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…

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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.


Creative and Critical Thinking at B-Schools

January 13, 2010

Here’s an interesting piece from the NYT’s regarding some innovations in b-school curriculum. (Thanks to Kyle for the link). 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/business/10mba.html

I’m encouraged by what many schools (particularly Rotman and Stanford) are doing to encourage both divergent and integrative thinking. I often feel our curriculum gets very functionally anchored and students struggle to pull broader concepts together as they move through school when most subject matter has been relatively functionally specific.

I feel that there aren’t “marketing” problems or “finance” problems. There are business problems that require diverse expertise and perspectives to arrive at the best solutions. Our CSOM Enterprise programs help us deliver situations that force students to do this. It’s interesting to see how some other schools are adressing the same issues.


Market Sizing Fallacies

November 7, 2009

Here’s a great post from Colin Raney at IDEO who nicely summarizes what he terms the “Large Market Fallacy”: http://colinraney.com/2009/08/the-large-market-fallacy/

I have seen this at multiple steps in my career. People get too excited about big numbers and fail to dig deep enough to understand key market drivers, assumptions etc. I have written on effective planning techniques to avoid this in past posts.

Here was my reaction:

Here’s my observation about why people do this. I think there are 2-3 big reasons (that have some overlap).

1) Not as many people as we want to have actual curiosity and drive to solve problems. Intellectual lazinesss/lack of time is a huge factor.

2) Many people in positions to be doing the plan either lack skin in the game (as you point out), or more commonly (in my experience) they lack actual experience to even understand the depth of their ignorance. It’s a “they don’t know what they don’t know” issue.

3) Corporate culture sets this up as well. Many execs WANT the exiting plan to look good and figure that they’ll “figure out the details later”

So I’m with Colin. Avoid being lazy or ignorant and falling into the Large Market Fallacy Trap.


I’ve seen this before…

June 27, 2009

Why are some people so good at “seeing” things and how did they get good? In my opinion, “experience” is really just the development of a personal set of cognitive heuristics for dealing with what’s in front of you. In basic terms, you develop a sense of “I’ve seen this before and I have a pretty good idea of how it goes…”

This idea off pattern recognition, evolution, ecosystems and systems thinking has always fascinated me. Back when I was still in school, I can remember the effect the reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and James Moore’s The Death of Competition had on my thinking about business and relationships: the interconnectedness of it all. Some of their thinking is dated and gets a little abstract, but the core ideas, that there are a limited number of truly distinct patterns of interaction out there is a useful one.

This was brought to mind this week as I’m reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (on my favorite new toy – Amazon Kindle DX!). He is a paleontologist describing the evolution of human physiology. Great book, but the relevant point that sparked this post was a series of quotes he made regarding his learning process as a field worker locating and identifying potential fossils.

He starts by describing his essential blindness compared to experienced colleagues. The following are a few quotes that lay out his progression in awareness and thinking:

“Finally, one day, I saw my first piece of tooth glistening in the desert sun. It was sitting in some sandstone rubble, but there it was, plain as day. The enamel had a sheen that no other rock had; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, not exactly – I was looking at things like it every day. The difference was this time I finally saw it, saw the distinction between rock & bone. … All of a sudden, the desert floor exploded with bone…as if I were wearing a special new pair of glasses and a spotlight was shining on all the different pieces of bone.”

“ Over time, I began to learn the visual cues for other kinds of bones: long bones, jaw bones and skull parts. Once you see these things, you never lose the ability to find them.”

“Twenty years later, I know that I must go through a similar experience every time I look for fossils someplace new…I’ll struggle for the first few days…The difference is that now I have some confidence that a search image will kick in.”

“One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence.”

This lays out beautifully the progression you see in people’s lives and careers, IF they are paying attention.

The point is that as you get “better” (more observant, more experienced, etc.) you are developing mental heuristics. Your mind is being trained to think in new ways and short cut many steps based on experience, building new pathways in the brain. Malcolm Gladwell coins this “thin-slicing” in Blink.

I see two ways you need to develop and apply this pattern recognition concept. The first is simply getting better at it within a domain. This is essentially what everything above is really about. Develop deep knowledge and you can then get very good at a subset of things.

The second is to me what separates really excellent and creative thinkers and problem solvers from those who aren’t. Can you abstract and generalize patterns and apply them to new venues? Are you good at analogy?

Most problems are not new and many apparently unrelated problems are very often quite similar. This is what Senge gets at in the Fifth Discipline. There are a limited number of system archetypes and components that describe most systems, whether they be human, animal or natural.  

Effective general managers and consultants need both abilities. I have seen people promoted too quickly without broad experience struggle in that they are “learning on the job” at too high a level. Understanding all the moving parts of a $20MM business is easier to learn, but is much more like running a $1BB business than is going from running a $1BB function in a company to running a similar size/budget business. The business owner has more complex networks they are navigating.

Having said that, you will never have all the experience you need. So how do you manage learning curves? Well, being good at analogy and applying prior learning in other areas to a new problem is very effective. If you can’t you’ll struggle…a lot. (Curiosity, drive etc. all help a lot too!)

In my coursework, I try to teach people generic skills around problem solving  that are broadly applicable so they can be flexible in their thinking as we all have different cognitive styles. In part, this is to force people to apply themselves to answering questions themselves. If I tell you something you may or may not remember it, but even if you do you aren’t likely to understand it. If you go figure it out on your own, however, you’re likely to “never lose the ability to see” what you’ve learned as Shubin points out.

So, what’s the “so what?”

1)     Developing experience and expertise is about developing a sense of pattern recognition. This allows you to “see” things more clearly and with less work over time.

2)     You have to struggle through the hard work of developing this ability. It comes from doing. A guide can tell you what to look for and mentor you along the way, but the insight has to be yours or you won’t really own it.

3)     Being able to extend your insights into analogous environments is very powerful. Particularly if you want to be a general manager.


Driving to Yes or No: Case Study

March 1, 2009

In my last post I talked about taking a more investigative approach to growth opportunity evaluation. In this one, I’ll discuss both what it looked like leading a venture using this methodology while touching on what it meant from an executive level.

 

I had to eat my own cooking when I took a position leading a “growth opportunity” at 3M. We had adopted a phased approach to allocating budget and resources to opportunities through a venture board structure (ie: limited capital allocated to competing business plans). In the “opportunity” phase, an idea received modest funding to answer high level questions. If the opportunity proved compelling, then it could progress to being a “venture” at which point it would receive higher funding for a pilot or launch year. After that a division would have to own the P&L. I think it’s a good process. Divisions compete for funding new ideas, but take it seriously because they know they will eventually have to own the financial results.

 

My experience was with a new business format opportunity based on an aftermarket car care model that quietly developed in Asia. One of the wonderful things about a diversified global business like 3M’s is that each country unit has incentives to develop innovative new business models based on local market conditions.

 

My challenge was to determine whether we could take our traditionally product based business and brand into retail “do-it for me” services. Our product line included window tint, paint protection film, waxes, polishes etc. This was clearly a global question, in part because 3M China had developed successful 3M branded service centers with partners and also because the Asian car markets were all growing so aggressively with first time, inexperienced car owners.

 

I developed my “issue tree” outlining what I thought the big questions were and also worked through a reverse P&L as well as assumptions list (see last post).  Among my major assumptions (in no particular order) were that 1) we could develop the skills and knowledge necessary to win, 2) that we could have a broad enough portfolio to be relevant to consumers, 3) that brand mattered 4) we could hit defined revenue and income targets and 5) that we had sufficient alignment globally to get it done internally.

 

I went through three phases. The first was a study phase that cost us largely my time and a little research. We easily passed the hurdle at this phase gate. I think of this type of review as passing “the laugh test”. We had executive support and they were interested in the opportunity, so this gate was more of a check in.

 

For the second phase, we needed to do much more work on business model, detailed market understanding and a risk assessment. As a part of each gate, you have to define success metrics and detailed plan and budget for the next phase. Part of my plan included Michele, the kids and I moving to Shanghai, China for an extended stay in 2006 to understand the Asian business.

 

To short cut the better part of a year’s work, here’s what I determined and why I think the process and methodology was a good one. In the end, I recommended a retrenchment of the existing opportunity in China and placing better controls on its use of brand and avoidance of the franchise law for several reasons:

 

1.      The team had been very creative and had excellent results, but the Chinese regulatory environment related to franchising changed in 2005 in ways that were disadvantageous to potential franchisors. Note that at the time KFC and McDonald’s didn’t franchise there either. They owned.

2.      Direct ownership did not seem viable to me given the speed of change in the market, our conservatism operationally and financially and our lack of direct experience in retail services. In addition, we couldn’t find a viable partner or acquisition target.

3.      The reality of company politics regarding brand and legal issues, lack of internal alignment globally and several other internal factors told me that this was not do-able for us.

 

There is a lot more detail than this, but fundamentally I didn’t see it happening for this opportunity. Here’s why I think the process worked.

 

1.      Two years prior to implementing this process I think this would have gotten potentially large funding and failed slowly and painfully. It was sexy, represented “breakthrough thinking” and “business model innovation” and all sorts of other applicable buzzwords.

2.      It could have been sold well and gone OK for a few years until it fell under its own weight. Typically, to be cleaned up by the next manager as the first one would have moved on to bigger things based on the buzz from their cool work. (No one ever really knows the financials of someone else’s business)

3.      We got to a “quality” no, based on data and as a result executives didn’t need to revisit the question. Note here that I always could make the math work. The sheer growth in China could carry very conservative assumptions to a positive financial case. I recommended not proceeding because of the work around the “softer” assumptions that were critical to success.

4.      Corporate was happy that a real effort had been made to answer key questions credibly and reliably.

5.      Another benefit of the process to the company was exposing talent to senior management in bake-offs that exposed the quality of people’s business acumen and drive. It highlighted how many “administrators” versus “leaders” there were.

 

In the end, we went forward as a business unit with a “federated” approach globally while laying out guidelines and serving as a knowledge and best practice sharing hub. Each country took its own approach within guidelines that we laid out. We didn’t try to force a uniform process or business model on each country unit and as a result, the business has continued to grow across 3M. We learned a great deal that has infused other business decisions as well, including some significant acquisitions (lesson: we needed other’s existing expertise and portfolio to be successful quickly). We were fortunate to have a leader who was pro-active in learning and then taking action.

 

The few caveats I have include:

1.      No process is a substitute for talent. A poor team will kill a great opportunity. This is a place to put your best people, not turf out your problems.

2.      It doesn’t work if opportunities aren’t protected. Nothing kills innovation or creativity like strangling it when things get tough.

 

I think this process is a good one. My only caution is to not fall so in love with a process or set of tools that you check your brain at the door.


Driving to Yes or No; How to Reach More Rationale Business Investment Decisions

February 23, 2009

Business investment decisions and strategy choices get so complicated. At least we like to make them that way. It justifies the large salaries and tremendous amount of time that goes into PowerPoint slides and Excel models. I’m not really that cynical, but when you’ve sat through as many PowerPoint death marches that end with a recommendation to invest and you’re not sure what you’re investing in, you get a little jaded.

 

In my prior life working on corporate and business unit level strategy at 3M several of us got turned on to the work of Rita Gunther McGrath as well as some excellent work from the Corporate Strategy Board in this area, primarily a 2003-4 report entitled “Strategic Assumptions Prioritization” that focused on Air Products corporation. McGrath is well known for her work on entrepreneurialism and growth. Her 1995 Harvard Business Review article “Discovery Driven Planning” proposed a useful (to those of us who bought in) and compelling model for how to think about prioritizing and shepherding a portfolio of growth opportunities to kill/launch decisions.

 

Often, internal capital allocation decisions and “bake-offs” between ideas can lead to PowerPoint template hell. Lots of disconnected slide or excel workbook templates that only apply to certain opportunities, not to others and the resulting desultory compliance in generating useless “analysis”. We asked ourselves: “how do I make the process genuinely useful and also more ‘fair’ as we looked at unlike opportunities (i.e.: a product vs. a service)?”

 

Based on our research and own internal needs, we devised a process based on several key steps. The first was defining a “reverse P&L/income statement”, the second was documenting the most important assumptions that drove economic success in the reverse income statement and third was conducting research to better understand the accuracy of the key assumptions and refining them as you better understood them. McGrath’s article in HBR nicely describes this and I’ll summarize in a minute.

 

The major shift for the business I was in was institutionalizing this at a business unit level and better preparing executives to challenge teams’ assumptions and also be more equipped to evaluate unlike opportunities fairly in a common process.

 

I’ll summarize the challenges, basic principles and then offer a quick summary of my experience with this at both a business unit strategy level as well as

 

Challenges and rationale

1.      Most business evaluations are set to get you to an ROI or NPV type assessment early on. For truly innovative programs, this is almost impossible. You don’t know what you don’t know. The result is that better understood opportunities (i.e.: “easier” ones) always float to the top.  Air Products (the subject of the CSB report) developed a new method for evaluating these more challenging opportunities.

2.      Many losing propositions get launched and fail for what I think of as “knowable unknowns”. You could have found out cheaply if you had really tried.

3.      Knowing what to focus on can be hard. Everything seems important at first.

 

Principles

1.      Define success as specifically as you can up front. This can mean revenue, profit margin, market share etc. Make it tangible.

2.      Write down all the significant assumptions and then rank their importance and “known-ness” (i.e.: certainty vs. uncertainty) to achieve a loose prioritization.

3.      Build a plan and timeline around the most important assumptions.

4.      Focus research and efforts on cheaply and effectively validating and invalidating these assumptions.

5.      Be creative in finding “proxies” for your assumptions.

6.      Pilot/test ideas quickly to learn about assumptions that can’t simply be “researched”, but do it efficiently.

7.      Never, never, never forget that a good plan with a bad team won’t succeed. Planning is no substitute for talent.

 

Benefits

1.      It much more clearly surfaces the key assumptions for everyone involved. Some programs get killed almost immediately once you agree on a key assumption and it doesn’t pass the “laugh test”. Other “far out” ideas become reasonable when you see the assumptions and say “we could do that!”

2.      This process is good at allowing flexibility across opportunities. Assumptions can be very different and get you to “apples to apples” comparisons.

3.      It forces you to more clearly articulate a “thesis” for the opportunity.

4.      It clearly aligns with gate-based decision processes. If you think generically in three phases (idea, pilot and launch) this gets you through them. An initial list of assumptions w/ a reverse P&L for $100 million may need a brief discussion to get $50K in seed funding to increase confidence that yields $1 million in pilot funding and the pilot will give you clarity on the potential $15 million investment required to scale. The process should be systematically reducing doubt as you move through the process.

 

My next post will be on my experience both at the BU strategy level and as an internal entrepreneur going through the process with a growth venture.