Business Needs to Fire PowerPoint

Social media is where fingers usually point when critics lament the decline of reading and attention span.  And Facebook and Twitter definitely deserve their bad reputations as attention-span killers.  But in the business world, I think there is another culprit.  I think business needs to fire PowerPoint. 

As a middle manager, a lot of my job had to do with communicating, both up and down.  The people above me absolutely would not tolerate lengthy texts.  Whatever I had to say must be said in 2-3 PowerPoint slides and conveyed in a 30-minute meeting.  And, on this basis, executives made decisions about staffing, spending, and strategies. 

Working in that environment 40+ hours per week, for many years, conditioned me to think that the bullet-point style of communication, because it is efficient, is the best.  I’m starting to question that.  We are awash in information, but lacking in knowledge and wisdom.

Look, I get it: executives are really, really busy.  I agree that they should expect to receive proposals and reports in the format that they dictate.  Their precious time and mental resources shouldn’t be wasted on listening to an employee ramble or having to pick through his idiosyncratic presentation for the key information that they need.  And, a summary in graphic and/or bullet-point format can help to focus attention on the key points. 

Problems with PowerPoint

But there are problems with using PowerPoint exclusively in delivering reports or pitching ideas.

First, the brain doesn’t listen and read at the same time.  Your audience will either be reading the slides or listening to you speak, not both. 

Second, all too often, the winning idea is the one that had the most dazzling graphics and the coolest visuals.  Appearance wins out over content. 

Most important, executives make decisions that impact how millions of dollars are spent, what a company’s strategy will be in critical areas like information security, and – not incidentally – people’s employment and lives.  It’s not reasonable to assume that correct decisions on critical issues can be made on the basis of a 30-minute meeting and 3 slides.  When important decisions must be made, PowerPoint should be, at most, a starting point.  There is no substitute for additional background information and serious deliberation. 

In Aristotle’s Way, Edith Hall describes Aristotle’s 8 steps for making decisions.  The very first one is:  Don’t decide in haste.  Others include verifying the information you have, considering precedents, considering possible outcomes and their likelihoods, and taking into account the perspectives of all impacted parties.  Could you do that in 30 minutes, after looking at 3 pages of graphics?  Do you think anyone can? 

Finally, we do ourselves no favors by habituating ourselves to receiving information in 3-slide summaries.  The more you make decisions based on incomplete, summarized information, the more your capability to study and deliberate will decline.  Executives might be smarter, more self-disciplined and harder-working than the rest of us, but they are still mortal.  Faculties that they don’t use will deteriorate. 

What Amazon Does

Jeff Bezos has famously banned PowerPoint from Amazon’s meetings.  As Bezos put it in a 2012 interview, when you have to write your ideas in complete sentences and paragraphs, it forces you to think.  Yet, a 2011 study found that half of college students surveyed have never had to write more than 20 pages in a typical semester.  If you can’t write clearly, you probably can’t think clearly.  I would add that, if you can’t read anything more complicated that 3 pages of bullet points and graphics, you probably can’t think clearly. 

Alternatives to “Death by PowerPoint”

What is the solution then?  How can we provide business decisions makers with the deep background information that they need to make important decisions, without overwhelming them? 

One idea comes from the process that Amazon uses in place of PowerPoint.  Amazon workers with ideas to discuss must write a 4-6-page memo describing their idea in narrative form, and then defend it in follow-up discussions.  What if lower-level managers had to develop such a narrative and defend their ideas in front of a murder board of peers from related disciplines, before it ever got to an executive?  The members of the murder board would be required to read the narrative and have questions and objections prepared.  This allows managers at lower levels to practice the evaluation skills they will need if they move up the management ladder, and allows bad ideas to be trashed or improved before they reach busy executives. 

Do you have other ideas?  Great!  Just don’t try taking them to upper management with 3 PowerPoint slides.  PowerPoint needs to be fired – or at least demoted to a supporting role. 

Coming up next: This will be my last post on business topics. Next week, I will start posting about my novel in progress.


Avoid These Management Mistakes

In these first weeks of retirement, I’m surprised at how little I think about the job that I left behind.  But, in quiet moments, I am definitely still mentally processing my management career, and I thought of a few more lessons that I want to share.

Don’t Neglect Cross Training!

One of the most common management mistakes I’ve seen is when managers become too dependent on one person on their team.  There are two versions of this.  One is simply neglecting to cross-train. I made that mistake early on.  We had a lot of invoices to process every month, and only one person on my team knew how to do it. 

Did I know that I should get someone else trained on that?  Of course I did.  Did I do it?  Nope. Did I even make sure that I got a good understanding of exactly what she did?  Nope again.  We were constantly buying other banks in those days, we were buried in the work associated with that, and I kept telling myself we’d get some cross-training whenever things slowed down.  Which, of course, they never did.  And then my invoice person took another job in the bank.  We muddled through, with the help of some friends in Accounts Payable.  But you can bet that I got TWO people trained on how to enter those invoices once the crisis was past.

Don’t let a psycho employee steal your power

The other way that management gets too dependent on one person is when they have a power-crazy employee who thinks her job depends on being the only one who knows how to do things right.  I had a co-worker like that many years ago, when I was still a software developer.  She did more work than anyone else on the team – and complained about it.  Often, She would even go to the extent of digging into other people’s code and “fixing” it, whether it was broken or not – and then she complained about that.  She constantly criticized her co-workers and blamed other people for her own mistakes.  Worst, she would keep important information to herself, so that nobody except her knew how to do certain key tasks. 

Then she used her power to bully our boss.  When she didn’t get her way about something, she would threaten to quit, and he would placate her because we would have had trouble functioning without her.  She made life miserable for our boss and everyone else on the team, and I learned a lesson from that.  Here’s what our boss needed to say the very first time she threatened to quit: “Gee, we’ll miss you.”  Take the pain up front, rather than putting yourself in a situation where you are not in control.

Do the up-front work to simplify processes

Another example of taking the pain up front is simplifying processes.  The ultimate solution to my invoice problem was to have fewer invoices.  But that wasn’t easy to accomplish.  We were doing business with 18 different suppliers for the same service, and had about 20 separate accounts with the main supplier.  That’s 37 invoices to keep track of, validate and tediously process every month.  No wonder my invoice person quit!  Once the frenzy of bank acquisitions was behind us, we embarked on a project to consolidate suppliers and accounts.  It took 4-1/2 years of tedious work, to close contracts and migrate boxes of records.  But, when we were done, we were down to 2 invoices per month.  The position that used to be nearly full-time invoice processing is now a growth position, where the incumbent gets an opportunity to learn our business and develop new skills by taking on stretch projects.  Oh, and we ended up saving $6 million.   

But are you really simplifying?

But make sure you’re really simplifying.  When my function reported to Supply Chain, I had a new peer manager who was determined to redesign the Purchasing and Accounts Payable functions.  His proposed new process was so complicated that the flow chart covered two walls of his office.  He somehow convinced our boss to spend several thousand dollars on a plotter-printer just to print all the flow charts.  If you have any experience at all with process improvement, you’ve probably already guessed that this master plan went exactly nowhere.  That manager was ultimately fired, and the plotter-printer lurked in a corner for many years, gathering dust.  I’m not a big fan of explaining everything in a few PowerPoint bullets (see my next post), but if you need a flow chart the size of a Lincoln Navigator to explain your plan, you need a better plan. 

Next week: Why the business world needs to fire PowerPoint


Handling Conflict at Work

conflict at work

One of the hardest aspects of work for me was handling conflict.  I’m the daughter of an alcoholic father, so my childhood taught me that disagreements would tend not to end well for me.  And women of my generation were socialized to be agreeable and to keep the peace.

It’s hard to avoid conflict in almost any job, but it becomes impossible to avoid when you are managing people.   So, when I became a manager, I had quite a hill to climb.  Although I shrank from conflict emotionally, I understood intellectually that I could not avoid it and had to get tougher.

Using my strengths

It’s an HR and self-help shibboleth to focus on your strengths instead of on your weaknesses, and in my case that shibboleth proved true.  It was absolutely key for me that I used my existing strengths to build myself up in this weak area.

Strength 1: Self-control

The top strength that I used:  sheer determination and self-control.  I knew that I had to get better at conflict, and so I just made myself speak up. 

My early attempts were only partially successful.  It wasn’t hard for me to listen to views that opposed mine. And I knew that I had to respond.  What was hard was responding appropriately.  I made the rookie mistakes of trying to placate everyone I listened to, and talking too much.  I used my voice, but I used it too much and in the wrong way, and I spent too much time defending my decisions, which opened me up for more arguments.  And then I allowed those arguments to go absolutely anywhere.

I had one employee in particular who, once he started complaining, could go on for an hour, changing subjects every 5-10 minutes.  That was the first lesson I learned:  stick to the subject.  I was the boss in that situation, and  I had the power to control the conversation and keep it on topic.  Over time, I learned to do that.

Strength 2: Collaboration

I learned to hear people out, make a decision, and then announce in in few words, with no defensiveness.  Using my existing strengths – careful listening, a desire to be collaborative, and an ability to synthesize opposing points of view – gave me the confidence to be firm and decisive.  At first, I was pretending.  I didn’t feel decisive at all.  After a while, my confidence in my decisions grew and I didn’t have to pretend any more. 

Strength 3: Analysis

At first, I had some failures that I had to learn from.  Here, I used my analytical strength. 

In one conversation with a vendor where I had to deliver a demand that was unwelcome, I was met by sneering rudeness by the vendor rep.  This was the very sort of reaction I most feared, and I was caught off guard and speechless. 

I drank a lot of wine that evening, and cried a little, but I also analyzed the conversation and I was ready for him when we met again the next day.  When he again started to belittle our request, I said, “Mark, you don’t have to agree with me, but this is what we are required by our regulators to do, and therefore you have to support it if you want to keep doing business with us.”  We got what we needed, and he was never rude to me again.  Someone else would have said that to him the first time.  I had to think through conversations like that before it became second nature to me to respond firmly. 

Strength 4: Tact

It was hard at first, too, for me to speak up and disagree with my management and my peers.  What helped me here was my strong sense of responsibility.  I knew that it was my job to participate in decisions and advocate for the program that I was managing. I had to force myself to say things that I knew would be unpopular, but that I also knew were right.  Once again, I used strengths that I already possessed – tact and diplomacy – to backstop the difficult necessity of delivering bad news, demands, or contrary opinions.  And I learned that I could deliver those kinds of messages, and usually didn’t get the negative reactions that I feared.

The value of conflict

I always assumed that I was right to avoid conflict as much as I could.  But, learning to handle conflict appropriately taught me that it can be a positive thing.

Conflict is a form of communication, and it often helps us to learn more about ourselves and each other.  As I got better at confronting conflict at work, I also got better at it at home.  I’d always had that passive-aggressive tendency to hold things in until they came out in the form of screaming, tears, or both.  I learned instead to calmly state what was bothering me and what I wanted, and my husband and I got better at negotiating with each other. 

And that employee who did the hour-long rants?  He was still the person I had the most conflict with.  We disagreed about many things.  But, once I learned to set some boundaries with him, our conflict became very productive.  He often had good ideas, and frequently pointed out to me things that I hadn’t noticed on my own.  Our conflicts also helped us to get to know each other personally, and our relationship became quite warm. 

I still like getting along with people much better than I like disagreeing with them.  But constructive conflict is now a tool in my kit, and it not only made me a better manager, it also made me a better human being and enriched my relationships. 


Being a Good Manager

My last day of work was February 1.  After 24 years as a software developer, project manager and records manager, all I’m managing now is my own time and effort.  I’ve started my next book, and you will hear much more about that in future blog posts.  But, for the next few weeks, I’d like to share some of the wisdom that I earned over the course of my career. 

I enjoyed my work.  It was intellectually challenging and I loved leading a team.  But being a manager in a top-10 bank is also very stressful.  The pace is fast, regulatory pressure is intense, change is constant, and both employees and customers have high expectations.  And the bureaucratic red tape gets redder, longer and snarlier with every year that passes. 

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges for a manager in a large, bureaucratic organization is retaining good employees and keeping them motivated.  Employee retention is a particular problem when the job market is as good as it has been for the past few years.  The best people, the people you don’t want to lose, can go somewhere else and probably get a raise.  Large employers like the one I worked for even encourage employees to move internally and get experience in new areas.  That’s great for the employee, but not so great for the manager who wants to hang on to good, experienced workers. 

You can’t count on being able to give people big raises and bonuses.  Most big corporations are pretty stingy at compensation-review time. 

You can’t count on loyalty to the company.  The work force today is made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, who grew up watching their Boomer parents dedicate years of late nights to big corporations, which then shed them like old coats in the next economic downturn.  Our children learned a lesson from that. 

It took me a while to figure out how to counter those headwinds, but I finally came up with two principles:

Keep them busy

Keep them busy enough.  For a while, my team was overstaffed and I had trouble keeping some of them busy.  Then two people left and I was only allowed to replace one of them – and it took a while to find the right person.  The rest of my team pulled together and got the work done.  One fairly junior person, in particular, stepped up and took on work that I thought was beyond his capabilities.  Lesson learned.  People like to be challenged; they like to be busy.  Don’t be afraid to give people a little more than you think they can handle. 

And, don’t just keep them busy; keep them busy with the right things. Work hard to put people in their sweet spot, doing work that they enjoy, are good at, and which challenges them a bit.  Ignore official job descriptions if you have to, and put people where they can shine.  Are most people working for the paycheck?  Sure.  But, day to day, what the best employees want is the opportunity to do good work.

Build loyalty at the team level

Talk to any war veteran and they will tell you that, in the heat of battle, they aren’t fighting for something abstract like “Freedom.”  They are fighting for the guys on the firebase with them.  To build loyalty to yourself as a leader, you must first demonstrate loyalty.  Be quick to give credit to your team when things go right, and to take accountability yourself when things go wrong.  Advocate for them as best you can at compensation-review time.  Talk to them several times a year about their professional development and encourage them to take training opportunities.  Ask for their feedback and take it seriously.  Remember their spouses’ and children’s names and ask about them. 

And give them opportunities to develop loyalty to each other.  Celebrate birthdays and accomplishments.  Pair an experienced worker with a newer worker on a project.  Conduct regular team meetings and do occasional team-building activities (yes, they feel hokey, but they do work).  Go out and do something fun together as a team occasionally.  And, by the way, you can’t fake this stuff.  If you aren’t the kind of person who really cares about the people you are leading, you shouldn’t be a leader.

When I walked out the door for the last time on Friday, February 1, I was leaving behind a cohesive team who were all doing the work they liked and were good at, and I hadn’t had to replace anyone in over a year (believe me, that is a long time by behemoth-corporation standards).  I had a lump in my throat on the elevator down, a little sorry to leave my fine team behind. But I was confident that they would function superbly without me. 

Coming next time:  How to get comfortable with conflict at work. 


Genetic Testing

My husband is adopted and has never had an interest in finding any member of his birth family.  But, when genetic testing became widely available, he did develop an interest in knowing his genetic heritage.  So, we recently completed one of those mail-in DNA kits.

I wasn’t surprised by what I was: mostly German & French.  I was definitely surprised by what I wasn’t.  My maternal grandmother always said her family was Irish.  Nope.  I have not a single strand of Irish DNA.  We are ENGLISH, interlopers who probably spent a couple of generations in Ireland – and obviously became so culturally assimilated that they thought they were Irish – before moving on to the U.S. 

I also assumed that we must be part Jewish somewhere way back. We have an unusual genetic mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews, and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Marx.  Also nope.  No trace of Middle Eastern DNA. 

With my DNA results in front of me in black-and-white, I feel a bond with my ancestors from the German forests, French farmsteads and English villages.  One thing every living person knows:  we are the descendants of people who knew how to survive.  People who worked and fought, and hugged their children or slapped them. Women along the French and English coasts who survived rape by Vikings.   Who knew how to use every single atom of a wooly mammoth carcass, make tools from iron, coax barley and peas and apple trees from the soil.  People with the self-discipline to keep a fire going on the windiest winter night and set aside some of their food for damp, starving February.   They protected their communities from armies, floods, wolves.  They killed other humans when they had to, and eventually had the courage to set forth for an unknown continent.  From them, I got my sturdy thighs, my delicate ankles, my large nose, my Cupid’s-bow upper lip. 

The mother struggling to keep her baby warm in a hut in a German forest some long-ago January had no idea that she was making my life, too, a life where I sleep on a pillow-top mattress in a house warmed by a forced-air furance.  She couldn’t imagine me, and couldn’t have fathomed central heating.  She was just keeping her baby alive.  But I’m alive today because of her.  We are all alive because of someone like her.

This business is being human is less brutal than it used to be, but it is still hard, and nobody gets out of it alive.  And yet we survive.  And sometimes we thrive.  I think of my ancestors drinking their beer and singing hymns in their Lutheran churches, failing in love, cuddling their babies, dancing in the May sun when new leaves unfurled in the Rhineland.  Their lives were hard, but they were surely good, too.  I think of a quote from Marilynn Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila.  She was describing a group of migrants that Lila lived among as a young woman, but it could apply to humanity as a whole. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself within us.”


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