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Death by PowerPoint

Death by PowerPoint
Deborah Kops
  • On October 20, 2010
  • http://www.sourcingchange.com

We all know the drill. It’s a week before the outsourcing or shared services program’s quarterly business review, and all hands are on deck to craft a PowerPoint presentation that puts client and provider in just the right light in front of their respective executive sponsors. The table stakes are high; every word is debated as not only the facts, but the nuances of the presentation, could spell trouble for teams on both sides of the table. The discussion is so tightly scripted in advance as to ensure that nothing of import is discussed, and all problems are swept under the rug in front of the bosses.

What’s the point of this exercise if the purpose of a review is to build a better relationship, flushing out…and committing to solve… the issues that get in the way of sourcing success? At times the negotiation over each page in a sourcing quarterly business review makes the back-and-forth discussions to arrive at the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I look easy. Often the creation of the document underpinning the review takes on a life of its own, embedding so much power in 50-plus sheets of paper that its creation ends up as the major reason for calling the meeting.

PowerPoint was originally designed as a graphic method to simplify, review and repeat messages. Sold to Microsoft only 23 years ago, it is now the lingua franca for the majority of business presentations. While it is a great organisational tool with the ability to display information in sexy graphics, reliance on PowerPoint to navigate and build a strong sourcing relationship could be a dangerous approach.

If you don’t know who Edward Tufte is, you should. He is the undisputed doyen of the display of meaningful graphical information who fervently believes that, if “power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely”.  He hold the tools responsible for degrading the quality and credibility of communication, submitting that, had not the Boeing Corporation’s PowerPoint oversimplified risks in launching the Space Shuttle Columbia, relegating the most critical information to the lowest level of importance, using acronyms and non-descriptive pronouns in true PPT style, and obscuring notation of key scientific measurements, those gallant explorers would have come home safely.

Now, a quarterly business review certainly does not hold the same risks as the launch of the Shuttle, but Tufte does make a point that our business communication is relegated to content-free pitches and infomercials, about eight seconds’ worth (or 40 words) of silent reading material per page. As data points are stacked on top of each other in slide after slide, the context is lost and the deck takes on a life of its own, driving the meeting to the goal of finishing the presentation, not resolving critical relationship issues. Opponents of PowerPoint argue that reducing complex issues to bulleted points is detrimental to the decision making process; in other words, because the amount of information in a presentation must be condensed, viewing a PowerPoint presentation does not give enough detailed information to make a truly informed decision.

What was originally conceived as a tool to help speakers easily outline their talks now has taken on a life of its own, elevating form over content, and schedule over discussion.  As a result explanations, reasoning, positing and debate fall to the wayside, reducing the session to an expensive face-to-face waste of time that resolves nothing. The real issues remain discussed, creating the governance version of the elephant sitting in the corner.

One of sourcing’s challenges is that the quarterly review is typically the only opportunity executive sponsors, global program leaders and the provider or shared service centre’s top brass have to take the collective pulse of the relationship,  measuring it against explicit and implicit objectives. Few of these folk have much time to spend focusing on the health of the relationship outside of the formality of a scheduled review; the only other information they often get is problematic – such as a systems crash at the provider site, or when internal customer dissatisfaction creates deafening noise levels.

As a result, most business reviews are organised to the nines, and dumbed down to the extent that the real reasons to schedule a review are obfuscated — fostering relationship building, imposing routine as a platform for interaction, and giving a structure to issue resolution.

Perhaps there are better techniques to structure quarterly business reviews. Here are just a few thoughts—from the radical “dump the deck” approach to introducing new tools to tweaking the structure of the discussion:

Come to the table sans PowerPoint with just a whiteboard, a few flipcharts to capture ideas and perhaps a facilitator
Meeting without a carefully scripted discussion is certainly a bald, bold approach. With no PowerPoint to wade through, all attention might be paid to the real reason for getting together – discussing issues and opportunities, and forging a better working relationship. Think about this approach as the governance version of marriage counselling – which is not too far-fetched in the scheme of global sourcing relationships. Business reviews are about learning and refining skills to work together. There is nothing wrong with engaging the assistance of a facilitator to constructively put issues on the table, and drive to resolution.

This approach requires the account teams to be prepared, having every issue thought out in advance, and a raft of fact and figures at their fingertips. It also means preparing the principals in advance with pre read documentation so that the limited time together can be used constructively rather than hashing over the facts.

Relegate the PowerPoint deck to presenting a detailed agenda
The sweet mystery of life—can dyed in the wool PowerPoint users restrict their usage to five slides or less? If so, the deck can be used as a tool to organise discussion as opposed to the dilution of key information on interminable slides that don’t begin to focus attention on critical issues.

Change the agenda to put the items worth discussing and debating first
This is the artifice of unprepared and frightened teams – load the last hour or so with the topics that really matter to the health of the relationship by prioritising anything and everything that can be described by fact (and read before the meeting) – dashboards and routine items at the front of the deck. Perhaps sticky, complex issues cannot be easily captured in a five-bullet slide, or there is fear that face will be lost in a free-flowing discussion that requires knowledge, backup, and thinking on one’s feet. Good governance is not about face saving; it is about having the courage to put any and all issues that get in the way of delivering value on the table in a routine, structured and rational way.

Revive handouts
The preparation of handouts requires thinking, planning, and that lost art, writing. It may be hard for staff addicted to PowerPoint to compile and compare data points, drive to conclusions, and – horror of horrors – write cogently to summarise key points in more than 40 words so that the backup can be read and digested by executives in preparation for discussion. But few executives worth their salt make decisions by decks.

Organise the business review to include plentiful one-on-one time for the executive sponsors 
Most governance charts pair executives like the beasts on Noah’s Ark, yet rarely do they have meaningful post deal quiet time together. Often the only time top brass have to meet is at one end of a table over a team dinner. Meals are for pleasantries and getting to know one another, not for discussing key relationship issues.

To paraphrase the old saying that water flows downhill, it is critical that the executive sponsors have uninterrupted face time. They have a much broader perspective of a sourcing relationship’s issues and challenges, and can often more easily cut through the morass of indecision, finger pointing and change requests.

Schedule facilitated brainstorming time
Few reviews leave any time in an unstructured discussion to explore a “what if” – what if we together piloted a two-way match rather than three for certain commodities, reducing the cost by x? Or assigned an analyst to identify the true cost of hiring talent?

Perhaps PowerPoint has taken over under the presumption that busy people can only deal with headlines. However, in a sourcing relationship, headlines are not sufficient to build a good relationship. Sufficient detail and the ability to dialog and debate create strong working partnerships. PowerPoint cannot facilitate this type of communication.

Tufte likens PowerPoint to an out of control prescription drug, demanding an immediate worldwide product recall. While he certainly makes a point about our addiction, it’s improbable that editions of Microsoft Office will be cast onto burning pyres. The next time you plan for a quarterly business review, think twice about slavish devotion to forty heavily crafted words and five bullets to a page. Perhaps a little less PowerPoint will foster better sourcing relationships.



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