Waiting For People Who Arrive Late

by Steven M. Smith · 2 comments

What does it say about the participants of a weekly meeting when the meeting consistently starts 5-10 minutes behind schedule?

Answer, the participants are cooperating with each other to start late.

Starting late is the status quo.

Let’s explore:

  1. Are you cooperating with the participants of your meetings to start late?
  2. How do you feel about that?
  3. How do you feel about feeling that way?

Let me share how I would have answered the questions in 1990:

  1. Yes, I have cooperated with others to start late
  2. I feel powerless to change the status quo
  3. I feel angry about feeling powerless

I have never liked feeling angry. But I felt powerless to change the status quo so what could I do about the situation?

I had more power than I first thought. I took a deep breath. I decided to arrive before the scheduled start time. I encouraged other participants to arrive early. I worked to become a meeting leader; and, when I became a leader, I demanded that people arrive on time.

Arriving early and encouraging other participants was successful at bringing more people into the room before the scheduled start time. Becoming a meeting leader and demanding that meetings start on time was a failure.

Despite my embarrassment, let me share just five of the many interventions I tried as a meeting leader to cause meetings to start on time:

  • Rescheduling the meeting to a start time all participants agreed would work
  • Contracting with the participants to arrive on schedule
  • Locking the door to the room at the scheduled start time
  • Cancelling meetings when an agreed upon quorum wasn’t present
  • Publishing the names of the late arrivers in the meeting minutes

After gaining feedback from these interventions, I realized that successfully starting the meeting with all of the participants required the cooperation of, surprise, all the participants. The decision about whether we started on time was theirs to make.

Rather than fighting the status quo, I thought, “Why not make the status quo visible so every participant can decide for themselves whether it is acceptable?”

So Agenda Item #1 for all my meetings became Wait for people who arrive late. All the agenda items in my agenda have durations. I assign the duration for item #1 as the difference between the actual start time and scheduled start time of the previous meeting.

The agenda item looks like—

#1. Wait for people who arrive late. 10 minutes

Regardless of why the status quo existed, its existence is out there for everyone to see.

What happened?

Reactions varied: Some participants didn’t react to the agenda item. They seemed to think it signaled nothing. Some participants commented that they thought the agenda item started the meeting out on a sour note and wanted it eliminated. And some participants thought starting late was unacceptable and they wanted to do something about it.

It’s easy to sense which reaction creates an opportunity to change the status quo.

Agenda Item #1 offers the opportunity for people to choose whether they want to continue the status quo or start changing it. I wish I could tell you agenda item #1 always triggered a change that caused a meeting I led to start on time. It didn’t. It does, however, always offer an opportunity for the participants to choose again. And sometime that’s all that’s needed to trigger the change process that creates a new, more effective status quo.

You may be wondering, Does starting meetings on time truly matter? I believe it does. If people are the organs of an organization, then meetings are are surely its lifeblood. These gatherings are where people come to define and solve problems as well as status projects. The more healthy a meeting, the more healthy the organization. And, conversely, the sicker the meetings, the sicker the organization.

If the people who participate in a meeting can’t cooperate to start their meeting on time, what chance is there they will cooperate to start a project on time? I you were a member of a relay team running a race against another team, would you agree that everyone on the team can arrive for the race whenever it fits for them?

The same people who participate in meeting are the same people who are responsible for the tasks in a project. A meeting is nothing but the simplest of projects. My experience is that attitudes of participants at meetings mirror their attitudes to their task work and the project as a whole. How could they not?

How healthy are your meetings? If they are sick, gaining cooperation about starting on time and actually starting on time will make them healthier. It’s not easy to change the status quo, but it can be changed.