Become a meeting master

IT managers often get pulled this way and that: execs want face time, staffers need guidance, and users need help. It’s easy to get stuck in too many time-consuming meetings that could be used to brainstorm new innovations or streamline current operations.

We spoke with meeting consultants to find out what meetings you should keep, what meetings you can ditch, and how to get the most out of the important ones.

When you should have a meeting

Senior research analyst Jennifer Perrier-Knox of the London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. said meetings are really only necessary in a few situations. These include new information to convey to a group, key status reporting, getting a public commitment from someone, creative brainstorming, and staff performance discussions.

It’s important to know beforehand what the meeting objectives and deliverables are, said Donna Karlin, president of Ottawa-based A Better Perspective business coaching practice and member of the Microsoft Unified Communications Group Vision Team consulting group.

Prioritization is also key, said Karen Denega, founder of Toronto-based executive coaching firm Cobalt Blue Consulting.

“Determine what meetings come first based on deadlines,” she said. “A meeting should be held when it is determined that face-to-face is the best way to convey the information, and you don’t want that to-ing and fro-ing of information.”

What the meetings should be about

The business side might not be in the know about the true top IT priorities — especially in the wake of a recession that has many enterprises edgy about their finances. Sebastien Ruest, vice-president of services research with Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., said that, when it comes to planning meetings over the next while, there are three things on which IT should concentrate its efforts.

1. Manage devices better IT managers must decrease the complexity of their environments. “There are too many devices floating around these days, from laptops and smartphones to thin clients and blades,” said Ruest. “You need to manage them better, and ensure the security of these devices, too.”

2. Streamline your applications “People have installed too many applications,” Ruest said. “You often have 300 to 400 layered in a spaghetti fashion, which is a waste.”

3. Keep your staff happy IT is often seen as just a support function, said Ruest, so it can be a challenge to keep staff happy if they feel underappreciated. “So don’t lose them,” said Ruest. And one way to retain your staff, said Perrier-Knox, is one-on-one staff meetings. “That way, employees can really see how they are performing and where they are improving, or need improvement. Too much time in meetings is spent reporting upwards, yet we need IT departments to do more downward coaching to ensure that their staff is getting the professional development they need.” This can improve department efficiency levels, and thus IT’s value to the enterprise as a whole.

How to get out of meetings

Once you’ve figured out the meetings you really need to attend, you can start cutting out the ones you don’t. As Karlin said, “There is a middle ground.”

1. Pick your poison Perhaps there is only a specific part of the meeting that you can learn from or contribute to. If that’s the case, then you can just attend these portions of the meeting. This approach is growing in popularity among the time-strapped workers of today, according to Karlin.

2. Send a surrogate If your presence isn’t absolutely necessary, but there are a few helpful IT-related tidbits to be had, send someone else who might benefit from the information or contribute as a member of the team.

3. Make sure you’re mandatory Denega said that getting the meeting manager to briefly outline your role in the meeting is another way to politely excuse yourself. She said, “If they can’t come up with a way you’re adding value to the meeting, then you can show your appreciation for being invited, explain your other previous commitments, and bow out gracefully.”

How to make meetings better

There are some meetings that you can’t get out of, but there are ways to make them more productive and efficient.

1. No agenda? No meeting This should be everybody’s meeting mantra, said Karlin. An agenda is the basis for a well-run meeting, ensuring that everyone stays on topic. The agenda should be sent out no fewer than three days prior, said Karlin. “It should suggest the timeslots needed to discuss everything, including challenges and projects where the status has changed,” she said. Once everyone sees the agenda, they can always suggest ways to make the meeting run more smoothly, such as putting items on the back-burner for a later date if they aren’t time-sensitive.

2. Put someone in charge “It’s important to appoint an accountability checker,” Karlin said. “You need constant reality checks, so the checker can keep an eye on the agenda, and keep track of time and make sure people don’t go off track.” Rotate this position so that everyone learns how to run a meeting well—and there are no hard feelings against the person keeping time. Denega recommends the checker also take informal meeting minutes and then distribute them to the attendees afterward—and, if useful, append them to the next meeting’s agenda—so that people can track the project progress.

3. Always Be Closing Think of meetings as an opportunity to sell new ideas and updated plans. Said Karlin: “People who work in IT tend to speak computer-ese, and don’t really get across what impact it will have on the business. You need to idiot-proof it.” One way of doing this is to provide a backgrounder for the businesspeople attending the meeting—send out a single sheet that details how the technology works in layman’s terms and its impact on everyone’s day-to-day existence. Once you’re in your meeting, make sure to always tie IT’s operations—and innovations—to how you can actually make other’s people’s jobs easier. Use actual terms, rather than abstracts: instead of calling something a “real time-saver,” for instance, tell your listeners it will reduce the amount of grunt work data entry currently required on their most hated app.

4. Speak their language “You need to get inside each person’s thinking style,” said Denega. “You need to give information to the other people in the way they prefer to receive information.” This means tailoring your message to each listener in the room by switching between the communication styles of all the attendees, ensuring everyone stays engaged. You could start, for instance, with the hard facts to placate the Type-A personalities, and then stay behind to hash out ideas with the creative types.

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