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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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”.


Performing When the Lights Come On

May 3, 2009

This week we began our cycle of final client presentations and I was reminded of the importance of performing well in the meeting. This is another “obvious point from Phil”, but let me elaborate.

You can have the most dynamic, data driven and compelling story in the world. But if you don’t sell it and respond credibly to questioning in the meeting then you’re dead. Don’t forget that your audience is not just buying into your content. They are deciding whether they buy you.

So what can we do to improve our likelihood of success? Let’s break it down into components:

The Presentation

I won’t spend too much time here as I think this is an entire multi-post series. However, a few important points are worth making.

1)     Make sure it looks professional – If you couldn’t take the time to make it appear decent, why should I take time to listen? 

2)     Be sure to have run it by stakeholders for vetting and input (as appropriate) – You don’t want to be surfacing “new” or controversial information in most cases. You want people to be saying “I agree” and “that will work” etc. Particularly if you are looking for a decision in the meeting you need all “Ts” crossed and “I’s” dotted. Any doubts will send you to “take another look at that and we’ll re-consider this…” hell.

3)     Have organized it logically to tell the story you want to convey based on your audience – Make sure the story flows and builds sensibly. Your audience won’t all be at the same place, so be careful to ensure you’ve given enough context or background. If you are building to one conclusion you organize differently than if you have a series of decisions etc. Never jam up your material with lots of junk slides. Feel free to use your appendix liberally. A general rule of thumb on slides is that if you don’t have 2-3 minutes of discussion per slide (on average) then you should push it to the back.  I’ll write more on this in the future.

4)     Don’t fall in love with your research/data. There is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”. It essentially states when you know something too well you have a hard time summarizing it simply for novices. Never forget you have spent hours, weeks or months thinking about some of your material. Your audience has 30-60 minutes. Bring it up to an understandable level of summary. Also exclude unnecessary charts or data that are “cool” but not relevant to your central story. The appendix can be huge and is great for this content. You certainly want people to understand how much work has been done, but don’t want to distract.

The Delivery

As I mention above, if you deliver your content poorly it will die. You may not get eaten up, more likely you will just be ignored. Your ability to “stand and deliver” will have a big influence on your effectiveness.

1)     Be confident. Lack of confidence is a killer. It makes everyone in the room less sure of what you are telling them and raises unnecessary doubts. If you are not in fact confident, figure out how to seem so. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it”.  The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.

2)     Understand your goals and be disciplined in what you do/don’t say. You can’t be trying to make 26 points. Pick your 2-3 major storyline elements and hammer them. You should not get to the end and have people say “that was great” and not know what they need to do.

3)     Pace your content appropriately for the level of thought and discussion required. If you have 63 slides and need several contentious decisions made then 60 minutes isn’t enough. Sometimes you are asked to recommend, sometimes to facilitate discussion. These are very different goals and require different structure of content and delivery of material. Plan accordingly.

4)     Be prepared for challenges. It’s important to have thought through who will be in the room (stakeholders) and what each person’s likely interests and objections are. Ideally you’re on top of this enough to have adjusted your slides to address this, but either way you need to be able to respond in real time.

5)     Plan potential responses. For the top likely challenges you can build well formulated responses, even including specific appendix slides. It’s very compelling when you can specifically address these types of challenges. First, you demonstrate that you thought of the issue. Second, you carried the thought through to analysis and built content around it. Third, it potentially allows you to show respect to opposing points of view. The act of building content can convey open-mindedness.

My experience is that if you are well prepared for key lines of questioning then you will receive fewer challenges as the presentation progresses. Basically, they’ve bought that you know your stuff and allow you to proceed. If you can’t address the first several challenges…ouch. It’s going to be a long day.

6)     Understand the room & setting you are in. You need to be prepared for all the little details of staging. Are we around a table, are there 5 or 50 people etc.? There isn’t a universal rule for “what’s best” . But you do need to understand the environment you’ll be in to effectively plan your delivery.

7)     Be respectful in responding. If you lose your temper or are casually dismissive of any audience member you severely limit your effectiveness.

8)     Practice. If the first time you’re going through your material is in the moment then you won’t have anticipated many of the pitfalls inherent in your content. Several dry runs turn up both flaws in logic, as well as slide/content mistakes.

9)     Manage your nerves/Have fun! I personally enjoy the “joust” of presenting and persuading, but I still get nervous. Practice helps this. In addition, I’d encourage you to take the attitude that this is your opportunity to show all your work.

There are many other subtle tips to offer, but if you actually work at the advice above you’ll have less pain and more success. A disproportionate amount of career success comes from how well you deliver in these key situations. You want to be building a positive reputation.

Let me know if you have questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas more.


Answering “so, tell me about yourself…”

March 7, 2009

An almost universal interview question is some version of “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume”. Despite this being entirely predictable and a softball question, I see way too many interviewees butcher it or at least under-deliver on it. An earlier post on interviewing basics outlines how to handle the overall interview. I want to dig into how to handle what is likely the first question.

 

Build a Framework

 

Always remember that you are trying to convey several main ideas to your interviewer. Every story or example you offer should re-enforce these themes. In the Consulting Enterprise program we discuss storyboarding and building your logic “pyramid”. This is simply a specific application of the concept. Note: Barbara Minto has written a detailed methodology on building effective communication frameworks (pyramids) that I’ll describe in a future post.

 

I tend to recommend breaking your communication goals into 3-4 categories. Two things you are absolutely, always trying to get across are 1) you can do the job and 2) you are a good fit. The other categories (leadership, teamwork, etc.) will vary by firm and position and require you to do a little research.

 

Capability

·        General capability. Convince me you are a “do-er”, that you have overcome obstacles, are smart and have progressed in your activities etc.

·        Specific capabilities. This relates to the position in question. For a financial analyst job, can you describe relevant coursework or experience? Do you respond well to probes about your thought process?

·        Fundamentally, this is an “am I impressed with you?” category.

 

Fit

·        Cultural fit. Are you one of us? Do you seem to understand our culture? Are your goals aligned with what our organization can deliver?

·        Likeability. This is the “airport test”. Are you someone I want to be on a team with? Did we build rapport? It sounds like “cultural fit” but is subtly different. There may be people you really like who are a bad cultural fit and vice versa.

·        Likelihood to accept. Given the competitiveness of recruiting in many situations, recruiters have to gauge actual interest. Have you convinced me that this is really what you want?

 

Other categories

·        What other major themes do you need to hit. Decide and break down into sub messages.

 

Strategy

 

When launching into your self-description, you need to focus on a few key things.

 

·        Keep it concise. Depending on your career stage, this should be 2-5 minutes. For students, 3 minutes is a decent guideline. Also, always remember Mark Twain’s quote to the effect that he apologized for writing a long letter, but he didn’t have the time to write a short one.

 

Don’t hit on every thing you have done. BORING. Only touch on one or two key things from each position or phase of your experience that relates to your bigger themes. Part of the test is showing that you know what’s important.

 

Also, save the detail on your good examples for later. Just give the “takeaway” at this stage. You don’t want to distract from the flow of your story.

 

At a certain level, you simply need to get through it…

 

·        Tell a story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. You need to bring the listener along with you. Develop a story “through line” that logically connects your experiences and development and leads to you sitting where you are, very much wanting the job the interviewer is evaluating you for.

 

·        Anticipate concerns.  We can often predict the gaps people see in our experience. Take time to subtly rebut them with your examples and story. Example, you are interviewing for a job requiring quantitative skills, but are a history major (I faced this). Then emphasize examples of success dealing with quantitative problems. Could be A’s in Finance or a project etc. But get out in front of it.

 

·        Ask for the job. Make clear to me from the beginning that you are excited about the position. You need to be strong on this. I see a lot of people visibly waffle and show their uncertainty. That is deadly. Your competition isn’t wavering (at least the smart ones).

 

Example (Abbreviated for space and annotated for commentary)

 

I often try to model an answer back for people. I’ll try to do a simulation here in print. Imagine me interviewing for a management consulting job coming out of MBA. I had a graduate degree in history and no direct work experience.

 

Question: “So Phil, why don’t you walk me through your resume…”

 

Answer: “Thanks so much for the opportunity to interview. I’m really excited about Ernst & Young and consulting.”

 

“I think I’ve always been interested in business and problem solving. My grandfather was a corporate senior exec and we always talked business and politics. He even gave me a subscription to Kiplinger’s when I was in middle school.” (Connecting interest to my past, explaining logic of transition from academia to business).

 

“I grew up out east, but decided to take a chance and go to school a long way from home at Rice in Houston, TX to study history. I think I was curious about how events unfolded and created our world.” (Demonstrating independence and willingness to take risks and willingness to move for opportunities)

 

“In school, I was convinced that I wanted to be a history professor. I took a heavy load in Poli Sci and History, while also holding a lot of leadership positions. Probably the most significant was being one of the founding justices of my school’s University Court. We had to figure out a lot of internal process and develop institutional credibility. I was fortunate enough to be elected Chief Justice my senior year.” (Leadership, work ethic, process orientation. Limited examples to one. More data is on resume and remains to be used for questions and probing.)

 

“I decided to pursue my PhD in History and followed that path to grad school. Along the way I realized what I liked was the debate and intellectual interaction of the classes and seminars, as well as the teaching. What I didn’t particularly enjoy was writing books and that is ultimately how you are evaluated and promoted. I also better understood the economics and determined business school was a better fit for me. “(Explains transition in terms consultant will probably understand, connects interests to consulting relevant skills like rigorous debate and explaining concepts.)

 

“Here at Carlson, I have really focused on developing more tangible experience and skills. I have taken a broad course load and done well with it. In addition, I have held internships during school at 3M in strategy, last summer at Malt-O-Meal and currently am taking the New Product Development class which requires 15-20 hours a week of my time to develop a business plan and working prototype of a piece of microprocessor test equipment for a local company. In particular, I’d note my summer internship. My boss had not had an intern before, so I was assigned a broadly defined goal and was forced to scope the project and get it done while also doing detailed market analytics on a daily basis in support of the business. It really forced me to get efficient and clear.” (Showing hard work, ability to sustain effort, ability to take on technical tasks)

 

“And now I’m looking for a management consulting job. I think it’s the most challenging and interesting opportunity out there for me. I’ve consistently sought bigger challenges wherever I’ve been and this is the best path for me. My wife and I have discussed the lifestyle and demands of the position and we are committed to the requirements. She has a demanding job that requires travel and so understands. What else I can I tell you?” (Hit on desire for job, understanding of demands and thoughtful decision that it was a good fit)

 

What did I hit on?

·        Capability: multiple examples of skills required in consulting, teaching/team work, regular engagement in extra-curricular activities, several clear examples of quant work etc. I gave them plenty to probe on while (hopefully) instilling initial confidence.

·        Fit: Likeable? I don’t know…But I hit on the rest. Lifestyle, travel and work demands are all at least partially addressed.

 

Is this perfect? Of course not, but it’s not bad. I encourage everyone to practice your story. If nothing else, it forces you to figure your story out! J

 

You also never know when you’ll need to deliver it. It may not be just in an interview. Or better stated, remember that you are ALWAYS interviewing. You never know where your next opportunity will come from.


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.


Structure is Important (Duh!)

February 14, 2009

One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.

 

I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.

 

The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.

 

Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.

 

So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.

 

First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.

 

1.      Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.

2.      Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.

3.      Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.

4.      Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.

5.      Then of course, you have to actually do the research.

6.      Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.

·        A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.

·        Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.

·        Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.

 

Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.

 

Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.