. A more complete way of addressing conflict about meeting time is in a circle feedback process (a nested, formalized approach of everyone giving feedback to each other) or in performance reviews.

In the moment, however, sociocracy offers a wonderful tool: rounds. We’ve already mentioned rounds above, a simple pattern of all circle members speaking one by one. Rounds can be used to explore ideas but also to steer our process. Let’s imagine someone gets upset in a meeting because they haven’t been able to speak as much as others have. The facilitator – most likely triggered in some way by this outburst – has an easy way of catching a breath while diffusing the conflict resolution power into the group, as well as crowdsourcing the solutions to the conflict from the group. “Let’s do a round on how people see this.” Rounds are great equalizers. Since everyone is actively asked for their perception, it’s not as likely that people will hold back and remain silent.

The Core Design Principles are not vanity principles – they are essential and key to the long-term sustainability of an organization. We can’t assume that we create organizations of peers without paying attention to how something crucial as meeting time is spent. Let’s practice what we teach, in the grand scheme of things and in the nitty-gritty.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like…

The Ostrom principles and Sociocracy