How to start a workshop when you’re waiting for people to show up

I don’t think I’m the only facilitator or meeting host who has ever had this problem.

What's the problem?

You want to start your meeting or workshop on time but there are a few people who are late. Some of those people happen to be pretty influential.

What do you do, do you start on time, or wait a few minutes in the hope that they will arrive?

Early on in my career, lacking experience and confidence I said "Let's wait". As I got a bit older I learnt that you can set a culture through everyday behaviours. By saying we’d wait for the stragglers, I was signalling that it was okay to rock up late to one of my meetings.

Why it gets hard/annoying as meeting leaders or facilitators is because the start of the workshop or meeting is usually really important because you cover things like:

  • The context of the meeting and why you’re all there: This includes a bit of a story, why you’re gathering, the latest update - so when Tony decides to rock in late, this is the kind of stuff you need to paraphrase or repeat, which can chew up time (or irritate those guests who have to listen to it again)

  • Essential information, housekeeping, and when you establish your credibility as the workshop facilitator

If you want to respect those who did the right thing and showed up on time, how do you balance all of this?

Introducing: The Ragged Start

I got to experience the ragged start at The Story Cookbook workshop recently delivered in Brisbane by Dr Cathryn Lloyd and Andrew Rixon.

When I arrived at their workshop on Saturday morning, it was scheduled for a 10am start. I arrived around 9.50am. What I was welcomed to, was a tea and coffee station with some snacks, a table where I could write my own name tag, chairs scattered around the room, as well as flipcharts on walls with questions written on them, like ‘What’s your favourite movie?’, ‘What are your hopes for today?’, ‘What does community building mean to you?’.

We were encouraged to grab flipchart pens that were scattered around and add our thoughts. It was a really welcoming space, where it was easy to meet other participants as you’d have something to talk about, given the level of activity in the room.

The ragged start went on for about 15 mins then we were asked to take our seats. It meant if anyone was arriving late, it didn’t matter, they didn’t miss the critical introduction to the workshop.

What the facilitators did well

What Cathryn and Andrew did really well was set the expectation right.

We are all so used to arriving on time, taking our seat and waiting expectantly for the facilitator, the expert up the front, to leap in. What this does is create an environment which shifts that expectation from expert up the front; to us learning from each other.

I think it could get a little intimidating if you were an introvert, however Cathryn and Andrew met each participant, gave them instructions and things to do, invited them to grab a cuppa, and walk around the room, exploring each of the different stations.

How can you use this in your workshop?

I’m facilitating some leadership sessions in Hong Kong next month and I think I’ll start this approach. I’ll create stations with some key questions, some could be related to leadership like, ‘What’s one word you think of when you hear the world ‘great leadership’, or ‘courageous leadership’ but also some general questions, like some of the questions you use in icebreakers, like ‘If you were an animal, what animal and why?’.

Questions that are simple to answer, that people and don’t mind answering in public to create a conversation.

You could also appeal to different learning styles and include a table with some tactile activities, like building blocks or a jigsaw perhaps?

How does this work for meetings?

If you also want to scale it down for a meeting, then all you need to do is cover non-vital things at the beginning of the workshop, so even going around the room and asking a question like, ‘What’s been a highlight for you this week?’ - you can use these type of relationship building games as a way to start the meeting, without really starting the meeting and jumping into the context behind a decision.

What about getting people back on time after breaks?

One strategy I observed recently happened when I was co-facilitating a leadership session with Brendan Croucher in Central Queensland.

As we were coming back from lunch, Brendan quickly opened up his laptop and decided to show a video. He started playing it 2mins before everyone was due back from the break.

The video went for about 4 mins though and it was the type of video that you could drop in at and laugh anytime, you didn’t need to watch it from the beginning to understand what was going on.

It worked - it signalled that we were about to get underway (loud sounds and lights off) but if someone was late it didn’t really matter too much after the break , and as a facilitator you didn’t really need to sit through that awkward ‘do we start or not? type of tension.

Prevent the late arrivals!

Another thing you can do that may help prevent people from showing up late in the first place, is setting your meeting or workshop to start at a precise time.

When people hear a 9am start time they think of cool I’ll leave my desk at 8.59, grab the lift down and wander in a few minutes past. But 9.03am? That’s pretty precise.

Sean De’Souza who I’ve featured on the First Time Facilitator does this with his workshops. He said, in his earlier days, that after 9.03 they would close the doors and leave a sign out saying that the doors were closed and to try again next week!

No one ever showed up late again.

What do you do in this situation?

How about you? What kind of things do you do when you’re waiting for people to arrive to your workshop or meeting. Do you wait, or do you start?

Comment below!