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Managing Editor, Network World Fusion

Tips for holding better meetings

May 06, 20033 mins
Data Center

* They don’t have to be boring wastes of time

One of my colleagues says it best. When he’s in a meeting, his Instant Messenger away message reads: “The only thing that comes out of a meeting is people.” And all too often, that’s true.

Although they’re supposed to be productive uses of our time, most meetings have morphed into long, boring, pointless exercises, where we sit and pretend to listen to the person speaking, but we’re really thinking of all the other things we could be doing at that moment.

That’s why I was excited to talk with management and leadership expert Don Andersson, who breaks meetings down into three types:

* All Hear This: These are meetings for passing along information, with no questions except for clarification.

* Show and Tell: This is how you could describe most staff meetings. Everyone sits around bored as each person updates the others on what he or she is doing.

* Make a Decision:  The name says it all. The group needs to come out of the meeting with a plan of action.

“The biggest challenge for meetings is to first of all know why you’re calling it,” Andersson says. “What is it you want to accomplish through the meeting? Put that in the form of a question that needs to be answered.”

And, he adds, agendas don’t cut it alone. “There’s an awful lot of times that the agenda says a lot of what we’re going to be covering, but we don’t know what we’ve got to do when we cover it,” he says. “We’re going to cover all these items on the agenda, but now what?”

Since many of the meetings I attend fall into the Show and Tell category, I asked Andersson what steps managers can make to improve them. It turns out, the best improvement would be not holding them at all.

“The only reason you have [a Show and Tell meeting] is if people are working in silos and are not working cross-functionally at all,” he says. “It means people haven’t been talking.” Show and Tells are symptoms that the department is not communicating, or even functioning, as well as it could, Andersson adds. The only valid reason for a Show and Tell is for colleagues to explain what they’re doing in the context of asking for assistance so they can bring their project to the next level. If its purpose is to just keep tabs on what everyone’s up to, you need to improve your communication.

Next week, Andersson will pass along advice on how to improve the critical Make a Decision meetings – and ensure you leave with a decision.

In an unrelated note, if you ever wondered what it’s like working for Microsoft, check out this blog entry from a new employee: