New Blog Site

June 16, 2010

All – I have a new site you can find here: http://www.phils-career-blog.com/

This will remain until I can figure out the mechanics of redirects. :-)

All my prior content has been transferred and all new posts will be at the new site.

Thanks. Phil


Building Good PowerPoint – Part 1

June 3, 2010

I’m going to go off on a clear communication and PowerPoint harangue for at least the next few posts. Hopefully it will be interesting. At a minimum it will make me feel better.

A big part of my day job is spent teaching, helping construct, reviewing and delivering presentations to either classes or clients. I have helped build or witnessed hundreds of presentations over the last decade, so I see a lot of PowerPoint and have developed a strong opinion about what works and doesn’t work.

I just taught an executive education session on Critical Thinking & Communication that I’ve been offering for several years now. As attendance has steadily grown, I continue to be surprised at how much help people want with the basics of clear communication. I started with the class being largely about problem formulation and research design, as people struggle with that as well. But I’ll likely be breaking out the presentation component as its own class in the future because of the demand for help building well structured communication.

It re-enforced for me how few of us are ever really exposed to serious critical thinking training and feedback. I was fortunate to get beaten down for poor thinking from an early age in a good school system and had difficult teachers who actually wanted evidence. My business communication perspective emerged from this background. “So what?” and “Prove it!” are base concepts I took away. So how can we think about this in getting better at management/business communications?

I plan to post on three sub-themes over the next few weeks:

1)     Commenting on the “PowerPoint is lame/sucks talk”. My biggest argument here is (again) “so what?”. It’s the de-facto presentation format, so use it well rather than just railing against it.

2)     Building a useful and compelling story. The focus will be on structuring the communication vehicle, NOT on how to present.

3)     Building a good PowerPoint slide. Too much bad PowerPoint has been perpetuated on the world already.

Part 1: PowerPoint isn’t the biggest problem…

…it’s how simplistically people use it. It’s the thinking more than the tool.

A recent New York Times article “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint” offered up as an example of this tension as currently experienced in the US military.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

Here’s a graphic of that slide.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

My thought: That’s exactly right. It’s not a terrible slide if the takeaway is “this is immensely complex.” It is terrible if the author intended to actually go through it as a template for discussing causality in the conflict.

Later in the article, another officer, Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

I agree. But would a 1 page word document be better? Maybe – I am an advocate of prose forcing you to actually articulate the thought. But crummy logic and weak analysis is what it is.

In this case, military officers are presenting in a format that is approved by management and allowing sloppy thinking to be passed along. I am confident that the presenters didn’t think “I’m going to show my bosses (the generals) something that represents my views in a format that has worked for me in the past” rather than “let’s show the boss junk and see what he says!”.

If I’m right, this means the material McChrystal and McMaster tear apart represents what their chain of command deemed appropriate. They didn’t come to that conclusion on their own. It’s been inculcated. That makes them just like thousands of other organizations.

So what’s a soul to do? We have to present our content and most of us reside in organizations that assume PowerPoint usage.

It’s not very practical to say “PowerPoint sucks, so don’t use it.” Many of us live in a PowerPoint world. As an executive at 3M and a large consulting firm, I didn’t have the luxury of saying “I think PPT is inelegant, so here’s my clever rendering of data in a form you are unaccustomed to. Please be impressed by my clear thinking and originality as I ask you for phase gate approval in a format completely different from the other 10 proposals you saw today.”

Edward Tufte is a thought leader in information design that I respect highly. I would echo his sentiment from this old article in Wired magazine:

“PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”

He decimates PowerPoint in a pamphlet he published several years ago (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint). I agree with his assessment of how he sees it applied and how its templates drive you to appearing shallower than you might like. (As an example, I mock my students who use “SmartArt” templates or stupid clip art as substitutes for actual thinking.The tool’s name is an oxymoron.)

Never-the-less, I think we are stuck with PowerPoint. So how do we make an admittedly challenged tool as useful as possible? We’ll explore that in several coming posts. The keys are actually having a point, a story to communicate it and then building specific slides that represent your thinking.

In parting, I saw this hilarious video of Don McMillan offering funny, but sound, advice on using PowerPoint on David Airey’s thoughtful blog on design and branding.

It’s important to laugh or you’d cry. Let me know your thoughts…


Congratulations to the Class of 2010!

May 15, 2010

As another school year wraps up, current students head off to summer and you are graduating. I wanted to share my sincere congratulations and a few hopes for you.

First – the congratulations. You have worked hard for several years to complete a difficult course of work. You and your loved ones should heartily celebrate a job well done and degree earned with a lot of hard work and long days/nights.

Second – Thank you! I always feel privileged to get to work with smart, energetic young professionals early in their career. Your energy and enthusiasm continues to inspire me. I also want to thank you for your sustained efforts over the last year and a half. Your work has helped your clients be more successful, build the school’s reputation and build your skill set. It means a lot to them, but in particular to me.

Now, my hopes & wishes for you

Be curious – Don’t stop exploring. You won’t find your passion sitting on the couch.

Be courageous – Refuse to “settle”. Stretch yourself with challenges beyond what you think you can do. Regrets are terrible and some of the biggest start with “I always wished I had…”

Take the long view – Things play out over time. Don’t get too hung up on keeping score on short intervals.

Keep learning – When you stop learning, you stop growing.

Be flexible – Change is constant. Don’t fight it, be it.

Be true to yourself – Do what you think is right and live with the consequences. Don’t let others dictate the terms of your existence.

Work hard, but have fun – Life is too short to be miserable, so have fun. By the same token, few things worth doing are easy, so don’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up and work hard.

Build strong relationships – As one of my favorite country music songs says “it’s a long trip alone”.  You’ll live longer and be happier if you do.

Be useful – I think you’ll be surprised at how many things work out for you when you focus on helping others first.

I wish all of you the best as you move on to bright futures. Please stay in touch and let me know what I can do for you. It’s been a pleasure working with you.

Regards. Phil


A New Jobless Era?

March 31, 2010

I was just reading an excellent article in The Atlantic: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America – Magazine – The Atlantic

It discusses the long term implications of unemployment on individuals and our society. What I thought was particularly interesting (and scary) was the coupling of the personal impact of unemployment financially and emotionally with the current “millenial” generations’ personality. We’ll see how things play out. This is well worth a read.


Pre-selling Ideas

March 28, 2010

A big part of any professional’s success is the ability to get buy-in for their ideas. The ideas could be big investments, changes to internal process that require significant change, making a major hire…anything really. In situations where a group will weigh in on a decision it is particularly important to “pre-sell” your idea.

What do I mean by “pre-sell”? Simply allowing other stakeholders or decision-makers sufficient prior input so that you can factor it into your ultimate presentation and delivery.

Reasons for doing it include:

Understanding. You want to be clear on the politics and decision making process. Who in the room gets along with whom? What are everyone’s pet projects or interests? Etc.

Testing. Running your material by people in advance allows you to understand what specific elements of your story and analysis are or are not working. You can iterate your work to better tune it to your audience’s interests and biases. An example can be as simple as using the right language or concept. The same idea may be sold on “profit growth” or “revenue growth”. Which is a better tack given the culture? In a past life, I went through having to describe everything as a Six Sigma initiative. So be it.

Quality Assurance. In “testing” I mean more pre-flighting the content. QA means making sure your math and assumptions are correct. If a key number or assumption is wrong in a public/decision making forum, your idea will die a painful and public death. This is particularly important on very technical or detail oriented topics.

Efficiency. Having more intimate 1:1 conversations allows for fuller explanation of ideas relative to a particular stakeholder’s concerns. For example, the CFO may have much more detailed financial concerns than others. If you can walk her through all your spreadsheets in advance and she knows they are in the appendix, you have her on board and don’t need to dwell on the details in a large group.

Anticipating. You want to make sure you understand who doesn’t agree with you. This allows you to plan the presentation accordingly and either directly address concerns through adapting your material or planning your rebuttal. This is particularly important in meetings where you need a decision and the group meets infrequently. Examples include quarterly gate review teams. If you miss a window, you can’t revisit for 3 months. Not good.

Inclusiveness. If an idea is “yours” it may or may not sell based on your reputation. If many or most of the people in the room listening have their fingerprints on it and can see their interests being met, it will be much more consensus driven process. The best examples are when someone challenges a number in you presentation and someone else can explain and defend the value.

Avoiding. Often politics are involved. You never want a big debate or fight to break out when your idea is up for discussion (unless you have consciously set it up that way). If several stakeholders actively disagree, get that out before the meeting and figure out how to best satisfy all parties if you can.

So some simple rules for pre-selling:

  • Show your work in advance
  • Listen
  • Give people opportunities to provide meaningful input
  • Take advice
  • Offer credit where credit is due
  • Understand stakeholder’s perspectives
  • Get work done early enough to be able to share
  • Construct content that it is clear and professional

Some obvious “don’ts”:

  • Ambush people
  • Surprise people
  • Avoid feedback
  • Go it alone

If your idea doesn’t fly, you don’t want it to be for lack of planning or effort.


Putting a Stake in the Ground

March 22, 2010

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.


Knowing which side is your bread buttered on

March 14, 2010

I’ve seen lots of people lose site of who the client/boss is. Whether it’s a consulting situation or merely your boss, it’s important to maintain focus on who it’s (relatively) most important to please. Particularly early in their career, professionals can get hung up on what’s “the right” thing  to do, presenting “the right” solution (as if there’s just the one) or naively misunderstanding what gets rewarded and punished. My point is not that idealism is wrong, but rather to keep perspective on priorities and understand “which side your bread is buttered on”.

(Caveat: There is a whole separate set of topics around this on “getting what you want” and “being politically astute”. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about these things. We’ll focus both on pleasing the boss and understanding the consequences of not pleasing him/her. There are certainly times when we decide to do what we think is appropriate and that has consequences. That’s for another post.)

First, let’s be goal oriented. As reward seeking individuals, we want to do well. This can be defined financially (won another sale, increasing my pay), reputationally (I was praised publicly, increasing my social capital), emotionally (I did good work that was important, increasing my satisfaction) and in many other ways. To get any of these you need influential people to decide you did good work.

So what’s the pecking order of who we need to please? With clear exceptions and understanding that “it depends”, I would propose the following hierarchy:

Level 1 – Your boss. You MUST please your boss. Even if your boss is ineffectual and weak, if they don’t advocate for you you will have a hard time in reviews and salary discussion. Make your boss look good and you are well on your way to good reviews.

Note: I get that some bosses are crappy and treat you poorly. In this case you need to manage a move without pissing them off. Whether you like them or not, you don’t want to turn them into career terrorists for you. Also – getting a reputation as someone who can work with anyone is a plus.

Level 2 – Your boss’ boss and chain of command. Collectively, these executives will have a big influence over your fate and your work presumably directly affects their performance. You want them to A) definitely know who you are and B) have a positive impression. Generally speaking, they will be the ones who decide whether you get other opportunities, not your boss. This is usually because they have greater span of control and more influence.

Note: They have more power, but are second on the list because your boss will still be more immediately relevant in your review, compensation etc. If your boss kills you in a review, you’re dead.

Level 3 – Clients. This could be either internal or external.

I have them third because in any individual interaction, you need to understand your boss’ priorities as you evaluate and prioritize your activities. In the long term if you piss of your clients, you’ll have a short career. I am not saying clients are less important than your chain of command. Without clients, there is not business. What I am saying is that for an early/mid-career professional, never forget who’s in charge.  For example, sometimes you need to aggravate your client to meet a firm goal in the short term.

If you are a consultant working for a client or working cross-functionally on a team outside your department in a large organization, it’s important to understand several things clearly.

First, who is actually paying (or reviewing) you? Stated differently what budget line item is your fee coming from and who is the actual decision maker? Never confuse that with “who do we deal with the most” or “who is assigned as our liaison” etc. Understand where the buck stops.

Second, you need to understand their political position. Are they internally powerful? Are they internally weak? This matters because you want to be smart about navigating a client’s environment. Whether it’s being clever in support of your primary client and their agenda or not overplaying your support because you want to win future work and they aren’t in a position to buy, you need to understand the landscape.

Managing across levels. Sometimes you have to piss someone off. Be strategic and don’t always make it the same person/group. Spread the pain and make sure you “make good” at some other time.

I’ll give a few examples I have seen in my career:

  • Partner tells you to do something that doesn’t appear in your client’s interests.
  • Client staffer (but not your “paying” client) you really like is going to get hosed by a pending decision.
  • Your boss’ boss asks you to do something not in your boss’ best interest.

How would you handle these? There’s no “right” answer, but I’d encourage you to think broadly about how to prioritize and always remember “which side your bread is buttered on”.


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