How to get Meetings Started on Time

This text is taken from the Jossey-Bass Academic Administrator's Guide to Meetings, by Janis Fisher Chan. Copyright 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741. Reprinted with permission.

When the American Conservatory Theatre first came to San Francisco, they did something that was almost revolutionary at the time: they insisted on starting performances at the scheduled time. Latecomers were not seated until the intermission. It was not long before people got the idea.

It turned out that theatergoers had developed the habit of coming late because they knew from experience that performances usually started late. That's the same reason people develop the habit of coming late to meetings - when they do arrive on time, they have to sit around and wait for everyone to show up before the meeting finally begins.

To make sure that all the agenda items can be covered and out of respect for the participants, one of a facilitator's most important - and most frustrating - jobs is getting the meeting started at the scheduled time. Here are some ways to get that job done:

* Do your advance planning and arriving early. Make sure you have planned for everything you need - scheduled the room, ordered equipment, made copies of handouts, and so on. On the day of the meeting, arrive early enough to make sure that everything will be ready when participants arrive. Set up flip charts. Post wall charts. Rearrange the seating, if necessary. Test the equipment to make sure that it is functioning - meetings can be derailed by something as simple as a burned-out light bulb. By the time people come into the room, you should be all set up and ready to go.

* Make sure everyone knows when the meeting is supposed to start. People have a lot on their minds. Even though the agenda clearly states the start time for the meeting, it can be helpful to send out a reminder a day or two in advance. Include the meeting time, the purpose, the location, and anything participants need to bring, as shown in the example.

TO: Film Department Faculty
RE: Tomorrow's meeting

A reminder - we're meeting tomorrow (Thursday) at 4 p.m. in Room 603 to discuss how to allocate travel and guest lectureship funds. Bring your ideas and a snack to share. See you there.

* If possible, make the room - and refreshments - available ten or fifteen minutes ahead of time. For some people, socializing is an important part of a meeting. Try to make it possible for those people to get their socializing out of the way before the meeting begins. When you send out the agenda - and the reminders - make sure everyone knows what's socializing time and what's meeting time: "Come at 3:45 for coffee and snacks. The meeting begins promptly at 4 p.m."

* Get started within a few minutes of the scheduled start time, even if everyone isn't there. This strategy is difficult to carry out, especially the first few times you use it. In fact, you might have to begin two or three meetings with only a few of the participants present before people get the idea. But it is unfair to the people who make an effort to come on time before you've finished everything that needs to be done. It's worthwhile to establish the expectation that meetings will begin at the scheduled time.

If people are in the habit of coming late to meetings, try to these strategies for changing their behavior:

* Close the door. It's easy to slip into a room with an open door. But a closed door needs to be opened, calling attention to the latecomer's entrance.

* Set up the seating so that latecomers have to sit in a prominent place. Vacant chairs at the back of the room make it easy for latecomers to slip in unnoticed. The discomfort of having to move into a conspicuous seat while the meeting is going on can motivate people to come earlier the next time.

* Make sure the meeting time is as convenient as possible. Do people need to run all the way across campus from a class to get to the meeting on time? Do they have to arrive on campus much earlier than usual? Find out as much as possible about people's schedules and plan meeting times accordingly.

* Make sure people know why their presence is important. People sometimes drift into meetings late because they don't think it's important for them to be there. The agenda should clearly show people will miss something important if they are not there when the meeting begins.

* Turn the problem over to the group. Meetings that continually start late affect everyone. So put the problem on the agenda for discussion, work together to find the underlying causes, and come up with mutually agreeable solutions.