What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. I’m not making things up. If I tell you there’s a new requirement, it’s not because I went home the night before and dreamed up some new and complicated way to screw with your universe. In each and every case I’m passing along decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality. You are, of course, perfectly free to ignore me. However, when a shitstorm rains down on your head it won’t be because I didn’t warn you.

2. Dreaming in PowerPoint. There comes a point in this one particular project I work on every year when the dream shows up. It’s never quite the same dream, but it always deals with PowerPoint in some way. The dream showed up Tuesday night. Like the three ghosts warning Scrooge of his sure path to hellfire and damnation, my PowerPoint dream has arrived and it’s a sure as anything warning that I’m heading at speed in the general direction of a breakdown – or at least a profound hissy fit. Possibly both.

3. Everything else. Frankly over the next 22 or so days it would probably just be easier to talk about whatever happened during the week that hasn’t annoyed me. There’s a far better than usual chance if I’m awake and not at the house I’m just barely restrain a scowl, eye-roll, or sarcastic comment. Occasionally the temptation will be so great that all three happen simultaneously. The only appreciable bright point is that on day 23 onward life should get considerably less rage inducing.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The two weeks of Christmas. I was sitting in a meeting this week where the great and the good were calling for all manner of things to happen in the next two weeks. It’s cute when they’re optimistic like that. Experience tells me that even the most dedicated senior leader is going to find it hard to get jack-all done when 75% of his or her workforce is sitting snug in their homes or on the road for the week before and after Christmas. It’s good to be ambitious. It’s good to have goals. It’s also important to know your limitations, especially when you’re working with a skeleton crew just barely large enough to keep the lights on. Reason 7,471 I have no interest in bossing ever again.

2. Not knowing when to STFU. There is a time and a place for raising new topics or for asking every question. When the guy sitting at the head of the table is trying to close things out and the meeting has already run twenty minutes past its scheduled ending, though, is neither the time nor the place. That’s when you should have been a bureaucrat long enough to know that it’s time to sit there and shut the fuck up.

3. Emergency slide flipping. If there’s anything worse than being stuck in your own meeting, it’s being unceremoniously suck into someone else’s meeting because their computer crapped out and getting it fixed takes days. Look, a) It’s not my program; b) I actually have my own work to do; and c) If we keep finding work arounds to the shit tech support we get it will never have a reason to improve. Being a slide clicker on your own material is bad enough, but the number of times I’ve been yanked away from whatever it was I was doing to flip slides for someone else is astounding. It’s like no one in this place has heard of opportunity cost or return on investment. There are days when I’m entirely convinced I’m the best paid clerk/typist in the whole damned country.

Justified…

You’ve literally had weeks to get your shit in order. There have been countless meetings in which all the materials have been changed, changed back, and then altered a dozen more times. But for some reason here we sit at 4:45PM the day before the goddamned meeting starts waiting on “final final” changes so we can go forth and kill a few dozen trees in this mad quest to build the Briefing that Saved the World.

Here’s the secret I’ve learned after sitting through, easily, hundreds of very similar gatherings of the great and the good: What you have written on the slides generally doesn’t matter all that much. Conveying information isn’t about the damned slides. It’s about what you say, how you say it, your body language, and the connection you can forge with the person you’re trying to communicate with in the few minutes you’re in front of them. By contrast, 75% of the handouts you’ve slaved over are going to end up in the trash can. If your audience is polite they’ll at least wait until they’ve left the room to throw them away.

I’ve often theorized that if people knew how much time (and salary dollars) were wasted in the endless transition of “happy” to “glad” or trying to pick out just the perfect shade of blue, they’d rise up in bloody revolt. They’d be well justified.

Slide monkey…

Being the designated slide monkey, there are an outsized number of meetings I sit in for no other reason than they need someone well trained and fully capable of hitting the forward arrow and advancing to the next slide. I’m mostly resigned to that being my fate for the foreseeable future. Whatever. As long as the checks don’t start bouncing, what the hell do I care about how my time is allocated, right?

Human Chess.jpg

It’s a rare day when something in a meeting catches me off guard. This last couple of weeks, though, has been a string of exactly that – surprise piled on surprise. Today I had the distinction of being designed “the human forward arrow.” This distinction comes along with the mission of flipping the three foot by five foot printed foam core posters that we’ll be using this week to replace the information that every other office on the planet would present using some kind of electronic presentation tool.

I’m fairly sure that this isn’t what anyone meant when they said we should think about briefing information without using PowerPoint. Taking what would be projected on three 60-inch monitors and printing it on one 60-inch poster doesn’t quite feel like fully embracing the call to do things differently.

Then again, what do I know. I’m just this meeting’s equivalent of a pawn on a human chess board.

The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

Tools of the Devil (Part I)…

PowerPoint is a tool of the devil. This is apparently obvious to the casual observer after a long week of slogging through slides changing “happy” to “glad” and making sure that every bullet is lined up within +/- one micron. Apparently there’s nothing that makes a senior manager feistier than an ever-so-slightly misaligned bullet. Better for key content to be left out than to risk it violating the sanctity of the holy format. I’ve been doing this a long time now and I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the hours of obsession that some men can pour into finessing their slides so they’re juuuusssssssst right. I remember reading somewhere that perfect is the enemy of the good. In an imperfect world, I’ve always been happy when I find myself in the neighborhood of good. Apparently that is a very lonesome neighborhood.

I like to think that if we lived in some bizarro universe and I were a senior leader, I’d be more concerned with the content over how it happens to be displayed as long as it was in some semblance of logical order. Then again, maybe that’s the part of the brain you give up upon being elevated to echelons above reality. There’s not much chance of my ever finding out for myself, so I’m left once again to ponder the importance of issues of style over substance.

I’m reminded of the Army colonel who was relieved because of this epic rant against PowerPoint. As it turns out, the Army would probably have been better served to promote the guy rather than tossing him out.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

The bad with the good…

For those of you who work in an environment where having a meeting is not the coin of the realm, all I can say is I’m feeling more than a little bit jealous. I’m jealous because my Friday last week went basically like this:

The Good News: The staff meeting today is cancelled.

The Bad News: You’re going to need to sit through this other 3.5 hour meeting that in no way relates to anything you do on a regular basis.

Wow. Thanks for that opportunity.

Let’s just say that over the course of those three and a half hours we were supposed to cover something on the order of 75 slides. By the two hour mark we had gone over 10 of them. At three hours, that total had climbed to 19. By the time a halt was called at three hours and thirty minutes of endurance, we had managed to get through a total of 23 slides – or 6.57 slides per hour. If you’ve never wanted to gouge your own eyes out just to have something to do, this is the experience that will push you happily towards that extreme.

The cost of just the people sitting in that room for half a day runs north of $5,500 just in baseline salary. Add in incidentals like benefits, electricity, telephone costs, video connection fees, and other extraneous expenses, and that cost easily doubles. My point is not only are meetings an inefficient way to spend our waking hours, but they’re also ruinously expensive.

The only thing saving me from a repeat of this fate tomorrow is a trip to the blessed dentist. If you think for a moment that having a temporary crown ripped off and the permanent version glued into place is in any way the greater of these two evils, well then friend, you just have been in the right meetings.

Sigh. Yet another item on the growing list of things that would be dispensed with if I were elevated to king for the day.