Have you ever attended (or worse run) a project meeting in which many attendees did not show up on time, appeared more interested in their smartphones and where the agenda either did not exist or appeared to be totally ignored? If so, what was the overall health of the project itself?
Organization entropy rarely spontaneously occurs – to paraphrase Brooks in the Mythical Man-Month, “How does a project get to be one year late? One poor meeting at a time!”. Being a believer in the applicability of the Broken windows theory to organization behavior, once team members and stakeholders witness a systemic lack of discipline and organization in project meetings, this will likely start to affect productivity and the overall quality of their work efforts.
To misquote Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in the organization”.
Start your meetings on time, whether or not all attendees are present. Recognizing that participants might be rushing from another meeting, try to schedule your meetings to avoid delays from previous meetings – starting at 15 minutes past the hour might be one way to build in some resource buffers. If a senior stakeholder takes offense at your attempts to enforce punctuality, challenge them by asking whether it is okay if their project deliverables are provided a few weeks late – if they can’t tolerate tardiness on those, why should they be encouraging tardiness in your meetings? Similarly, if you are running late for a meeting or are not able to attend it, have the courtesy to communicate this in advance to the meeting organizer along with your input on any decisions that were part of the meeting agenda.
Just as you would never execute a project without some plan and some understanding of the overall vision or goals for the project, never initiate a meeting without an understanding of the objectives for the meeting, the topics and timing. Even if this information is just reflected in the body of the e-mail invitation itself, this demonstrates a commitment to planning that will hopefully spread through osmosis! Conversely, if you are invited to a project (or any other meeting) without this basic information, challenge the meeting organizer to provide it. If you blindly accept and attend a meeting without having this information, you are sending the message that your time is not valuable.
Finally, as a meeting organizer, insist on some basic rules of etiquette. Discouraging chronic interruptors or those participants that appear to be distracted should start to rub off on others. The former is usually a sign of someone that has never been directly notified of the impacts of their behavior (and hence, takes silence as consent to continue). The latter might either be a bad habit or an indication that the attendee was not essential for the meeting. In either case, addressing the situation constructively but firmly is likely to percolate in the minds of the perpetrators as well as those that might be inclined (due to a lack of consequences) to emulate their behaviors.
Disciplined, organized meetings will not guarantee success but chronically poor meetings are usually a leading indicator of challenged projects.