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.


Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

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.


Dealing With Ambiguity and Murky Questions

January 2, 2010

One of the biggest differentiators I see among people is their ability to deal with ambiguity. We coach people to work with clients or bosses to understand what expectations are, but I worry that we go too far or the message is taken too literally. A professional that wants a dynamic career has to be able to balance understanding expectations with an ability to create a path on their own.

I really struggle to articulate what I mean because there certainly is an “it depends” quality to this discussion. What I’m talking about here is the ability to face a murky situation and make headway. I am NOT suggesting people ignore or not seek feedback on direction. But often you are being asked to figure it out because people don’t know the answer. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking you.

I want to talk about several different ways this struggle can play out.

Thought Process

First there is the situation where people really want to put effort into the problem, but there are cognitive reasons they are floundering. I would cluster the “flounderers” into two broad (and unscientific) categories, linear and abstract thinkers.

Linear thinkers want to know the straightest line to the answer and put together a clear Gantt chart and work plan to grind out the answer. The problem is often that the question isn’t even clear. There’s a natural iteration and struggle in projects or situations that are fuzzy. You have to be willing to work the situation, material and people through some fuzziness and not know exactly what the output will look like. You have to be willing to remain patient and positive while working through rounds of starts and stops etc.

The abstract folks are often the opposite of the linear gang. They are so focused on all the interesting combinations and permutations of the problem space or the situation that nothing ever gets committed to print and lots and lots of interesting conversations result in little if any progress. There’s often a reluctance here to “commit” to any specific path because we might not know and there could be a “better” or more ideal answer etc.

So what’s the solution? Recognize your own style and that of the group/team you’re working with. Commit to putting your ideas in print, but recognize that it will iterate A LOT the more ambiguous the question. I’ll talk more about iteration below. My generic answer to most of these situations is to put a timeline on it and start committing ideas to print and circulating them to others for iteration.

The iteration cycle is critical and often where people fall down. They mistake being asked a question with needing to answer it by themselves. Getting good thoughts in front of people early leads to more cycles of improvement and depth in the final product.

Lack of “Appropriate” Effort

The second scenario is when people either aren’t really trying or don’t know what “trying” looks like.

A common situation that I see is a basic lack of understanding of how hard it is to get things done and the level of effort (my “appropriate” above) truly required. People often want to know the straightest path to “the answer”, not understanding there are no straight paths. You will burn up a lot of time on some paths that don’t play out, but that is unavoidable. We can use tools to limit it and improve productivity, but the iteration I talk about is staying on the problem and continuing to push even as some solution paths don’t pan out.

Generation and iteration are the keys here, along with having a personal sense of stick-to-itiveness. You need to be unwilling to settle for weak answers. I see people stop at the first obstacle or early on when there are ways over, under or around the obstacles. Merely finding some web content and pasting it into PowerPoint isn’t what I’m talking about. You have to challenge yourself to keep asking why does this matter?, what are the implications? etc. You’ll often have to go create data and analysis.

I’ll conclude with those who don’t really try and dismiss them summarily. If you aren’t committed to a problem or situation, you won’t solve it, the end. So you need to decide are you in or out and owe teammates or colleagues clarity if you’re not in.

So, how this can play out in career path?

Most people I work with say they want to be challenged and have lots of responsibility, but often want to be told what/how to do it. In my experience it rarely works that way. You need to be comfortable with charting a course if you want success in organizations. There is rarely an algorithm to spit out answers to difficult situations. People who succeed regularly solve these problems by sticking to them in creative ways. Get to the point where you are open to feedback, but in lieu of it are able to proceed confidently on a course of your own devising and sticking with it until the problem is solved.


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.


The Importance of Wonder

November 6, 2009

One of my key criteria when evaluating a potential hire is “how curious are they?” Particularly in consulting, you have to want to solve problems. In my mind, you need to be curious and driven to get to answers to be a effective problem solver.

I think this column by Olivia Judson in the New York Times does a nice job of hitting on a piece of this: http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/license-to-wonder/ 

Her comments about wonder and imagination are worth considering. She lays out the case for imagination as critical to scientific inquiry. Progress isn’t a linear slog through gradual increase in the body of knowledge (“facts upon facts”). It’s lumpier progress, sometimes gradual and predictable at other times led by leaps of intuition that overturn the common understanding.

In my program, I often get feedback that I’m “too structured” or that I demand a lot from my students. Often, my point to students is about what Judson discusses. You need to have enough structure to get to good questions, but then be willing to let your mind wander and imagine possibilities. The challenge is often knowing when to turn the wandering back into concrete action steps and specific analysis and recommendations.  This takes time, thought and a lot of work. You don’t get anything right on the first try. It takes lots of iteration and feedback.

In her example, Rosalind Franklin didn’t make the critical connections about DNA’s structure because she was too rigid and linear in her thinking. Watson and Crick were more open to “playing” with ideas. Having said that, they were also driven problem solvers. Had they kept playing they wouldn’t have solved anything. Their play led to useful and increasingly accurate representations of the mystery they were trying to solve (the structure of DNA).

Business problems are often the same. There’s a time for wonder and imagination, but for it to turn out a useful product there also needs to be a time for tangible, concrete work product.

I guess experience is knowing when the balance is “just right”.