How to start online meetings on time

start online meetings on timeIs it possible to routinely start online meetings on time? Yes!

But first…

Think about the last three meetings you attended. Raise your hand if all of them started on time.

Anyone? Anyone?

Why don’t scheduled meetings start on time?

The reason that almost no scheduled meetings (in-person or online) start on time is that we provide one single time for meetings to both open and start.

Even with the best intentions, participants can’t and won’t all arrive simultaneously at the exact time a meeting is scheduled to start. With a single fixed time to open and start a meeting, everyone will either be “early” or “late”.

In addition, meeting invitations don’t supply information as to what the consequences of being early or late will be!

  • If you arrive early for an in-person meeting, you may find the meeting room locked or occupied by another, earlier meeting. You have to wait around until the room is free. You have no idea if anyone else may be early, which gives you little incentive to be early.
  • If you arrive early for an online meeting, you may find the meeting host hasn’t opened the online meeting platform yet. You will have to wait around until the host starts the meeting and lets you in. You don’t know if anyone else will be around beside the host, with whom you may have to chat to be polite. If you’re busy, the smart thing to do is to join the meeting at the last minute. And if there’s a glitch in the meeting platform technology or connection, you may end up being late.
  • If you arrive late for an in-person or online meeting, you may miss stuff. Things may need to be repeated for your benefit, annoying the folks who did arrive on time. Or you may effectively delay the meeting start because you (or enough of the other participants) are late.

Whatever happens, no one wins, time is wasted, and the meeting quality suffers!

Scheduling a meeting to open and start at the same time invariably ensures that it won’t start on time.

We reluctantly put up with this imperfect state of affairs for in-person meetings. Over time, repeated team or intra-organization meetings tend to create an implicit expectation as to when they will start. (For example: “We never get going until ten minutes past the hour“, or “the VP is always five minutes late and wants to be the last person to arrive“.) We adjust our behavior accordingly.

Starting online meetings on time is typically harder, because many of them include a specific mix of people who have never met before (and may never meet again as that exact set). There is no prior history to guide when you should arrive.

Although the following advice can improve the likelihood that any kind of meeting will start on time, I’ll focus on online meetings here.

How to start online meetings on time

Two small changes make it far more likely that an online meeting will start on time.

1. Include two times in your meeting invitation. The time when the meeting will open, and the time when the meeting will start.

For example: “We’ll open the Zoom meeting at 13:45 EDT, and start promptly at 14:00 EDT.”

2. To improve the meeting start experience further, let people know what (if anything) will be happening between the open and start time of the meeting.

For example: “Arrive a little early, and chat with our presenter, Lamar Moorel, before the meeting starts!”

Providing both an open and a start time for a meeting gives participants the information they need to plan when to join the meeting. People can join “early” if they are worried about getting the technology or connection to work, or if they want to chat informally with others before the meeting starts. And because it’s clear to everyone that there is a buffer time available to join the meeting, people are likely to understand and accept the expectation that the meeting will start promptly at the start time.

How much time should we allow between opening and starting the meeting?

The time difference between the opening and starting times depends on the meeting circumstances. For a small meeting using a familiar meeting platform, I’ll typically schedule 10 – 15 minutes. For a larger meeting, or one using an unfamiliar meeting platform I might open a meeting 30 minutes before it starts. This allows time for a help desk to assist anyone who has problems signing in.

Begin the meeting promptly at the start time!

Whatever duration you schedule between open and start times, it’s important to begin the meeting promptly at the start time! Unless a key person is missing, do not delay starting your meeting. By clearly communicating your meeting’s starting parameters, the onus to be on time falls on the participants, not you. And because most people will respond to the (invisible) social pressure created by your announced open and start times, you are likely to have many more people arrive “on time” than if you had just scheduled a single start time.

A final word about folks who are habitually late

Everyone is late to a meeting once in a while, for reasons beyond their control. But some people routinely arrive late to meetings, typically for two reasons:

  • Power dynamics — some folks feel the need to demonstrate they’re more important or busier than you.
  • Cultural differences — people from cultures where arriving “late” to meetings is normal. (For example: participants from such countries as Mexico, Greece, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Algeria, Ghana, India, Kazakhstan, and Russia may be habitually late.) Such folks aren’t being impolite — it’s simply what’s normal for their culture.

I don’t have a magic way to make people who are habitually late for meetings arrive on time. But by incorporating an open and a start time into your online meeting announcements, such people may get the message that you’re not going to delay the meeting start for them. If attending the entire meeting is important, who knows, perhaps they will stop being late for your meetings! (Only your meetings though.)

Do you have other strategies to start online meetings on time? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Facilitating change: The power of sharing our experience

sharing our experience

Sharing our experience of others directly with them can be incredibly powerful. Let me tell you a story…

Not long ago, I was working at a multi-day workshop with a 6-person group that included someone I’ll call D. D self-described themself as mentally ill, bipolar, and with psychological issues. They spoke slowly, and described themself as not emotionally available, and often confused about what they said.

D also shared that they:

  • Felt isolated and wanted to get better at connecting with people;
  • Believed that other people couldn’t easily understand them and didn’t like them; and
  • Had a hard time deciding whether to attend the workshop.

D was clearly feeling fragile. Group work can be confrontational at times. So I privately hoped that the other group members would be supportive.

What happened?

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I am the second sort of escapologist

the second sort of escapologistI am the second sort of escapologist.

“I read once that the first time they put an escapologist in a tank of water, he or she will have one of two reactions, and which one determines the course of their life.

The first sort of escapologist is an ordinary person who has come to the trade organically, by whatever curious sequence of opportunity and happenstance—and that sort will panic. There is very little that is more appallingly unnatural or frightening than being lowered, bound, into a confined space containing an atmosphere you cannot breathe. … Some people just never go back in the tank. … Some get right back in and they master their fear and they go on to be as good as their skill allows. These last are most compelling to watch.

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How to improve your facilitation: an example

improve your facilitationHow can you improve your facilitation practice? Here’s an example that illustrates what I do: a mixture of continual improvement, lifelong learning, and Kaizen.

An example from The Solution Room

I’ve been facilitating The Solution Room, a popular plenary session, for 9 years. It’s a 90 – 120 minute session that engages and connects attendees, and provides peer-supported advice and support for a current professional challenge chosen by each participant. Participants routinely evaluate the session as a highly helpful and valuable experience.

Over the years I have made numerous small improvements to The Solution Room. Here’s the process I use, developed intuitively over time, illustrated with a recent tweak.

Practice

Obviously, if you’re going to improve what you do you need to practice. Each time I run The Solution Room is an opportunity to implement any new ideas gleaned from the previous time I ran it. Even if I don’t have any changes to make, practice typically makes my delivery and the consequent session a little better.

Notice

Noticing stuff that’s happening is a key component of learning from experience.

During The Solution Room, each participant has a turn facilitating exploration and support of another participant at their table. While preparing everyone for this phase, I verbally share a set of directions on how to do this. Here they are:

  1. Read the challenge that is in front of you out loud.
  2. Start asking questions of the person whose challenge it is to clarify the issue. If necessary, encourage everyone at the table to join in to ask clarifying questions and give advice and support.
  3. Take notes of the ensuing discussion on the paper in front of you.

While running recent Solution Rooms I noticed that table facilitators had no problem implementing #1 and #2, but #3, the note taking, was sometimes skipped during the intense discussion that followed each challenge presentation.

Respond

Now I’ve noticed something that could be improved, it’s time to respond. “Respond” means think about what I might be able to do to make my process better.

Typically, for me, this involves musing over a period of time on what I noticed. (I typically run five or six Solution Rooms a year, so there’s no big time pressure to implement a change.) I’ve found this works best when I don’t immediately fixate on the first idea I get. Coming up with three or more options seems to lead to the best outcomes.

I considered rephrasing my instructions, emphasizing the importance of the note taking in some way beforehand or during the “rounds” of peer consulting. Finally I had the idea of creating a laminated card with the instructions on each table, and asking table members to pass the card around to each consultation facilitator in turn.

Implement

The next step then is to implement my potential improvement. For The Solution Room, I need to create the instruction cards and modify my instructions to participants so they remember to pass the card to the next facilitator.

Test

At the next opportunity, I test my change, by implementing it and noticing what happens.

Repeat!

Continual improvement needs an action loop. We go back to practicing, noticing…

Conclusion: Improve your facilitation practice!

I hope this continual improvement practice I’ve shared helps you improve the quality and effectiveness of your facilitation. Do you have your own approach to improving what you do? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Shut up and listen — part 2

Shut up and listen — part 2When I close peer conferences with a Group Spective, there’s always a moment that is hard for me. It occurs during the Plus/Delta, when people are sharing what they’d like to change in the event they’ve just experienced. Participants offer many suggestions, perspectives, and ideas that make the organization’s future activities and events better, and their sharing frequently helps me improve my own work.

And then someone, let’s call them John, comes up to the microphone and says something like this:

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When consensus is dangerous

consensus-animateImagine a group of people who need to make a decision about something. As the size of the group increases, the chance that everyone will be happy with what is decided falls exponentially. Unless there’s unanimous agreement, the group will use — either explicitly or tacitly — some kind of rule that determines whether a specific decision is acceptable. Groups often use tacit rules when the consequences of the decision are minor [“Harry, you feel strongly we should do this but Kerrie & I don’t care either way, so let’s go with your approach”] or when “consensus” is only a pretense [“Well, I think we should do this. Any objections? OK, it’s decided.”]

So, you may wonder, if a group wants consensus, where consensus is defined by an explicit decision rule, then what decision rule should be used?

Danger, Will Robinson!


The moment we start trying to define consensus with a rule that tells us whether we have got it or not, we diverge from the core reason to seek consensus.

The value of consensus is in the process of seeking it — not a “yes, we have consensus!” outcome as defined by a decision rule.

There is no magic formula that will create the maximum likelihood that consensus, however we define it, will be obtained.

The best we can strive for is what Hans, Annemarie & Jennifer Bleiker, who have trained over 30,000 public-sector professionals over the last 40 years, call Informed Consent, which they define as follows:

Informed Consent is the grudging willingness of opponents to (grudgingly) “go along” with a course of action that they — actually — are opposed to.

The concept of consensus becomes dangerous when we use process that forces a fake “consensus” outcome on a group. An example of this is what is sometimes called 2-4-8 consensus, as quoted here:

2, 4, 8 consensus is an excellent tool for prioritising in large groups. This exercise will take time, but will help a group reach a decision that everyone can live with! It’s usually best to impose tight time limits at every stage of this discussion!

  • Draw up a list of proposals in the whole group.
  • Form pairs. Each pair discusses the list of possible proposals and is asked to agree their top 3 priorities (it could be any number, but for this example we’ll use 3).
  • Each pair then comes together with another, to form a group of 4. The 2 pairs compare their lists of top 3 priorities and, after discussion, agree on a joint top 3.
  • Each group of 4 comes together with another to form a group of 8. Again, each group takes its 2 lists of priorities and reduces it to one list of 3.
  • Repeat until the whole group has come back together and has a shared list of just 3 priorities.

—from Consensus in Large Groups

There is nothing wrong with using a decision process like this to pick top priorities in a group. But picking a group’s top priorities is not the same as reaching consensus.

You can’t please everyone
Seeking consensus, however you define it, is difficult for large groups. Techniques like Roman voting can help us determine how close we are to informed consent, and can pinpoint who cannot go along with a proposed decision and why. The journey towards informed consent is what we should concentrate on if we are to reach a “consensus” that everyone can live with.